Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images
On the narrow stairs that lead to the auditorium, two middle-aged men in stiff, navyblue suits are talking animatedly in Urdu. They are walking faster than the group in front, who are more casually dressed, older and speaking English.
A pink-faced man with white hair turns at the sound of the foreign language closing in on him. He looks surprised and wary. The suspicion is neutralised by a cheerily assertive “Good morning!” from one of the Urduspeakers, who turns out to be Amjad Bashir, a Ukip candidate in the European parliamentary elections next May. “Er, good morning,” replies the white-haired man, quickening his step towards the conference hall.
It is not unusual to hear south Asian languages spoken in 21st-century Britain. The stairwell scene stands out only because we are filing into Methodist Central Hall in Westminster to hear Nigel Farage address his party’s annual conference. The audience is almost exclusively white and is seething with resentment at the way the complexion of the country has changed in recent years. According to opinion polls, Ukip voters feel even more strongly about immigration than they do about the European Union.
“We have been welcomed with open arms. We haven’t experienced any racism,” says Bashir when I ask about the ethnic uniformity at the conference. He has an official role as Ukip’s spokesman on small businesses and a semi-official mandate as ambassador for minority communities. Recently he escorted Farage on a trip to a mosque in Leeds. “We are working with Nigel to dispel exactly what you are talking about.”
Farage’s energy is increasingly spent dispelling things. His conference was overshadowed by a pantomime row over comments made by Godfrey Bloom, a Ukip MEP, to the effect that women who don’t clean every inch of their house are “sluts”. He was also filmed hitting a reporter over the head with a conference programme when it was pointed out to him that all the faces on the cover were white. Farage was furious and suspended Bloom from his formal role as a party spokesman. Bloom’s previous interventions – questioning the wisdom of employing women of childbearing age; describing the destination of UK overseas aid as “bongo bongo land” – had been indulged. The sin this time was stealing headlines from the leader and undermining the effort that had gone into putting on a semi-professional conference. On 24 September, Bloom quit as Ukip MEP, saying he intends to sit in the European Parliament as an independent until the end of his term.
The episode exposes a paradox at the heart of Farage’s project. To establish Ukip as a permanent fixture in the political landscape, he needs to turn its high profile and double-digit opinion-poll scores into representation on councils, in the European Parliament and, eventually, in Westminster. There is no way of doing that without imposing some of the organisational discipline that is the hallmark of serious parties. Yet much of Ukip’s popularity and profile has been won by rejecting the style and institutional apparatus that characterise professional politics. A self-image as maverick crusaders for the cause of “political incorrectness” is both intrinsic to Ukip’s identity and a liability. Farage has said he doesn’t want his party to come across as a “rabble”, but that would oblige it to give up rabblerousing as a communications technique. And what does Ukip have without that?
Some of the younger figures in the party concede there is a tension between an ideological attachment to letting party representatives speak their mind and a pragmatic need sometimes to shut them up. It is all the harder because, until recently, the party’s structures were very informal. There was Farage at the top, the members at the bottom and not much in between. “It isn’t an easy transition that we’ve got to go through,” says one thirtysomething Ukip official.
There has been a particular focus on vetting candidates, to take the sting out of David Cameron’s description of Ukip in 2006 as a gang of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Since then, the Tory line has softened, in recognition of the way that remark sharpened resentment of Cameron among wavering right-wing voters and even some Conservative backbenchers with Ukip leanings. Behind the scenes, the Tory machine scours the pronouncements, Facebook pages and CVs of Ukip councillors and candidates to flush out discrediting details – racism, threatening behaviour, criminal convictions. Farage’s response to such revelations is to dismiss them as smears or trivial indiscretions. On the eve of the Ukip conference, he had to defend his own past in those terms after it emerged that teachers from his school had once identified him as a “bully” and a “fascist”.
Association with the far right is especially toxic, because it trashes the party’s claim to be a respectable voice of mainstream disaffection. Although Ukip won’t reject votes from those who have supported the BNP and the English Defence League, former members of those organisations are banned from joining Team Farage. Senior Ukip sources say they are confident that their procedures, including psychometric testing, have insured them against some of the risk of future embarrassment but their wariness of the Tory attack machine is palpable. There are constant rumours of Conservative moles having infiltrated the upper echelons of the party; the fears express a kind of adolescent nervousness on the journey to becoming a grown-up political organisation.
Another strategic challenge over the next year is to rebut the idea that Ukip is a mere repository for protest votes. The party looks certain to do well in next May’s European elections – possibly even topping the ballot. What isn’t clear is whether that will represent the peak of Farage’s potential or a platform for further advances. Much will depend on how much of the party’s support will drift back to the Tories, albeit reluctantly, to obstruct a Labour victory.
The audience at Ukip’s conference is familiar to any veteran of the political circuit as the crowd that used to attend Tory conferences but now doesn’t. Farage addresses a refugee army in navy blazers and twinsets that was ousted when the Cameroon army of BlackBerry-wielding, slick-suited professionals took over.
