Ambushing your opponent’s walk-about is a classic tactic of the political insurgent. When a major party leader comes to town, you position guerrilla campaigners on his route, near the cameras. Then you pounce, so the local news features your posters and messages, rather than his.
Senior Tories often complain about how often Ukip has done this to them. But in this European election campaign, it is the Tories who were trying to muscle in on Nigel Farage’s action. In Portsmouth, as Farage arrived to much fanfare, the wiry Tory candidate Flick Drummond was lying in wait with a posse.
As Farage progressed from the train station, he was surrounded by photographers and camera crews and a couple of burly security guards. Unlike with most politicians, nearly all the cries were of encouragement (his only detractor kept yelling ‘He’s got a German wife!’). But then Farage spotted the Tory ambush. Most party leaders, at this point, would take evasive action. Farage strode over. He and Drummond exchanged words. In the end, the confrontation was cut short by a tangle among the various European TV crews following the Ukip leader.
The incident explains much of Farage’s appeal. In an age when politics is scripted and controlled, he seems to relish impromptu debate. Later I ask him why he took the risk. ‘Spontaneity is fantastic and exciting and it’s what we do,’ he replies. ‘It’ll go wrong sometimes, but it will go right more than it will go wrong.’ Farage’s commitment to debate isn’t just for the cameras. In the pub later that day, a group of politics A-level students marched up to him to tell him he was disgusting. He stayed to argue his case. When Farage says ‘Every pub is a parliament’, he means it.
Whatever the result on Sunday, there’s no doubt who has dominated this campaign. A party with no MPs, and which took 3 per cent of the vote at the last general election, has set the agenda. From the Farage-Clegg debates last month to the row over Romanian neighbours, other parties have been responding to Ukip, not vice versa.
Several of Farage’s candidates have been exposed as deeply unpleasant individuals. But the attacks on him have been disproportionate. Even his extended family, he says, are affected. ‘My dear old auntie, who is in her eighties, and lives just down the road, is asked when she goes to the shops, “Oh, are you any relation?” She says no. It’s safer!’ Spend time on tour with Ukip and you come away baffled that such a shambolic outfit can have the political establishment on the run, but impressed at the enthusiasm Farage stirs in his supporters. When he walked on to the stage in Portsmouth, the crowd rose for him with a fervour I’ve never witnessed at a mainstream party conference. What followed wasn’t so much a political speech as a stand-up routine with politics thrown in. The audience lapped it up: the applause at the end was even more passionate than at the start.
The Westminster parties complain that Ukip are amateurs who couldn’t run a whelk stall and can’t stand each other. They have a point. At the press conference, the Ukip candidate in the chair directed all media inquiries to ‘lovely blonde Alexandra’, a clunking reference to the party’s press officer Alexandra Phillips. The candidates did little to hide the tensions between them. Straight after I was introduced to one of them, she started to criticise the fashion sense of one of her colleagues. Several candidates grumbled about Diane James, the Ukip candidate from the Eastleigh by-election, now running for the European parliament, who had the temerity to want to know whether she would be required to make a speech.
For all its flaws, though, Ukip is reaching parts of the electorate that the other parties cannot. And it is not just disgruntled Tories who make up Farage’s force any more. At his public meeting, there were old ladies in pearls, but they sat alongside tattooed manual labourers. I can’t imagine anyone else who could bring such a disparate assembly together. One group was noticeably absent, however: the professional classes.
Farage thinks the secret of his success is simple. ‘It’s about language, isn’t it? I’m fairly direct and I think that makes a big difference.’ On no issue has he been more direct than immigration. Big posters have warned of how the jobless of Europe are coming to Britain and how migrants are keeping down workers’ wages.
This constant emphasis on immigration, though, carries with it the danger of descending into xenophobia. If Ukip doesn’t win on Sunday, it will be put down to the backlash against Farage’s comment that people would be concerned if Romanians moved in next door.
Immigration is, to Farage, the Eurosceptic trump card. Over (what else?) a pint, he tells me, ‘I’ve known for years that if the British public equated EU membership with open borders our side of the argument would win.’ He laments that Eurosceptic Tories have never understood that.
But the emphasis on immigration reveals something else. Farage wants to extend Ukip’s appeal to Labour voters. He believes the party has landed all the Tory voters it can — whereas the disgruntled Labour vote is a massive untapped resource. He says that he was stunned when he went canvassing in Wythenshawe for the recent by-election and ‘people on the doors were saying “Ukip, sorry, what’s that?” There is still a very big potential audience we haven’t reached.’
It is these hard-to-reach voters that Ukip’s billboards have been aimed at. Farage, the pace of his voice quickening, explains, ‘If you look at the sites we’ve got in Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Leeds, Hull — it is all the big arterial routes. The idea is bam, let’s get people talking.’
This attention to Labour voters from Ukip is, at first blush, surprising. Most of its MEPs hail, as Farage does, from the old right of the Tory party. When I asked the assembled candidates to name their political hero, the most common answer was Margaret Thatcher. So appealing to traditional Labour voters requires deft steering. When I ask Farage if he would call himself a Thatcherite, he sounds for once like the trimming politicians he so loves to attack: ‘Well, I was and I’m not going to pretend to you that I wasn’t because I wouldn’t do that.’ He is adamant that he has never called himself ‘the last Thatcherite’, as Labour likes to claim. It is a far cry from the days when Farage appeared as the leader of the British right, declaring that there were ‘three social democrat parties in Britain’.
Ukip isn’t just David Cameron and the Tories’ problem any more. Around half its target seats at the general election will be Labour held. Indeed, I understand that Farage is more optimistic about retaining the Labour voters he’s won over in this campaign than he is about the natural Tories who are using Ukip to protest against Brussels.
It is easy to miss, but beneath the bluff exterior there is a man with a plan. Farage admitted to me that when he resigned the Ukip leadership back in 2009, he told his then press officer, ‘I’m going to do an Alex Salmond on them’, a reference to how Salmond quit as leader of the Scottish Nationalists in 2000 only to return four years later.
Farage says his view then was ‘the party doesn’t appreciate me at all, it has got no idea what I’ve done for it, I’ve raised all the money, I’ve designed the leaflets… I said I’m off and maybe in two or three years’ time they may decide they want me back.’ The gamble paid off. Farage came back as leader on his own terms following his victory in the 2010 leadership contest.
But Farage does not want to be in charge of the Out campaign in any future EU referendum. He tells me that it ‘needs a figurehead and I’m a warrior, not a figurehead. I’m a fixed-bayonet man, albeit that I don’t see myself as a private. But I see myself leading a division into battle. That’s where I fit in.’ Farage wants ‘someone who has been very big in British politics’ to run the Out campaign, which seems to imply that he has someone in mind. He gives no hints. But he does say that he regards the Labour MP Frank Field and the former Tory chairman David Davis as key weapons for the Out campaign when the time comes.
I suspect that this European election campaign will come to be seen as Ukip’s high-water mark. Even Farage admits that, without a seat at Westminster, it will be hard for the party to keep this momentum going; Ukip looks unlikely to make that breakthrough at the next opportunity, the Newark by-election early next month.
The mainstream parties are busy putting the squeeze on Ukip. They are undermining its credibility through a ferocious attention to the pronouncements of even its most minor members while subtly moving towards its positions; the Tories are promising an In/Out referendum and every party now wants to tighten up the rules on EU migrants claiming benefits in this country. But the enthusiasm for Ukip should tell our leaders something. The opening in politics now is for a leader who wants to engage in debate, not control it.
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