Surveying the Battlefield: Ukip
In a series of blogs we’ll be looking beyond the party leaders to the teams behind the scenes. From student door knockers to £10k an hour consultants we’ll be opening the hood of the Election 2015 campaign machines.
The team: Ukip has a full-on in house comms team, which might surprise many of their voters, who see them as an antidote to slick, professional politics.
They have a shiny new director of comms called Paul Lambert — until recently a BBC lobby producer with the nickname “Gobby,” granted to him for his habit of yelling “are you going to resign, minister?” and similarly barbed questions as often as possible. He once asked Clegg and Cameron “are you off to renew your vows?” He reportedly turned down job offer after job offer from politicians before taking the Ukip gig.
Then there’s Gawain Towler, their head of press; a well-liked figure among lobby hacks who has been with the party for over ten years. Gawain once had designs on going into the frontline himself, having stood as a candidate in the European elections. Now his role is as a lubricant; you’ll find him joking with the scribblers at any Ukip event. He’s technically employed by the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group in the european parliament, and he used to write a controversial EU-based Eurosceptic blog called “England expects.” Like most people who’ve spent much time at the top of the party, he is unswervingly loyal to Farage.
Their last head of comms, Patrick O’Flynn, formerly Chief Political Commentator at the Express, is now an MEP and a candidate for Cambridge in the General Election, but he’s still to be found spinning for the party too. He, Farage and Gawain Towler were watching the first Cameron/Miliband Sky debate in the press room, breaking out the free wine long before any of the hardworking journalists did.
There are also a couple of press team foot soldiers.
Strategy: Ukip likes to say it is no longer a single issue party, and it bolstered its credentials across the board last week with a full manifesto, costed by top economics consultancy CEBR and launched by its author, calm and competent Deputy Leader Suzanne Evans, rather than just by Farage. That said, they’ve made sure in this election to keep immigration and Europe as their two hot buttons, with Farage making very clear — through the medium of his well-timed new memoir — that an early referendum on EU membership would be his main criterion for any deal with David Cameron.
Ukip have massively professionalised their operation in recent years, and a key strength is how seriously they take local campaigning. For example, in Rochester and Strood, where they won a by-election last year, they had a press officer ready and waiting to pack up and move down their to get their candidate Mark Reckless’s campaign going from day 1, with an office booked and ready to go in a former fantasy memorabilia store on the high street. The Tories took weeks to even declare a candidate. It will be interesting, however, to see on results day how this has played out when they’ve been fighting many more seats at once.
Their election ads were pretty good — playing to their strengths on Education, Armed Forces, Fisheries and so on with bold, emotive images, and are made by an agency called Family.
In recent weeks, it’s become apparent just how much Ukip are banking on Farage winning South Thanet — he has said repeatedly he’ll stand down if he doesn't. So much so that a pledge to reinstate a nearby airport made it into their national manifesto, and two senior Farage aides have been sent down to run the operation there.
Key “air war” tactics: surprise and delight (they kept Carswell’s defection a complete secret even from such right-wing diggers as the Guido Fawkes staff up until the last minute, which ensured massive coverage), “shock and awful” (a spokesman’s term for comments like Farage’s HIV remarks in the 7-way debate, which get them wall-to-wall press, even if it’s unfavourable).
Key “ground war” tactics: Shoe leather, really. In particular, target seats benefit from action days by their well-drilled youth wing. It’s also notable how averse to press some of their candidates have been, focusing as they do on shoring up their doorstep campaign. Examples would be Tim Aker in Thurrock, a high-profile candidate very likely to win who recently turned down an interview with the FT, and Farage himself, who did no press at all really for the first couple of months of this year as he was out door knocking.
Farage has claimed that a tactic they learned in Rochester was to do one huge, early action day to gather voter data, then use this to target messaging and save resources, leaving out people deemed not to be receptive to their message.
Secret weapons: They’re great at social media, getting about as much out of Facebook as the Tories do with — according to some reports — a thousandth of their budget. There are a few reasons Ukip do so well on social media (good graphs here summarising their overall effectiveness http://www.cityam.com/210924/general-election-2015-interactive-nigel-farages-ukip-fighting-fit-social-media).
First, perhaps a minor point but Farage personally has a good twitter, jumping on media stories, replying to people, generally being provocative. He most likely doesn’t run it personally, but his newish personal advisor Raheem Kassam, formerly of Breitbart, knows a thing or two about selling right-wing messages online.
The centre for the analysis of social media at the think tank Demos has also pointed out that it’s easier to drive social engagement when there’s a sense that this engagement might drive a real world effect; small insurgent parties benefit from that if they can give the impression that you’re helping to build momentum. Ukip on social media, as in real life, have an “us vs the world” tone — you’re encouraged to ridicule mainstream news stories, show your support for local underdog candidates, declare your attendance at a meeting.
That real world dimension could also explain why on Facebook they do unusually well at driving older users (who as you will know make up a good proportion of the site’s overall users) to their pages and content; most facebook activity for both Labour and the Tories, as of last Octpber, was from 18–24 year olds. Nice to have, but given how unlikely they are to vote, not the most useful. Ukip, by contrast, at the time saw most engagement from 25–34s and 45–54s. More unpleasantly, the far right has always done well on socials (e.g. http://www.buzzfeed.com/jimwaterson/britain-first-has-quietly-become-the-most-popular-uk-politic#.ofJaWMZnX). Britain first regularly get their followers to support Ukip in the on- and offline worlds.