Britain’s answer to the Tea Party has surged into a shock lead ahead of next month’s European elections thanks to an unruly anti-establishment approach that is threatening to overturn centuries of mainstream politics.
Nigel Farage, the leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party, says the country is on the verge of the “biggest political earthquake in 100 years.” And he could be right; if Ukip secures the most votes on May 22, they will become the first party outside the big three (Conservative, Labour and Liberal) to win a nationwide election since the majority of male landowners were given the vote in 1832.
Farage, who is often seen with a pint of beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, is an unlikely history-maker; his rag-tag party was once dismissed by Prime Minister David Cameron as a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”; scandals have dogged the party’s election campaign; and Farage has been accused of financial impropriety. Yet the latest opinion poll has Ukip with 31 percent of the vote, three points above Labour and well ahead of Cameron’s Conservative Party, who are down in third place at 19 percent.
This is not how British politics is supposed to work. Farage is in the middle of a two-week bus tour attracting thousands of voters to American-style town hall meetings for the first time in a generation. “Please do something that the English don’t normally do,” he asked of an enthusiastic crowd in the town of Dudley, in the West Midlands. “We’re very good at moaning, we’re very good at watching the news and saying: ‘Isn't it awful.’
“Don't do that—get involved!” The crowd of political newcomers, and former Labour and Conservative voters roared their assent. He may not have a functioning party to speak of, but Nigel Farage seems to have found himself at the head of a movement.
Ukip has seen little success since it was founded as a single-issue party in the mid-’90s to campaign for Britain to quit the European Union. EU membership has remained a key issue, but Farage succeeded in widening the party’s appeal and emulating the success of the Tea Party by calling for a reduction in immigration, cutting red tape to help job creators, and attacking the political establishment as out-of-touch elites.
His jovial campaign style, which combines a talent for evading tough questions and plenty of time wooing people in pubs, has helped to engage a new breed of voters despite the party’s shortage of organizational structure, money and professional operatives.
Newspaper and television coverage of the party has been largely hostile, so Farage has been forced to find new ways to communicate with the public. “I think what we learn from America is that whatever the state or national media decides the agenda should be, the Internet now has the power to overturn it,” he told The Daily Beast. “That's what the Tea Party has shown and that's one of the things that Ukip is now beginning to do really well. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, I think without that, we wouldn't really be where we are.”
Two recent televised debates against Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, also helped. They were a triumph for Farage, who was more direct and more compelling than his opponent; Clegg was polished but struggled to find punchy ways to defend the EU. A controversial series of posters came next. Claims about European immigrants coming to steal British jobs were described as racist by opponents, but they continued to generate headlines and airtime for the party’s leader.
One senior Cabinet minister accused Ukip of “reveling” in the poster fallout and the scandals, which have included numerous party members and candidates being forced to quit after making racist or misogynistic remarks.
Standing in an unfurnished room inside Ukip’s modest Black Country HQ, about 150 miles north of London, Farage claimed his party was being smeared by the political establishment and their allies in the media. “It’s not a conspiracy in the sense that they sat around the table and said, ‘What fiendish plot’—you know, stroking their white cats—‘can we dream up to damage Ukip.’ It’s a natural function of human beings, whether they are in business, politics or science, that if they’ve settled around a position, anyone that comes to challenge that, they’ll be repelled.
“Gandhi said: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win.’”
The Conservative Party has been nervous about Ukip drawing support from the right of their party for years, hence Cameron’s “fruitcakes” remark in 2006. In recent weeks Labour and the Liberal Democrats have begun to realize that they, too, are under threat, as blue-collar, working-class voters are won over by a promise to upend the political consensus and run the current elites out of Westminster.
As Ukip continues to inch up in the polls, the British media have also begun to take the party more seriously. Reporters found that scouring the Internet for remarks made by Ukip members was proving fruitful. Andre Lampitt, the face of the party in a recent ad, quit after it emerged that he had described Islam as a “pathetic satanic religion,” expressed his hope that AIDS would reduce the population of Africa, and claimed Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, was not British because his Jewish father had only come to the country when he was fleeing the Second World War.
