Briefing wanted a report of UKIP’s Spring Conference. Guy Smallman drew the short straw.
REPORTING THE UKIP SPRING CONFERENCE in its leader’s target seat was a bit like being trapped in an enormous sitcom. Imagine the grotesque comedy horror of the League of Gentlemen crossed with the dated eccentricity of Fawlty Towers and you come close. The problem is that this collection of bitter, sulking ex-Tories and quirky political oddballs, have managed to push the political agenda to the right. Which makes them very far from funny.
As the party faithful gather in the crumbling cabaret hall of Margate’s Winter Gardens they are reminded to stay off twitter at all costs. It is clear that most of the largely retired congregation haven’t a clue what twitter is but they nod in obedience anyway. UKIP are clearly pulling out all the stops to ensure that the event remains gaff-free and are mindful of how their previous forays into the world of social media have ended in acute embarrassment.
The #WhyImVotingUKIP hashtag turned lampooning the party into a national sport last May. More recently their elected representatives have been caught sharing material posted by the fascist BNP on facebook. So unable to trust their faithful flock, the “party of free speech” have pretty much imposed a blanket ban on members speaking their minds in cyberspace. Also conspicuous by their absence are the local activists who shot to fame the previous Sunday in the Meet the UKIPers documentary. The party’s media operation, now run by former BBC producer Paul Lambert, clearly wants the press to focus on the policies. The problem is that there aren’t any. Most parties launch their manifesto at the Spring Conference. From the word go we are told that the manifesto is still being fine-tuned and it will be “worth the wait”. So for the next two days we get treated to an endless barrage of right wing populism that is heavy on one liners but very light on detail.
The first big name is ex-Tory MP Mark Reckless whose “Reaching beyond our base” speech is little more than a string of soundbites on immigration. Clearly relishing the opportunity to say all the things that he was forbidden to spout on Cameron’s watch, he makes a string of evidence-free claims about how reducing immigration would boost the economy, when pretty much every economist says the complete opposite. He finishes with the predictably populist claim that only UKIP can save the NHS. An absurd statement given Farage’s endless hints about a US style insurance based healthcare system. Next comes deputy chair Suzanne Evans whose 2015 Manifesto presentation is even more content free but raises polite cheers from the crowd when she talks about scrapping HS2 and foreign aid.
Louise Bours MEP is tasked with talking about health. With the demographic of the event clearly in mind she spends much of her allotted time talking about the need to fund dementia research and remove hospital car parking charges. The rest is given over to scaremongering about so called ‘health tourism’ and insisting that a UKIP government would only allow foreign nationals to cross our borders if they had health insurance. Also that migrants would not get free healthcare on the NHS until they had paid taxes for a minimum of five years.
After a painfully short coffee break deputy leader Paul Nuttall takes the stage to present a session called “Rebalancing the Union” which is just a polite way of saying “bash the Scots”. As that is what he does for a full 15 minutes. Another thing noticeable about the audience is that it is almost exclusively English. Which seems odd for an event that is organised under the slogan of “Believe in Britain”. His “English votes for English laws” certainly goes down well with people still bruised by Farage’s disastrous encounters with locals north of the border.
Energy policy is presented by Paul Oakden in the absence of Roger Helmer. UKIP’s strategy for keeping the lights on seems to revolve around proclaiming how evil wind farms are. Which goes down a storm with the assembled fox hunting types in tweed. Also how fracking and nuclear energy are the safe and affordable way forward for Britain. He is clearly blissfully unaware of how many fracking wells fail, poisoning the local water table. Also that Fukushima is presently pumping 400 tons of contaminated water into the sea every day.
For the “Migration Matters” section, former mayor of Gloucester Harjit Singh Gill is wheeled out to give the most boring speech of the day so far. He acts as little more than sidekick to Steven Woolfe MEP whose obsession with how immigration is putting undue strain on our sewage system seems almost pathological. Lunch cannot come soon enough.
During the break I take a look at some of the stalls and campaigning groups present on the fringes of the event. UKIP mugs, pens, scarves, shopping bags and even condoms were all on sale at grossly inflated prices. Nestled among the stalls are the Young Independence otherwise known as UKIP’s youth wing. They freely admit to being not particularly busy as most people at the event are 50 years too old to be eligible for their group. Next door is the “Christian Soldiers in UKIP” stand – the party’s representatives in Britain’s small but nasty Christian right. Although nowhere near as influential as their counterparts in the US the group carries many of the same messages – namely unashamed homophobia, climate change denial and a love of killing wild animals. In this case it is the pro-fox hunting lobby that is the most prominent.
After lunch the next five speakers are all but ignored by the media who are lying in wait for Farage whose arrival is described as being imminent for the best part of two hours. Eventually his black SUV with sinister tinted windows rolls in and he emerges flanked by bodyguards with Michael Crick from Channel 4 News in hot pursuit. The press are then locked outside for a further 20 minutes so as not spoil his arrival in the conference hall. Back on the floor Nathan Gill MEP is busy explaining how cutting aid to developing countries would be doing them an enormous favour and how all that money is being squandered on corruption and terrorism.
Finally at the end of play the main attraction takes the stage and repeats most of the detail-free soundbites heard over the course of the day. No one can deny Nigel Farage’s skill as on orator. He plays the audience with considerable dexterity while former stars of the same stage like Russ Abbot and Tommy Cooper seem to smile approvingly from the faded posters decorating the main hall. For many the finale of his speech is a severe disappointment. Instead of wheeling out another defecting Tory MP, Farage produces little known former Labour NEC member Harriet Yeo to a decidedly lukewarm reception. She whines about the EU and paedophiles and then the EU some more. Not a skilled speaker by any stretch of the imagination. She is ushered out of the room at the end of the proceedings flanked by security guards avoiding questions about her attendance at council meetings and deselection as a parliamentary candidate prior to her defection.
DAY TWO and the audience is visibly thinner than the Friday. Most party events get busier at the weekends. With UKIP it is the opposite – especially when Farage is not billed to speak, lending yet more credibility to the idea that they are little more than a one man show.
Former Tory Douglas Carswell takes hypocrisy to a new level by bemoaning the ‘Westminster elite’ while Janice Atkinson MEP uses her session on women to slag off Harriet Harman and the Guardian newspaper for ten minutes.
All in all, day two is a very dull affair only livened up by the delegates clear paranoia about an expected protest march against the conference. The words “great unwashed” are used by pretty much every speaker from the platform and the impression given is of panic, coming from people who read the Daily Mail and believe every word of it.
In the end the march is a much more jovial affair with a samba band and many different groups and ethnicities represented. Most importantly it is mainly composed of local people who just don’t want their town to be known as the property of a bunch of reactionary bigots from a bygone age. Unsurprisingly a gang of around 20 thugs from the racist EDL and openly fascist Britain First party show up in support of UKIP but are outnumbered by 20 to one.
It is hard to imagine UKIP being anything like the force that it claims to be without Farage and his Question Time season ticket. Now that he has announced his intention to step down if he is not elected on 7 May, the people of Thanet are in a unique position. They could well have the power to kick this loathsome bunch of posh racists back into the political fringe where they belong.
All photos: Guy Smallman