It’s an understatement to say UKIP is pretty bloody pleased with itself right now. Last month it survived the embarrassments of an over-tired Nigel Farage hating on Romanians and the #ukipcarnival that never was to trump Labour and the Tories at the European elections. Declaring a “political earthquake”, Farage was in the mood to party and promptly hit Twitter to rename UKIP’s South East conference as its ‘celebratory conference’. Of course, I had to go along to see if there ain’t no party like a UKIP party.
On arrival, it didn’t look promising. A downpour of #ukipweather made the faded façade of the conference venue, Eastbourne’s Winter Garden, look even grimmer than normal. Outside, possibly the world’s worst political protest attracted a grand total of seven participants. What police presence there was really needn’t have bothered.
Inside, things quickly perked up. With their beloved, beer-drinking demagogue down for the day’s keynote speech, the UKIP faithful started to assemble and a buzz filled the air. Although it looked like the door had a ‘strictly no under-50s’ policy, the sweet smell of success permeated their aging bones and a rush to claim the best seats in the house got underway.
In a side room I found Alan Thornton, chairman of UKIP Hastings and Rye, manning the raffle stall (prizes: chocolates, smellies and quite a bit of booze). Buoyed by the European election result, he thought there was a genuine chance that UKIP could unseat Eastbourne’s Lib Dem MP at next year’s general election. Thornton didn’t seem like the snorting lunatic ‘Kippers’ are sometimes portrayed as, telling me that although he was against ‘uncontrolled immigration’, immigrants had a better work ethic than the English.
Helping to sell artisanal jams, pickles and chutneys next to a stall hocking Nigel Farage’s ‘candid and colourful’ autobiography and tea towels poking fun at European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, local UKIP councillor Alan Latham was even more upbeat. He saw UKIP claiming as many as 20 MPs in 2015 – enough, he said, to give it the balance of power and force a long-desired exit from the EU.
Back on the main floor, Charlie Amos stuck out like any 14-year-old in a red crushed velvet jacket and Harry Potter glasses would in a hall full of geriatrics. Despite being embryonic in UKIP terms, Amos was no less enthusiastic about the party, having represented it in his school’s mock European election and leafleted 1,200 houses in the build-up to the real thing. Unfortunately, only his friends in Year Nine liked UKIP, he said. The rest weren’t so keen.
I asked him why. “They got influenced by the media and they think it’s racist, which it’s not. It’s just anti-mass, uncontrolled immigration,” he explained. Amos was there with his mum, who thought the UK should be more like Australia, where “they’re actually being a little bit more careful with who they let in”.
Like any good gig, the bill kicked off with a series of support acts building up to the headline act. Nigel Jones, UKIP’s parliamentary candidate for Eastbourne, was an instant crowd pleaser, railing against the “institutionally left-wing” BBC for claiming the UKIP bubble had burst with the Newark by-election result, lambasting “shameful” David Cameron for fielding a “stooge candidate” at Newark and telling Ed Miliband he had to offer an EU referendum in Labour’s manifesto.
If someone had given Jones a note not to upstage those following him, he clearly hadn’t read it. To finish, he threatened to pull a metaphorical blade on the three main parties: “We are going to do what the farmer’s wife did to the three blind mice. Over the coming 12 months we are going to cut off their tails with a carving knife. We are going to boost our results, we are going to win seats at the general election. We haven’t even got going yet! We are on our way!”
Now seasoned performers, UKIP rolled out the classics. Branch organiser Bob Lacey lampooned the coalition’s same-sex Marriage Act, claiming the gay community hadn’t actually wanted it. Hampshire county councillor Chris Wood, a sort of sexier Ed Miliband lookalike, declared the “people’s purple army” was going all the way to Westminster, while MEP Diane James said Labour and the Conservatives were “quaking in their boots”.
Ultimately, they were all holding court before the arrival of King Nigel. In Farage strode, the security presence in the hall suddenly noticeably beefed up, mixing his familiar brand of chummy stand-up with rhetoric fired in bursts like a snub-nosed Uzi. He began by placing UKIP on a par with Labour, promising to tackle the cost of living crisis with a manifesto pledge of no tax for those on minimum wage and talking of boosting social mobility by helping pupils from poorer backgrounds achieve equality with the privately educated.
With ambitions for parliament, was this now a friendlier, warmer, less Romanian-averse Farage 2.0? No. No sooner had he spoken of the cost of living crisis, Farage revealed the real cause behind it: immigrants and “the open door to southern and eastern Europe that is damaging the living standards of millions of decent British families in this country”.
Welcome back, Nasty Nigel.
I tried to get an interview with him afterwards, but the UKIP press officer told me he was too busy and instead brought forward Janice Atkinson, the MEP most famous for being caught on camera telling two Green Party activists to fuck off while campaigning in Kent. Not surprisingly, things got a little weird from here on.
I asked Atkinson how UKIP could tackle the perception that it is a racist party. She proceeded to tell me how she had attacked Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism for being “tax-payer and union-funded campaign machines”. Unsure how this would help with allegations of racism, I asked again, but instead Atkinson chose this moment to bring up her spat with the Greens.
“One was a witch into exorcism. Another was an eco-socialist – whatever that is – and another was an anarchist. Now, if they went knocking on doors and said ‘By the way, I’m a witch and I’m into exorcism – vote for me because I’m the Green Party candidate’…but no, they choose to stand there with their nasty little banners portraying the nice face of the Green left…and I’ll take them on.”
Broaching the issue of UKIP taking advantage of irrational fears of immigration in places like Kent, Atkinson got even more exasperated: “They should come down there with me then, because there are certain areas that are no go, where it’s unsafe for a woman to go out at night because of the hassle they get.”
From immigrants? “Yes, from Slovakian and Roma men that are down there. It’s part of their culture, but it’s causing big problems. You go down to the Medway towns at nighttime, there’s guns and drug dealing.”
Was that down to immigration? “Of course it’s down to uncontrolled immigration. We can’t stop these people from coming in. We want to control our borders.”
As for Farage, by now he had left the conference behind and bailed for the pub next door, spending the rest of the afternoon supping pints and trying not to get caught in a Miliband-style bacon sandwich pap shot. Party well and truly pooped…