This month, The Times of London ran a story by Alexi Mostrous and Billy Kenber alleging that Farage was facing an expenses investigation into $100,000 of “missing” European Union funds, which were paid into his personal bank account in the years after he was elected as a member of the European parliament, representing South East England, in 1999.
Farage rubbished the story and Ukip responded by publishing a highly unusual, some said unprofessional, dossier of personal attacks on staff at the newspaper. It seemed the party, which is mainly staffed by volunteers, was starting to crack under the pressure of the media glare.
There were certainly signs of that as the bus tour barreled across Britain. A senior party aide could be heard referring to one of The Times journalists by the sort of foul-mouthed nickname rarely heard outside Armando Iannucci’s Veep and The Thick Of It: “Cunty Cunty Kenber,” the official cried. “He really is a horrible little thing.”
Much to the apparent hilarity of those involved, Ukip’s chief press officer, Patrick Flynn, had just texted the reporter a message that was intended for a colleague. “I have a missed call from little cunty Kember (sic) now!” he wrote.
It is customary for political campaigns to keep their most forthright views in-house.
The unpolished approach continued as Farage embarked on his meet-and-greet in Dudley, a struggling town on the outskirts of Birmingham where unemployment is high and average incomes are low. “There's nobody here to meet,” he grumbled to an aide, as he battled through the rain. “Truth is a lot of these people don't know who we are.”
Sheltered by a waxed jacket and wide-brimmed hat, Farage paused before a statue of celebrated 1950s Manchester United player Duncan Edwards. The Ukip photographer tried to take a picture, which irritated Farage. “I wasn’t going to stand posing in front of it as if I was on some jamboree day out,” he explained. “I’ve been doing this a long time, I’m an old lag in terms of politics, and yeah, there is a learning curve that everybody goes through.”
His frustration at Ukip’s rusty political operation is obvious. “I’ve tried really hard to tighten this dam,” he said of his junior colleagues’ repeated indiscretions.
Although the party is struggling to deal with a new level of scrutiny, the constant drip of scandal has done nothing to dampen Ukip’s rise. Matthew Goodwin, author of Revolt on the Right, said the disorganization, claims of racism and financial allegations were largely irrelevant to those considering a vote for Ukip.
“These attacks on Farage don’t make the slightest difference,” he said. “You convinced a section of the electorate that Nigel Farage and Ukip are a wasted vote—congratulations, unfortunately their core voters either don’t read your newspaper or don’t care because they are so distrustful.”
Goodwin, an associate professor at Nottingham University, has compiled the first comprehensive study on the rise of Ukip. He says their voters are concentrated primarily among those with a low level of education who feel financially insecure. “Don't underestimate how many of those voters there are. Ukip walked into the casino of British politics and they’ve doubled down on these left behind voters,” he said. “They’ve got a lot better at getting them out, but they’ve got nowhere near maximizing the level that they could reach.”
After a day of missteps in the West Midlands, Farage was treated like a conquering hero when he took the stage. The crowd heard that Ukip was the party of “common sense,” “facts not fiction” and the only way to “get our country back.” Matt Stevens, a 20-year-old office worker attending his first ever political event, said he had heard enough to head for the polls. “Farage was bang on. He’s just something different,” he said.
Less than 100 miles away in Newark, the surprise resignation of a Conservative MP on Tuesday triggered a special election and gifted Ukip a possible route into the House of Commons. As an MEP in Brussels for 15 years, Farage has been an isolated figure in British politics. If the party is to make a lasting impact it needs to get a first MP elected domestically. That is notoriously difficult for smaller parties under Britain’s “first past the post” electoral system, but it becomes far more likely in a snap-election soon after what is expected to be the best night in Ukip’s history.
Whatever the election results later this month, Farage is certain he will continue to be marginalized. Asked if he might be allowed to take part in the leaders’ debate ahead of the 2015 general election, he laughed: “Oh, no! If I'd made a balls of the last debate they probably would. But forget it.”