Photo by Alan Collins
Turning up at a UKIP event leaves one with a strange feeling. The vitriol directed toward the party is so strong that you’re left with a nagging feeling of “what if someone sees me here and gets the wrong idea?”
This blog was invited in an independent capacity to a UKIP event with Nigel Farage and Mark Reckless at Rochester’s Corn Exchange last night to see how these things work on the inside. Not that there was much time to worry about perception. As I arrived at the venue, Nigel Farage was making his way in following a visit from a tea shop across the road, being pursued closely by camera crews and a young protestor repeatedly yelling “BOO!” as loud as he could. So there’s probably a clip of me awkwardly getting out of the way during all this doing the rounds on Sky News or something.
It’s worth noting that while UKIP never proclaimed this as being a public event, it was stressed that the audience was made up primarily of undecided voters. I don’t know how these people were invited to the event, as your name had to be on a list to get in, as one local with an interest in politics soon discovered:
@Ed_Jennings @centrewhatsleft How did you get in Ed?? It said it was an open event. Surly bouncers have told me it's not.— Andrew Dennis (@AndrewDennis227) April 20, 2015
Surveying the crowd, I was somewhat surprised to find a wider demographic than the standard old angry white men one might expect at these events. There were some women and even some younger people too! Some of the younger people, particularly the ones sitting behind me, even seemed weirdly enthusiastic about the whole thing.
The leader of the Medway UKIP group, Chris Irvine, opened the proceedings with a pitch for UKIP taking more seats on Medway Council on May 7, before introducing “the man who beat both Labour and the Tories”, Mark Reckless. Reckless strode in to polite applause, and immediately got off to a bold start with the audience by opening with a bit about how nice the weather has been.
Reckless has never been the strongest performer when it comes to public events, but he moved deftly from policy to policy. Some of this was fairly agreeable, like reform of hospital car parking charges, or only building on brownfield land, and some of it was less so, like slicing a mere £11bn out of the aid budget. Not that it mattered much to this audience: for a group of undecided voters, they applauded just about everything.
I suspect much of the crowd was there just to see Farage. Indeed, toward the end of Reckless’ speech, some of the people at the back of the room were beginning to murmur. This led to a feeling of being at a gig where a support band has been told they have 20 minutes, but decide to play their whole album anyway. Still, Reckless brought things to a close with a robust defence of the personal attacks launched on him by the Tories, which was always a silly tactic, before introducing Farage, who entered to the loudest applause of the evening.
Farage in the room is exactly the same as the one you see on TV. He was typically rabble-rousing, describing the UKIP surge as a “purple rash”, swiftly jumping from issue to issue, with well practiced lines on each of the big issues. He even managed to throw some red meat to the locals too, promising to restore Rochester’s city status. He never explained how he’d do this, but it obviously went over well.https://twitter.com/ci247/status/590280068242481152
He proceeded to spend a reasonable amount of time attacking the SNP, suggesting the way the other parties deal with them as approaching “appeasement”. Fiery stuff, and comments that will definitely put the Scottish National Party in Rochester & Strood on the back foot. After that, it was a quick dash through a potential EU referendum (one held by the Tories would be a “stitch up”), and suggesting poll numbers are underestimating UKIP. I find that to be fairly unlikely, but it’s the way of keeping the dream alive.
The final section of the evening was dedicated to “public questions” that were already prepared and none were taken from the floor. Some interesting topic came up, from cutting the BBC “to the bone”, and the electoral reform policies that UKIP are actually pretty strong on, before it was all over and Farage left to a standing ovation from most of the crowd.
You may have noticed that a lot of this is off of the beaten UKIP track. The EU only came up periodically with the usual spiel, and immigration was barely mentioned, outside of one or two smaller references. This represents a change in tack for UKIP, an attempt to be a fully formed political party, with a range of party policies beyond the usual fare. How successful this will be is another matter, but Farage seems confident, predicting that Reckless will not only hold onto Rochester & Strood, but will increase his majority. Does anyone really fancy taking that bet?
We got through the entire night without it happening, but on the way out I finally heard my first “I’m not racist, but..” from one of the supporters. I guess it had to happen at some point.
Outside the venue, the lone protestor who had been shouting at Nigel Farage before the event was still waiting. Farage himself snuck out of another door, leaving it to security to break the news to the stubborn young man:
Security: He’s already gone mate.
Protestor: I don’t care.
He’s possibly still standing there today.