Drinking with the enemy: A day with the Ukip foot soldiers

Nigel Farage on the campaign trail in South Shields
Nigel Farage on the campaign trail in South Shields
Ian Dunt By

"When I met Nigel Farage we both had our dicks out. Mind you, it was the gents' toilet. Here, that would make a bloody good headline."


I'm talking to John, Ukip's organiser in Kingston, in a creaky and well-trodden watering hole in central London. It's the start of a self-imposed, masochistic mission of meeting Ukip foot soldiers face-to-face, in their natural environment (mostly the pub), and finding out if the party's as insane as it looks from the outside.

I decided on the mission after meeting Diane James during the by-election in Eastleigh. As Ukip candidate, she narrowly lost out to the Lib Dems, but she was easily the most impressive figure on the ballot paper: eloquent, professional and oozing competent. For the first time, you could see a workable party machine starting to form under the purple blazers and beer goggles. The eurosceptic party was rolling out an impressive pavement operation, as if they'd learned a few lessons about local campaigning from the Lib Dems. It seemed an opportune time to see what the party's rank-and-file looked like.

I'm suspicious of Ukip. I accept pretty much everything they have to say about the EU, but I come from a mixed-race British immigrant family and the Ukip image does not appeal. I don't think it's a racist party, but I do think it's the type of party that attracts racists. I accept the consensus view on the liberal left that Ukip is ultimately a fringe party of little Englanders, of people who want to go back to the idealised England of their limited imagination.


I'm expecting something akin to a stay in a mental asylum: Two parts red-faced, frothing-at-the-mouth Daily Express editorial, muddled with a generous serving of pub-logic 'stands to reason' claptrap and served with a side of 'outraged from Tunbridge Wells'. Labouring under a distinct feeling of dread, I start making calls and arrange a few drinks.

John

The wrinkle in the truth of the 'outraged from Tunbridge Wells' stereotype is summed up by John, who fits the part, and the press officer who walks in the pub behind him, who doesn't. At first I'm disappointed. The press officer is clearly there because party HQ has heard me sniffing around their campaigners, or because John is particularly likely to drop a clanger. Either way, he's here to get in the way.

Then I realise what an unusual press officer he is. He wears a silk scarf, conducts himself in a misty-eyed manner and sits on pub bar stools with his legs crossed, as if he were in an art foundation class. He's like the Oscar Wilde of press officers. This affable eccentricity is a running theme of the Kippers.

John is talking about immigration.

"Listen to this, it's extraordinary – I've got three toilets in my house," he says conspiratorially, as if imparting scandalous state secrets. "I live on my own but I've got three toilets. I generally only use two. Now I haven't had an English-speaking cleaner - first language - for 15 years. Poles come along, or Bulgarians, which is what I've got now, I think. They're prepared to work for less and they do a bloody good job.

"Every time she's been in, I end up with a pointy bit on the end of the toilet roll, right?" he stares at the press officer and I waiting for a response. We both look baffled. "Right? I've never had that from an English cleaner. I've had cleaners since I was about 25 years of age.  English women just don't phone up to clean anymore. They are all foreigners." He hesitates, unsure where political-correctness-gone-mad begins and buffoonery ends. "That's not a problem in itself but they priced the English out the market. As a result your average white working class male, or woman for that matter..."

The press officer interrupts: "Or, for that matter, not white." He doesn't raise his head. He bears the look of a man who is accustomed to putting out fires.

"Well there are immigrants who have been here all their lives," John goes on, seemingly unaware of the contradiction, trying to navigate his way out of potentially perilous waters. "They're the ones that feel the drought and they're the ones that suffer. The party that's supposed to represent the working class in this country simply doesn't. They're a metropolitan elite. They couldn't give a toss for the white working class - or immigrant working class."

Kippers are surprisingly open about the anarchic internal politics of the party. Much of the press coverage is about the right-wing extremists unearthed through a quick trawl through Facebook. But Ukip has had its fair share of internal power struggles as well.