Without exception, the delegates I spoke to were ex-Tories and, when asked their reason for changing allegiance, all of them gave the same answer: Cameron. Geoff, for one, is 68 years old. He started delivering leaflets for the Tories as a child. He served as a councillor for 20 years but broke off from the party because of its present leader. “Now Cameron wants to be like us. Well, he isn’t. He’s fake.”
Barbara, a 74-year-old Ukip branch activist from Bradford, agrees. She quit her local Tory association after much soul-searching. Why? “I don’t like Cameron. He’s like a bit of driftwood, floating every which way. No one believes him. I don’t believe him. None of my friends believe him.”
Besides the Prime Minister’s perceived lack of principle, his elite education and wealth come up as cause for resentment. “I think a government led by the Eton brotherhood is offensive,” says Liz, a wellspoken ex-Tory from Surrey. Would she ever rejoin the Conservatives? “Not as long as David Cameron is the leader.”
That personal animus towards the Prime Minister suggests that a change of Tory leadership could hobble Ukip. It is a concern for Farage’s allies yet they profess confidence that the whole Conservative brand is contaminated by arrogance and elitism. In theory, that creates an opportunity for a new party to sell hardline conservative messages on welfare, crime, immigration and Europe.
“Too often these days, the Conservative Party gives good ideas a bad name and a factor behind that is the background of most of the leading Conservatives and the next generation coming through,” says Patrick O’Flynn, the Daily Express political commentator who will stand as a Ukip candidate next May. “If you want to be the party that gives people a bit of a kick up the backside, that likes people taking responsibility for themselves . . . it helps if you don’t have a background of wealth, privilege and connections.”
It follows from that analysis that Ukip could rake in the support of small “c” conservative voters in places where Labour has an electoral monopoly. While Farage dominates media coverage of his party, interest is building around the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall. He is 36, with an assured stage presence, and has a broad Merseyside accent that serves as a passport to the ear of voters who might be turned off by Farage’s clipped southern tones. There is little doubt among Ukippers to whom I have spoken that Nuttall is Farage’s natural successor. He dedicated his conference address to electoral opportunities in the north, accusing Labour of abandoning “its working-class roots” under the domination of people who “go to private school . . . and Oxbridge”.
Delegates at a Ukip conference may look like the Tory party in exile but the polling data paints a more nuanced picture. “Ukip are gaining about half their support from disillusioned Conservatives but they are also picking up votes from older working-class voters Labour might have traditionally assumed were automatically theirs,” says Ben Page, the chief executive of Ipsos MORI.
Ukip came second in by-elections in Rotherham last November and South Shields in May, though Labour held both seats comfortably. There isn’t any evidence that Ukip can win seats in the Commons from Labour at the next election but the prospect of a longer-term disruption cannot be ruled out. One shadow cabinet minister recently told me that he had been warned by fellow socialdemocrat politicians elsewhere in Europe to see Farage’s party as a grave threat. The pattern of rising populist, Eurosceptic, xenophobic and nationalistic movements elsewhere on the continent has been that they mop up angry conservatives first and then move in on disenfranchised voters of the left.
The prospect of a Ukip surge in the north is still most alarming for the Tories. If they can’t engineer a renaissance in working-class and lower-middle-class communities outside their southern heartlands, they could be barred for ever from a parliamentary majority. To that extent, the Farage threat is about more than irritation with Cameron’s flimsy project to “modernise” his party. It is true that Tory anger often expresses itself as a reaction against what are seen as passing metropolitan fads – environmentalism, gay marriage, foreign aid. Yet the result could be an irreparable schism in the conservative vote.
That is certainly Ukip’s aim. Farage’s declared goal is to precipitate “an earthquake” in British politics. To bring that about, he needs to be seen to be leading more than an ageing band of curmudgeonly ex-Tories. Local election results and opinion polls suggest the potential exists for an upheaval in public allegiance. Anger with the three established Westminster players runs deep. Long-term trends in voting behaviour suggest that the Labour-Tory duopoly peaked in the 1950s and that fragmented public support will inevitably be shared with smaller parties.
How much Farage can benefit from that depends on whether he has the energy and the organisational capability to sustain the momentum of recent years. The British electoral system is stacked against him. No less problematic is the question of his party’s character. Farage, his candidates and his manifesto will come under intense scrutiny as a general election approaches. The discipline required to look like responsible contenders for public office will provoke dissent among those elements in the party for whom freedom to cause offence is the whole point of being Ukip. If that tendency prevails, the Conservatives will plausibly be able to argue that Farage represents a cheery dalliance to be indulged midterm and a menace to be feared in a Westminster poll. That view will be endorsed by Tory cheerleaders in the media pointing out that the effect of a Ukip surge will be to cost the Tories seats and make Ed Miliband prime minister.
Cameron’s message to disgruntled Tories will be: “Vote Ukip, get Labour.” Yet what Conservative strategists may have underestimated is the extent to which Ukip supporters are driven by a jaundiced sense of equivalence between the two main parties. Downing Street may also be in denial about the passion with which ex-Conservatives loathe the Prime Minister. It is more than political. It’s intensely personal. Ukip supporters aren’t itching to instal a Labour government but that isn’t the test; they don’t much like a coalition or a Tory government, either. The question is whether letting Miliband become prime minister is the price they are prepared to pay for the satisfaction of punishing David Cameron.