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"Bad Bootle Ukip meff": Why does Liverpool refuse to love Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip politician makes much of his working-class roots. But he remains a political reject in his home city

Ask anyone from Liverpool what they think of Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, and you’ll likely hear one – or both – of two phrases almost entirely inscrutable to those unfamiliar with Merseyside. The first is “wool”, the catch-all slur for supposedly plastic Scousers from outside the city proper. A resident of Bootle in the neighbouring borough of Sefton, he fails the ultimate Scouse litmus test – he doesn’t have one of Liverpool City Council’s luminous purple wheelie bins.

The second, and most popular, is a Nuttall-specific insult that plays on those roots: “Bad Bootle Ukip meff [tramp].” Find a news story about Nuttall on social media, and chances are it appears below the line, on Twitter, or in the Facebook comments.

Even the Liverpool Echo, the city’s newspaper of record, quotes the phrase in its copy whenever the Ukip leader is mentioned, having first introduced the phrase to the world in a liveblog when he appeared on Question Time with fellow Merseysider Esther McVey. The original tweet, from an Echo reader, was as devastating as it was pithy. “They’re not proper Scouse,” it said of the pair. “Ones a orrible Tory wool the other is a bad Bootle UKIP meff [sic].” Nuttall later attacked the Echo for “highlighting some really biased, negative comments”, but the damage was done.

The events of the past week have thrown Nuttall's testy relationship with his home city into harsh relief. First the families of those who died 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives, questioned why he had never offered his support for the cause. Then, in an excruciating radio interview, he admitted claims on his blog that he "lost close personal friends" were untrue. The row provoked a justifiably furious reaction and the city's elected mayor, Joe Anderson, has called on Nuttall to resign as an MEP.

Nationally, however, the Ukip leader has put his Liverpudlian provenance front and centre of his bid to install the party as the “patriotic voice of working people”. Some Labour politicians worry that his folksy patter – and provincial pedigree – will help fuel a devastating flight of Northern and Midland voters to Ukip. So why is Nuttall so unloved – and so electorally unsuccessful – in Liverpool?

The city region, for the most part, is staunchly Labour, and voted to remain last June. But the derision the Ukip leader faces on Merseyside can’t be explained quite so simply.  A number of conflicting factors are at play - politics, class, religion, and the nebulous, evasive concept of Scouseness itself.

Nuttall was three times an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate in his home constituency of Bootle, a Labour stronghold. Even in 2015, when he came second, Nuttall could only muster 11 per cent of the vote, an increase of just 4.8 per cent on 2010. “Really, that was a poor performance from him and from Ukip,” said Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Liverpool University’s head of politics. “It’s a constituency with the type of demographics where they should do well, and it ought to be fertile territory for him, given that he’s from Bootle.” Appealing to the white working class is a key part of his platform, but he hasn’t ever managed it at home.  

Indeed, for all his genuine and permanently audible links to Merseyside, Nuttall is fighting under an unpopular banner. Ukip have never had a councillor here, and, according to Wilks-Heeg, probably never will, despite a near-total vacuum on the right (the Conservatives have not held a single council seat since 1998). Far-right populists have failed before. “We shouldn’t put Ukip strictly in the same basket as the British National Party and the National Front," said Wilks-Heeg. "But we do know areas which in the past voted strongly for those parties have been particularly fertile territory for Ukip, and those vote shares were never all that high – so they may well have reached their ceiling.”

Others resent the perceived glibness of Nuttall’s allusions to his roots. Like the comedian John Bishop, who grew up in Runcorn, Cheshire, he is often mocked for playing up to a stereotype of Liverpudlians that doesn’t actually exist. Brian Reade, the Scouse Daily Mirror columnist, likens him to Cilla Black and Jimmy Tarbuck – celebrities who “traded on Scouseness, but yet they were Thatcher-lovers, safe in their Berkshire mansions, preaching the absolute antithesis to what Scousers were going through”.  

Aaron Ellis, until last year a leading light in Liverpool’s Conservative future branch, agrees there is an instinctive, often class-based, hostility to vocal right-wingers. “The attitude I ran up against was that I was pretending to be 'posh'," he said. The memory clearly still rankles. "Growing up, I associated Labour with keeping working people in their place, because I aspired to go to uni and then I was told I was just being posh and a Tory.”

Working-class Conservatism, however, isn’t non-existent in Liverpool – it was, until the fifties, a Tory stronghold – and Reade says Nuttall has long been tolerated as an irritating, if largely harmless, representative of that constituency. “Up until the last couple of months, people treated him as a bit of a joke," he explained. "He was seen as buffoonish sort of figure who was trying to suck up to people from a different class from him – a rebelling against his roots sort of thing. "You see him walking around in this sort of faux grouse-shooting outfit!”  By this point in our converastion, Reade was struggling to suppress his laughter.

Liverpool University's Wilks-Heeg agrees that Nuttall’s image and nativist politics are at odds with an immigrant city where many locals identify as Scouse first, and English second. “Ukip really is, essentially, an English nationalist party," he said. "Liverpool, not being a terribly English city, has quite different political traditions and a different political culture.”

That political culture, well into the twentieth century, was a religious sectarianism fuelled by large-scale migration from Ireland – and the working-class Catholic vote (Nuttall says he is himself practising), for the most part, is still overwhelmingly Labour.

Peter Hooton, frontman of nineties band The Farm and a Hillsborough justice campaigner, attended the same secondary school as Nuttall, and says his politics are fundamentally incompatible with the city’s collective memory. “Ukip are to the right of Margaret Thatcher," he recalled. "Liverpool was a city riven with sectarianism – we were acutely aware of that as kids.

"Thankfully, it’s more or less died out, but for someone coming from Nuttall’s background, it’s unbelievable that he is the way he is politically. Did he not read any history books?”

All I spoke to described Nuttall, outspoken and uncompromising, as an embarrassment to a fiercely proud and staunchly Labour city. But now, says Reade, he must stop that embarrassment curdling into hate. “I haven’t met many people who are totally enraged by what’s happened with his Hillsborough story,” he says. “But he needs to be careful. He’s almost at the tipping point. One more incident like this, and he could become a hate figure.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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