Sluts, breastfeeding and immigrants on the M4: Lambert has a job on his hands with UKIP's comms role

Sluts not cleaning behind fridges, women breastfeeding in the corner and immigrants clogging up the M4. Every time Nigel Farage or members of his party make such statements, the 'Metropolitan elite' they deride throws up its hands in horror with a look of disbelief. But what sounds like a gaffe to some is music to the ears of UKIP's supporters and plays straight into the anti-politics 'everyman' image of Farage and his party. So why has UKIP chosen this moment to up its game with the appointment of BBC veteran Paul Lambert as director of communications?

Can Lambert help UKIP cut through the 'noise' and reach a wider electorate?
Can Lambert help UKIP cut through the 'noise' and reach a wider electorate?
Lambert, appropriately nicknamed ‘Gobby’, is a Westminster fixture and he is widely respected for his encyclopaedic knowledge of every political party.

It is said that he can tell you anything from what David Cameron’s close protection team really thinks of him, through to which party’s political strategy is cutting the mustard with the electorate.

John Lehal, managing director of Insight Public Affairs, believes Lambert will continue UKIP’s successful attempts to brush away gaffes – such as Farage’s recent interjection on the subject of breastfeeding in public when he suggested women should "perhaps sit in a corner" – as attempts to silence a plain-speaking everyman.

Polls suggest the comments have had no negative impact on the party's popularity.

He says: "Far from losing the party support, Farage’s gaffes seem to only endear him more to UKIP sympathisers, who will sympathise with much of what he has to say and revel in his anti-political correctness stance. Post-breastfeeding, UKIP has actually gone up in the polls, and while London media types may despair, UKIP’s core supporters, who are mainly older, male and white, see plain speaking where others see pitfalls."

But while this quality of UKIP – that it speaks to the perceived concerns of normal people – is endearing for some and has only gained the party support, the countdown to the general election in May will test the party’s mettle, argues Sean Worth, founding director of the Westminster Policy Institute.

He says: "UKIP will face... much more scrutiny from the media on policy and the rough and tumble of other parties constantly attacking its credibility. UKIP is, for the first time, relevant to a general election and will face this as never before, so it's 100 per cent right that it seeks to address the lack of internal professionalism and experience that has hampered it to date." 

Worth thinks Lambert has a huge task on his hands to manage the drip-drip of constant attacks from the media and other parties on UKIP’s credibility in the run-up to polling day.

He says: "Attacks on UKIP for political incorrectness only play to its anti-establishment front, but more serious ones undermine its credibility for office."

"More serious" attacks might yet come to include allegations that surfaced this week that UKIP’s general secretary, Roger Bird, propositioned Natasha Bolter the day she was interviewed as a prospective candidate.

He denies any wrongdoing and, already, twin narratives of the events have emerged on either side of the row, with Bird now suspended by UKIP pending an investigation. 

It is hard to see how the result of that investigation can be put off until after the election and, if proved, it will do little to endear UKIP to female voters.

So, is it for the strategic reasons of "message discipline" and translating national vote share into bums on seats in the Commons that Lambert has been brought in, rather than firefighting on individual issues?

Worth says: "UKIP's Achilles heel has been its wider comms operation beyond Farage: the need for a central 'machine' that enforces message discipline to member groups and candidates, and helps co-ordinate communications exercises outside Westminster and in target seats. This is about senior management clout and party organisation, and if Lambert can help turn that around, UKIP will benefit."

For Lehal, it remains to be seen whether Lambert can bring the strategic comms needs of UKIP into focus and then address them.

He says: "Despite polling an astonishing 19 per cent in recent polls, realistically, UKIP only has a chance of winning a handful of seats. To keep UKIP relevant after May, Gobby needs to understand that while the air war is hugely important, there’s no point coming third in the popular vote and only scoring two or three seats at Westminster and he has to target the party’s communications resources appropriately."

Some are unconvinced about Lambert’s ability to deliver a wider vote for the party beyond its core supporters and think that Farage has instead taken the safe option and picked someone in his own image for the job.

Stephen Day, managing director of public affairs at Burson-Marsteller, says: "To win seats at the general election UKIP has to reach beyond those voters who agree with Farage on his core messages on immigration and the decline of British society and I’m not convinced Paul Lambert is the man to help UKIP do this. Farage needs to have his 'honest man telling it how it is' persona focused on mainstream issues that chime with a wider range of voters.  Lambert has no background in developing and delivering a message."

Others, such as Mark Gallagher, founder of Pagefield, think Lambert’s appointment says more about some people’s perception of the BBC as the home of liberal bias.

He says: "There’s a widely held view among many businesses and clients that the BBC has a liberal bias. And in some cases it does. But the breadth of personal political opinion among its employees has always been underestimated by those who don’t ‘get’ broadcasting."

One thing is certain: Lambert has to exert control over the party’s comms immediately and then translate unprecedented popular support for UKIP into political power, or his tenure will be short.

Worth adds: "If, in the campaign proper, it looks as though Lambert is not in control, they will very quickly lose credibility which will have an immediate impact on voter share. The best course of action in this case is simply to be honest about it as early as possible and replace him."

Lambert's 'to do' list

Sean Worth

"Start undertaking a swift but thorough review of your operations people to ensure you are happy and that you have an effective chain of command and influence. You probably won't have, so make new hires and fires asap in order to settle the professional side of the machine down for the election.

John Lehal

"Visit UKIP’s ten most winnable seats to make sure that the ground war is aligned to the air war, and translate the national vote into seats in the Commons."

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