'Every pub is a parliament': on the campaign trail with Nigel Farage

Ukip's leader is now a genuine celebrity – go out on the street with him and you'll see

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

24 May 2014

9:00 AM

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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  • Richard N

    Good luck to UKIP today!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      I`ll drink to that.

  • Lucy Sky Diamonds

    It is not about the EU migrants claiming benefits! IT is about unskilled EU migrants taking jobs and adding to the size of our population with their high birthrates, wage suppression and not speaking english half the time!

    • robbydot

      Quite. Benefits are a side issue.

  • Kitty MLB

    Yes Nigel Farage has a lot of support and he will win the EU elections. And will
    handle the EU very well as he always does. But for heavens sake its not a
    general election.

    • Emily

      But it’s a start. Only in this way we (UKIP) can send a message to Brussels to the Establishment to the Elite, to rompuy, merkel, schulz, barroso nobody has ever dared to do this ever before to fight against the EU! Nigel is the first politician who has ventured to do this, to speak up, to fight against all odds. UKIP must win!

    • rtj1211

      The real test is what percentage of UKIP voters were protestors and what percentage are true believers.

      Titanic shifts in electoral arithmetic can happen with the FPTP you know. It’s why I don’t approve of it as a system, but the British have been conditioned to see it as ‘best’. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always snorted at the British ‘sense of fair play’, since democratic elections, being the most important manifestation of fairness in a society, aren’t very fair to anyone with less than 30% of the vote and far too generous to anyone with over 30%.

      But as a result, UKIP could do very significant damage in 2015, although it sounds to me that they have decided that they can’t do that much in 2015. They are going to target 20 – 100 seats as winnable which means that they will ignore up to 400 completely.

      What would be interesting is if true polls (rather than the ones commissioned by the Establishment to manage voter expectations) show that UKIP is above 30% nationally for General Election intentions come October.

      Because if they were, then they would be on course to win outright.

      If of course, they had enough candidates to win the seats in the first place.

      Interesting conundrum Nigel Farage has…….

  • Tom

    It was in the news yesterday that 50% of the electorate believe politicians to be liars.
    That is a shocking but unsurprising statistic, it is these people who are turning to UKIP the party who when asked a question will give a straight answer.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      “It was in the news yesterday that 50% of the electorate believe politicians to be liars.”
      That low?

    • andagain

      Some people are going to be very upset when they realise that Farage is also a politician…

  • Nigel Farage has achieved ‘celebrity’ status (or infamy in some quarters) because he offers something that the British voters have been denied for a very long time, namely straight talk and policies that appeal to a significant minority of Britons who have been ignored or sneered at by the main political parties.

    The fact that the ideological gap between the main parties has been narrowing for so long means that it was almost inevitable that any party leader who spoke up for policies outside the narrow consensus and dared to be different would do well:


    UKIP’s likely success could be a good thing for British democracy – but you can be sure that the establishment will do their best to dismiss the relevance of the European election results having performed so poorly themselves.

  • Roy

    Some are not only liars, they deal in activity that borders on treason!

  • Rillian

    Wait until you hear the establishment attempt to appease you with more promises of ‘Change’ in the next 12 months.

    How many of you will swallow their lies again?

  • João Manuel Gomes

    UKIP driving the last nail on British PC-mongering

  • Steve Cheney

    Well. This quote is hilarious in today’s context.

  • silent_pilot

    Interesting to read an article that is 16 months old, especially with no comments on it. It looks like a typical example of a Spectator attack piece; faint praise with a dagger.

    “I suspect that this European election campaign will come to be seen as Ukip’s high-water mark.” Looks to be wide of the mark with UKIP support steady on 16%.