"There are people who have come to fuck the party from the inside or arrived for their own self-aggrandisement," John says. "Lots of people have come and gone because they couldn't topple Nigel Farage. Some have come to destabilise the party, there's no doubt. Most people have woken up to realise he's a bloody good leader."

The press officer chips in: "In a small party, personalities matter. Small parties are more affected by members, because you meet these people all the time. When I started as press officer eight years ago I would say 60% to 70% of the time was spent dealing with the fallout of this sort of shit. Today it's five per cent, if that."

The party's relationship with the media continues to be an odd concoction of mutual horror and mutual back-scratching. I tell the pair that while they might complain about media coverage, they get a disproportionate amount of it – certainly more than the Greens do, despite them having an MP in the Commons.

"Rightly so," John mutters. "Bunch of headbangers."

The press officer chips in: "They targeted a few single places and we targeted the country."

I suggest Ukip enjoys such extensive coverage because they split the right-wing vote and make for a more interesting political narrative.

"Can't deny it," the press officer says, sipping his beer. "The BBC is giving us two party political broadcasts for the first time ever. One because they have to, but the other is discretionary. Where Beeb goes, the rest follow.

"But it's a nightmare getting anything in the Mail. Why? It's a Tory paper.  We get a decent crack of the whip from the Independent and the Guardian because it suits their agenda. The Express takes our line on Europe, so it's not hard to get stories into the Express. Two out of four of the stories I take to them, they'll run. It's one in 20 for the Mail. One in 50 for the Telegraph."

The meeting confirms about half my prejudices and confounds the other half. John has a nice line in praising Europe ('Love Europe, hate the EU') but there is something inward looking about his attitude, a kind of tired, self-regarding, middle class, thoroughbred conservatism. The press officer represents something else, a vision of England I find more appealing – still inward-looking but more joyful; eccentric and polite.

Paul

Paul, an organiser from Lewisham, continues the trend. We meet in Canary Wharf, which is looking even windier and greyer than usual. Halfway through the conversation his phone goes off. "Was that the Sex Pistols?" I ask, referring to the ringtone.

"Of course it was," he says dismissively. "Certainly not Justin Bieber."

I ask him about his political background. "I was left wing with an anarchist bent," he says. "But then you look at it closely you realise you can't have left wing anarchy, because there'd be a wicked man who comes along and takes it over if there was no political power structure. So then I became a libertarian."

Like everyone else I talk to, Paul then joined the Tory party before migrating to Ukip sometime between Maastricht and David Cameron's 'hug a hoodie' speech.

I suggest that despite the variety of Ukip members, the little Englander tag does seem to fit them all. "No, no no, no," he says, shaking his head.

But there must be something to it.

"No, there isn't. It's an insult. If you look back at the philosophy of people who want to go into the EU, they are all pushing this concept of 'we've lost the British empire, we need a new empire to control'. It's them who are harking back to a time long gone."

When I phrase the question a different way – about a party made of people who love the blazer, the pint of ale, the whack of the cricket bat on the village green – Paul seems more liable to agree.

"In a cheeky way, we play up to it," he admits. "There was a discussion in the pub the other day about whether we should start wearing bowler hats, although that's partly to be like Clockwork Orange. We do play it up. I have some very vulgar blazers. It's more a matter of eccentricity. It's not that we don’t fit into modern life."

I suggest it sounds more like a gang than a party.

"It is to some extent and that's a good thing. We're all in this together. It's almost like Blitz spirit."

The Blitz spirit comment jars, but it seems to encapsulate this endless look back, this look inwards to a mythical England which every Kipper I meet is guilty of.

Paul is probably the most intelligent and professional of the people I speak to. He works as a barrister and only shifted to Ukip when he was overlooked for PPC elections for the Tories. I ask him how he feels about the party's policy of herding all asylum seekers into camps.

"'Camps' is an emotive word. Boarding centres already exist. We're not suggesting we put them to work," he says.

