Ukip leaders present and future? Photo: Bloomberg
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Suzanne Evans, Ukip's leader-in waiting

The Nicola Sturgeon to Nigel Farage's Alex Salmond?

Nigel Farage’s political career could end next week: a new poll puts him two points behind in Thanet South. Should he lose, he has declared that he will quit as leader of Ukip.

If he is true to his word, a vicious scrap to succeed him will ensue. Two senior party figures, Steven Woolfe and Paul Nuttall, have already revealed that they would like to be next leader. Farage, though, has a different view: he has repeatedly said that he expects Ukip’s next leader to be a woman and, in asking Suzanne Evans to write the party manifesto and then handing her the stage at the launch he has effectively anointed her his preferred successor. Perhaps he see Evans as the Nicola Sturgeon to his Alex Salmond: less threatening and more mild-manner and better able to reach out beyond the party’s core vote.

“If Nigel ever stood down, I think there would be quite a lot of people that might be interested in being leader and yeah I’ll be honest - I might be one of them,” Evans tells me when me meet near Ukip HQ in London. But she later says: “It's not something I’m ready for - he's going to stay and he's going to win.” In the early hours of May 8, we will find out.

The success of Ukip’s manifesto – a document that could hardly be further removed from what Nigel Farage called the “drivel” in 2010 – is one reason that Evans is ideally placed to become next leader. At the start of January, Evans took over manifesto-writing duties from Tim Aker – who claimed to be too stretched as an MEP, councillor and candidate for eminently winnable Thurrock – and was handed a five-month contract by Ukip. 

“I knew it was going to be a big task, but I don’t think I anticipated just how big it was going to be.” Nor did she anticipate that her e-mail inbox would be flooded “like confetti” with suggestions, including that sending prisoners to North Korea could end the prison crisis. “That did not come from a Ukip supporter." Not all suggestions were so unwelcome: the manifesto proposes instruction in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation in all secondary schools after Evans followed up on an idea from a 14-year-old girl.

Farage was consulted at every turn, and retained control of the process. “There were a couple of things he said he didn't agree with that came out.

“Nigel and I kept in close contact. We had a couple of meetings as it was in progress. If there was something I wasn't sure about, I'd phone him; something he particularly wanted in - he'd phone me.”

Within hours of the launch, Evans found that she had produced a document that – even by those who vehemently disagreed with it – had avoided ridicule. It attracted praise from both the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail. “I was like wow - I think that’s called a result. Praise from the left and praise from the right!”

Not bad for someone who had only joined Ukip two years earlier, when Evans and a group of Conservative Party councillors in Wimbledon defected. “It’s amazing isn't it really? I feel very flattered that the party's recognised that I’ve got something to offer.” Many now consider her the second most important person in Ukip, a notion she calls “frightening”.

Evans shows no inclination to diverge from the Farage line. Although she is a former employer and presenter for BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live, she endorses Farage’s denunciation of the corporation, calling it “so unfair and so unbalanced” in its coverage of Ukip. It is not her only target.

“The London media gives us such a hard time as well. Every time I open the Metro or the Evening Standard it's all anti-Ukip, constantly anti-Ukip. They only run the bad stories and their facts are hopeless - they called me deputy leader Suzanne Jones the other day in the Metro. They just don't do their facts, they don't do their homework, it's all anti stuff, they don't do any policies, they've done nothing positive on our manifesto.”

She suggests the media in London is one reason why Ukip performs so poorly in the capital. “London is very good at self-censoring,” she says, denouncing the audience’s treatment of her on This Week the previous night. It is the first time Evans hints at losing her sense of self-control.

“That London audience last night - 'Oh you're not allowed to vote for Ukip. The papers tell me that Ukip's not very nice therefore I must boo when Suzanne Evans walks on stage regardless of what she says, that's unimportant. Regardless of what Ukip policies really are I must not be seen to be voting for something that according to my liberal metropolitan elite friends is not very nice’.”

The ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ certainly didn’t approve of Farage’s comment that he preferred immigrants from India and Australia to those from Eastern Europe. Evans does not disagree with her leader. “I used to joke sometimes particularly with some of my Hindu friends, and I'd say 'sometimes you're more British than I am in terms of your attitudes and ambitions and also love for the English language and love for the country'. So I think we do actually have through the Commonwealth a common culture.”

Evans also agrees with her boss that Britain should give priority to Christian refugees. “There's nowhere else for them to go,” she says. She advocates taking “one thousand, two thousand” refugees a year from those fleeing across the Mediterranean, though she is unconvinced that all those who make the hazardous trip do so for well-intentioned reasons, quoting a friend who came on a boat from Albania 20 years ago.

“He says: 'I know six out of ten people on those boats are people who are economic migrants get on those boats they take their luck, whether rightly or wrongly they have been sold a vision that they will get across, and I know that they are coming over with criminal intent' - that's him saying that not me, someone who has actually been on a boat.”

But her main focus is on the election; Evans is dividing her time between Shrewsbury and Atcham, where she is standing for Parliament, albeit in a seat that does not rank among Ukip’s targets, and media studios in London. “I’m probably most use for the party there.”

Evans repeats her previous prediction that Ukip will win eight seats, and “at least 100 second places.”

“That will be fantastic and I think we will do that. People will see that we're a real challenger and then it’s 2020, when I think we could realistically be the opposition.”

But whatever happens next week, Evans intends for the electorate to see plenty more of her in  the coming years. “I’m loving it. I’m certainly not going to leave politics,” she says. “I think I’m fairly good at it - people seem to think I am." Farage certainly agrees.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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