Whatever Godfrey Bloom's fate, Ukip is still giving me sleepless nights

Maybe Ukip are a one-man band and a one-trick pony, but Nigel Farage is a reckless man with a very dangerous trick.

This was the week when Nigel Farage was going to prove to everyone that Ukip is neither a one-man band nor a one-trick pony. He succeeded in achieving the precise opposite. The delegates unleashed on Westminster’s Central Hall appeared less like a coherent political party and more like the cast of Are You Being Served on a reunion tour. Perhaps inevitably, events unfolded – or unravelled, to be more accurate – at pace and with hilarity. At times it felt like one was watching the entire boxed set of The Thick of It on fast forward.

It all kicked off with a Channel 4 exposé the evening before the conference. Michael Crick uncovered evidence of a rather heated teachers’ meeting, during Farage’s Dulwich College days, assessing his suitability as a prefect, complete with a letter of objection describing him as someone who publicly professed views which were "racist and neo-fascist". Farage’s defence seems to boil down to: 'Ah! Youth.'

By the beginning of the conference proper, a heavily made-up Farage, sweating under the lights – an apt metaphor for his "everyman" image melting under closer public scrutiny – made a keynote speech which even the Daily Mail described as "flat and managerial". Meanwhile, Ukip MEP and senior spokesman Godfrey Bloom was busy at a fringe meeting describing women who do not clean behind the fridge as "sluts".

Questioned about it outside the hall, Bloom said he was only joking and called the reporter a "sad little man". His aide tried to suggest that Bloom had used the term in its more antiquated meaning of "slovenly". The two versions of events are, of course, mutually exclusive; if the word was used without its double entendre connotations, there is no joke. Challenged by Michael Crick over the lack of any black faces among the dozens which adorned the front of Ukip’s conference brochure, Bloom proceeded to smack him over the head, with said brochure.

Cue Nigel Farage trotting out the usual excuses about Godfrey being a colourful character. LOLZ. As if this were not an MEP and the party’s defence spokesman – their defence spokesman, for pity’s sake – but a hapless Carmen Miranda impersonator who wandered into the hall by accident. Cue Diane James explaining that, yes, the party may attract some controversial characters, but the thorough vetting process meant only the best made it to their European election candidate list; she conveniently glossed over the fact that Bloom was one who had made it through this vetting process. What were the controversial characters who didn’t make it like?

As it became clear that the usual flannel would not fly, Bloom had the party whip withdrawn. Irritated, he continued to give interviews. They included one explaining that if journalists showed "impertinence", they could expect much worse than Crick and one in which he asked the BBC’s Allegra Stratton "has your mother never called you a slut?", then proceeded to tell her she had no sense of humour.

As was, perhaps, foreshadowed by the fact that Ukip shared Central Hall during their conference with a Carry On Memorabilia Convention, the comedy gold continued to flow the next day. A personal highlight was the anti-immigration speech, by first generation immigrant Amjad Bashir, which opened with "I wasn't born in Yorkshire, but I came as soon as I could". By the end of the two-day fiasco, "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" seemed like a rather charitable assessment.

Now the laughter has died down, however, it is time to assess seriously the politics of the Ukip "phenomenon". I am not comforted by the fact Ukip has finally withdrawn their whip from Godfrey Bloom. Instead, I note that he is the fifth MEP out of their 13 elected to have the whip withdrawn. Instead, I worry about the fact that he was the best they could muster after their thorough vetting process. Instead, I question why the whip was not withdrawn when he addressed the European Parliament while drunk, or when he said employers would have to be mad to employ single, young women, or when he referred to the whole of the developing world as “bongo bongo land”.

I am not really concerned about Nigel Farage’s reported racist comments in 1981. I am concerned about his outrageous 2005 manifesto pledge to check any incoming migrants for communicable diseases. His alleged youthful neo-fascist views give me little pause for thought. His current association with neo-fascist parties at the European level gives me sleepless nights.

Before the conference Farage mused that they have no real ambition to form a government, but that – who knows? – maybe in 2015 they will find themselves holding "the balance of power”. In this age of coalitions, how many Godfrey Blooms lurk in Farage’s shadow, ready to assume ministerial posts? Maybe Ukip are a one-man band and a one-trick pony, but he is a reckless man with a very dangerous trick.

Nigel Farage waves after addressing delegates at the UK Independence Party conference in Westminster on 20 September. Photograph: Getty Images.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.