We bicker about the word 'camps' for a while – I accept 'boarding centres' instead.

"I would have no problem with that. Why on earth not?"

I say that people who haven't committed a crime should not be imprisoned.

"Well they can always leave. In my opinion we should start considering the interests of the people who are already in this country first. [The asylum seekers] can be clean, they can be comfortable, they can walk, they can get three square meals a day. It wouldn't necessarily be any different to boarding school.

"It's a small issue. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

"Maybe I'm lacking in...." There's a long pause. "Empathy. I don't know. Maybe it's compassion overload. I really can't get that het up about it. I'm sorry."

Vanessa

My final interview is the most revealing. I meet Vanessa from Shepherd's Bush very promptly. She doesn't own a mobile phone, so we have to be very precise about the time and place. I like her instantly. She is eccentric (there's that word again) but unflappable. She has that firm way of getting older which English women occasionally muster – feminine but not frail. The sun comes out and we sit by an artificial stream just by the consumerist utopia/nightmare of the Westfield shopping centre.

When we talk about the Tories, she hardens. Like everyone else from Ukip I've met, she seems to shimmer with anger at her former colleagues. They are not fellow travellers, but traitors.

"I distrust the Tories, inherently distrust them," she says. "The Redwoods and Hannans don't truly want to get out of the EU. It's just good for their blogs, so they get lots and lots of comments. They're doing nothing. The Conservatives in parliament - they know damn well their leaders are not going to get them out."

The kindly lady image I'd cultivated of her doesn't return. She keeps her harsh tone when discussing immigration.

"You can't save the world. You have to take care of your own," she says.

I suggest nationalism of any sort always views the world in simplified, poetic terms. Sometimes it's pretty, sometimes it's dangerous, but it's always reactionary. She's having none of it.

"Look at Switzerland. I think it makes them very strong. They make their decisions from the greater good," she replies. "Look at Japan, another small island. Very strong people. I don't see anything wrong with that. I'm sure you would support your family before your neighbours. You make sure you're protected and look after your own. We can't be European. Or some people can, but I can't. I can't feel anything for all these other countries - Germans or whatever. Fine, get on with it. It's your problem. Look after yourself. It's human nature."

I ask if she thinks it's possible to be patriotic and believe in multiculturalism.

"No," she says instantly. "You're defined by your country. And you can't get it out of you wherever you happen to reside."

I tell her that I am a mixture of British, Guatemalan and Lebanese, but that I was brought up to take pride in Britain. All the hardness falls away and her eyes light up.

"What were your parents up to?" she says happily. We get into a chat about her own mixed heritage from way back – French grandmother, Italian great-grandmother – but at no point does she see any conflict.

She is nuanced and complicated, but she shares one central feature with the other Kippers I met. They all feel as if they're scared of something, as if they're aware events are too big for them and are moving without anyone able to control them. They cling to something they know, to a life they know, and have that typical British sense that everything is gradually getting worse.

It's as if they can feel their way around something big and negative and overpowering: the financial crisis, the movement of people, the creation of supra-national institutions, the confusing decline-and-rise-and-decline-again of Britain's role in the world.

Partly their eccentricity is just a result of being a small party. As they grow, people who aspire to be professional politicians will join and some of the eccentricity will be lost. The press officers won't sit cross-legged on bar stools and drink at midday. The candidates won't talk about having their dicks out, and the people you meet will be checking Twitter as they talk, rather than cycling around London without a mobile.

But it also speaks to a decent side to the Ukip personality. Many of their policies are grim, mean and unacceptable. But the party's appeal – the warm fuzz of ruddy old England – is the reason they feel at home there, in its chaotic local meetings.

They confound as much as they confirm. They are harsh and inward-looking but they are also commendably colourful and diverse.

I pray they never get anywhere near power, but I see the appeal of simple answers in a complex, fast-moving world. And there is something quite commendable and attractive about the cat-herding operation they are engaged in. I hope they get nowhere, but I find it hard to wish them ill.

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