EASTBOURNE, East Sussex, United Kingdom – Saturday saw the third Annual UKIP South East Conference at the Winter Gardens in Eastbourne. The exterior maybe be tired and peeling, but this was in contrast to the fresh coat of emulsion that was the delegates’ enthusiasm.
No doubt one of the reasons for the choice of venue was the cost. According to Rob Burberry, UKIP’s Campaign Manager, the cost of four million leaflets is £60,000 and benefactor Paul Sykes spent £1 million on advertisements, underlining how expensive politics is and the need to keep the cash rolling in. A membership dramatically increased to 38,000 will not hinder efforts.
I was expecting a congratulatory, possibly even a smug ambiance, UKIP having done so well in the European elections. However it seemed more like this was the “end of the beginning” rather than the “beginning of the end”. The Euros are merely a base camp to ascend to the summit.
When I arrived there was a small demonstration of about ten people. Placards and messages included “no one is illegal” and “EU is good, immigrants are people like us”. Some were local Labour supporters and trade unionists, and were appalled that UKIP had done so well in Eastbourne.
I spoke to one of them, Ben Roberts. He described UKIP as “soft fascists,” and said that UKIP is “praying on people’s fears.” He made the reasonable, libertarian point that if we have free movement of capital then we should have the free movement of people, but then added that he was against capitalism and the EU. Another protester said that many UKIP supporters did not entirely agree with all of their party’s policies.
Having been to Conservative and Liberal conferences, the delegates there tend to avoid any discourse with demonstrators. Not UKIP supporters, who like Christian Evangelists handed out leaflets to convert the political atheists.
There followed a coffee break that was thirty minutes of hot but polite debate. Post break was Nigel Farage’s speech. He entered the room at 12.05 – the reception was rapturous: a standing ovation and wolf whistles, not unlike an American political convention.
Farage quickly mentioned the “earthquake” UKIP has caused in recent weeks, before moving on to the UK’s national elections. He mused about “holding the balance of power,” targeting twenty to thirty seats and pursuing a “better bargain than [Nick] Clegg by demanding an in/out referendum.”
Farage also wants to build up the grassroots of the party at local and regional levels and concentrate resources there at the General Election. He also sees that the party needs more policies, so he expanded on defence, promised no income tax for people on minimum wage, said he would get people off the dole and into work and pledged a return of meritocracy to the UK. Grammar schools “in every town” will be how they achieve this.
The UKIP leader particularly made a point of criticising Labour leader Ed Miliband. Climate change laws and energy subsidies would be scrapped under a UKIP government, he said, as well as “ugly wind turbines.”
This was a “taste of things to come,” implying that Labour voters will most likely be the key target voters.
I was able to ask Farage later and he admitted that he had not meant to go into that much detail, but as he was his usual unscripted self, it is all now in the public domain.
The audience, a mixture of mainly ex-Conservative voters and a few working class former Labour voters, were predominately mature. I have always thought there could be divisive debates between the more libertarian youth section and the ‘small c’ conservatives. However, what may divide them will quickly be over-ridden by their common antipathy towards the EU.
Post conference (in the pub next door, The Buccaneer), I was able to corner some of the more mature UKIP supporters, especially Beryl, Maureen and Dolly. I was told Beryl was Farage’s original secretary in 1993. I asked about gay marriage, thinking of the “fruitcakes, loonies and racist” epithets. Their attitudes to gay marriage was very laissez-faire. They did not approve, but this is the 21st century, they said. It seems they are resigned to the fact that times, among other things, change. Even if not always for the better.
To underline what could be a convenient misconception by other media people, Steve and Gary, the gay couple who run The Buccaneer, specifically button holed me and thrust their business card into my hand. I have no reason to disbelieve them, but they said that Nigel Farage has promised to be best man at their wedding.
Whether the earthquakes subside to simple tremors in 2015, UKIP became the first party in over a century other than Labour and Tory to win an election, the aftershocks may still be registering on the Richter scale for many years to come.