By Mark Wallace
Follow Mark on Twitter
It is easy to blame the media for UKIP's recent run of success. "Of course they did well, Farage is on TV and in the papers all the time", runs the common narrative. Such an explanation may be widespread but it is not altogether accurate.
Certainly their high media profile contributed greatly to their showing in the local elections and the South Shields by-election a couple of weeks ago. But they did not enjoy so much time in the spotlight during the by-election campaigns in Corby, Rotherham, Middlesbrough or Eastleigh, and yet did well at each all the same.
In fact, it was their surprise success in those battles which forced the media – and swing voters – to take them into consideration. Their campaign machine has bought them airtime – which establishes a feedback loop. More votes means more coverage means more votes and so on.
So how do they do it?
The challenges facing an insurgent party are important to note. Perhaps the biggest threat – and until recently the most powerful message for those seeking to beat UKIP – is the wasted vote argument.
For years UKIP have sought to deny the warning given to voters that the party will lose its deposit, or at best scrape in just over 5%. For years the allegation was absolutely true – we know a number of eurosceptic Conservatives like David Heathcoat-Amory lost elections to more pro-EU candidates at least in part because a crucial segment of voters went to UKIP instead.
Then there is the question of infrastructure. With some MEPs but few councillors and no MPs, as well as far fewer members than the main parties, UKIP has struggled financially and logistically to become an effective campaigning machine.
Stirring things up
But obviously things have changed.
With several second and third places in recent by-elections under their belts, and almost 140 new Councillors in the local elections, the wasted vote argument is severely weakened. For floating voters, the fear that they might be backing a loser is replaced by excitement that they might be making history by giving a new party a breakthrough. As Jamie Oliver recently put it, the attraction of "stirring things up" is powerful, particularly in an atmosphere of disillusionment.
Last night, a Survation poll put UKIP only 2% behind the Conservatives – fuelling the UKIPpers' joke that it is Tory candidates who are splitting their vote, not the other way round.
The small party have adopted several solutions to overcome the obstacles in their way.
On the media front, they have embraced their lack of resources – turning a decentralised approach forced on them by circumstance into a key characteristic of their supposedly anti-politics campaigning.
If a journalist phones Gawain Towler, Farage's long-serving (and long-suffering) spokesman, asking to speak to an activist, the process is disarmingly simple. There is no list of cleared local members who are media-friendly, and Towler doesn't have the time to speak to them beforehand about what line to take. So he just gives out the number of someone who is in the requested area and leaves them to it.
Given the informal approach, it's easy to see why UKIP have convinced the media they're different – and why they come unstuck sometimes when a member says something odd or extreme to the media.
The purple pavement
They aren't inventing their own approach in every part of their campaign, though. UKIP's leadership are close students of the classic Lib Dem model of campaigning. "Why should we reinvent the wheel when [the Lib Dems] did years of research and experimentation that we can learn from?" asks one parliamentary candidate.
And lately they've been true to their word. Countless political correspondents have commented on the newfound efficiency of their by-election machine – with its plethora of balloons, badges and banners helping to overwhelm the fears of a wasted vote.
Two developments are particularly notable. They now have a by-election action plan, ensuring for example that they can dispatch a seasoned team and rent an empty shop on the local high street as soon as a by-election is called. They have also managed to persuade their still thinly spread activists to travel often long distances to campaign where it counts. Both tactics have allowed them to punch above their weight, and elbow their way into a previously reluctant media.
Much of this is down to the work of Lisa Duffy, who now runs their campaigns. Rather than being a remote official, she can call on practical experience to get her way: she and her partner effectively run Ramsey, Britain's only UKIP-controlled local authority.
And she certainly needs that experience. Despite their outward success, UKIP's decentralisation can cause them problems. It is not so long ago that local branches defied the instructions of the leadership and stood against anti-EU MPs in the General Election. It is easily conceivable that even the sainted Nigel would not be able to keep his troops in line if he made a decision that angered some of them – such as a Conservative-UKIP pact.
Not there yet
They still have plenty of weaknesses, such as a patchy professional structure in the regions and a near-total absence of a party-wide canvassing database. They are also acutely aware that their lack of resources for candidate vetting leaves them open to potential scandal – privately, several party figures admit they expect to lose several of their new Councillors to unwise outbursts or the unattractive views coming out now they are in office.
There is little doubt, though, that they are becoming stronger.
Yes, at 26,000 their membership is smaller than the main parties – even after years of decline in the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative grassroots. But the level of activism is far higher; the vast majority of members are activists, leafleting, fundraising and recruiting on a regular basis, while only a minority do very little.
Most Conservatives would admit our experience in the bulk of Tory Associations is the reverse – particularly given the current demoralised state of the party members. UKIP's David has more power in his sling than his size would suggest. "The local elections showed us where to focus our efforts," one party organiser told me last week, and their leafleters seem more willing to travel to seats beyond their own in order to win.
They are also keen to pursue the Lib Dem model when it comes to making use of their Councillors. From setting up and running branches to sharing their tips for success at activist training conferences, they intend to use them as a bridgehead to expand further at next year's local elections.
It should not be forgotten that for smaller parties in particular, elected representatives mean more money. Just as the election of the UKIP MEPs has provided much of their limited funding and staffing costs over the last 14 years, I'm told they are considering asking their 139 new Councillors for donations from their official allowances. £1000 each would bring a major change to the state of UKIP's coffers – particularly when you consider the entire party raised £74,150 in the first quarter of this year.
The scene is set for their near-certain victory in the 2014 European elections, further gains at council level and maybe even a by-election victory, depending which seat might come up. A General Election will be a different matter, particularly given the electoral system and the seriousness of the decision at hand, but the UKIP fighting it seems likely to be stronger than ever before. It is a challenge the Conservative machine must be ready to face.
In tomorrow's instalment in the Getting To Know U-KIP series, Pete Hoskin will explore UKIP's policy platform.