Update: Mr Stanyer is now the UKIP PPC for Penrith and the Border.
After running after a large purple sign on a wooden stick I spotted in Carlisle, I fortunately came across UKIP parliamentary candidate John Stanyer beneath it. Following my slightly unorthodox approach, we got stuck into the primary reason for UKIP’s appeal to Carlisle’s voters (spoiler: it’s not the EU or immigration policy), the party’s contested reputation for bigotry, and their prospects and predictions for 2015.
Aside from the party’s sometimes eccentric membership, UKIP is known best for its policies regarding the UK’s relations with other countries’ governments and citizens: namely, asserting autonomy from the EU and controlling immigration. Carlisle is predominantly white (97% at the last census count), and has seen relatively little immigration. Such demographics do not always signal a lack of concern for the politics of immigration and multiculturalism, though; frequently the reverse is true. But although I do discuss multiculturalism with Stanyer, he has found Carlisle’s voters largely silent on the topic. The EU isn’t at the top of the local political agenda, either. Rather, when I asked Stanyer what concerns prospective UKIP voters were bringing to him as he canvassed the central square, his answer was simple: “they’re fed up of the other parties.”
The case he is making is not purely negative. Neither are voters’ reasons for shunning the political mainstream. But, what the stubborn non-voters and the voters who are disillusioned with three major parties want differs from person to person, and for many of these people their demands – and grievances – are not well-articulated. UKIP’s proposals offer one interpretation of these groups’ demands, and one possible slate of solutions. With these proposals comes a more general diagnosis of society today.
The picture Stanyer paints is one of two countries: one of the cosmopolitan elite, the other of ordinary Britons. It’s a familiar picture, which some might consider a caricature. But it’s also a prevalent perception, and there’s a convincing case for its having some truth. This divide is twofold. First, it runs along the sometimes nebulous lines of personal and cultural identity – the cosmopolitan, and the rest. Second, Stanyer sees a divide along the lines of attitudes to democracy and decision making. ‘Elite’ or ‘popular’? UKIP is often, sometimes fairly, accused of stoking community tensions surrounding personal and cultural identity, but the press doesn’t much discuss the party’s stance on decision making.
People approaching Stanyer in Carlisle are concerned about an elite group of representatives (distant, in London, or even more distant, in Brussels), making decisions on their behalf. The common feeling is that representatives do not always push for policies which align with the views of the people they are appointed to represent. In a rural outpost of British society, this issue is instrumental in pushing voters to UKIP. The Conservatives offer an EU referendum; but UKIP offers not only independence from Europe, but reform of the ways decisions are made in British politics.
The policy that Stanyer was clearly most impassioned about is UKIP’s support for referenda on issues beyond the EU. Much more than by Europe, the people approaching him in Carlisle were upset by how they thought their views were treated in Westminster.
And it’s true that most people have no control over which candidates they get to choose between at the ballot box. They can choose between agendas, but have no direct sway over what goes on these agendas. There are many possible ways to alter the balance of power – primaries, regional devolution, direct public consultation, none of which were mentioned in our conversation. Referenda, his preferred mechanism, are reasonably considered by many as the ‘nuclear option’ for widening participation. Stanyer, in a more relaxed manner, describes referenda as “political life insurance” – presumably the idea being that when a particular issue dies in Parliament, a political payoff can be achieved through a referendum without the need for elite approval.
There are two obvious concerns with referenda which I put to Stanyer: public ineptitude regarding complex policy issues, and extremist outcomes. On the first count, he expressed more faith in the ability of the people to make decisions in their own interests than in the ability of remote politicians: providing issues were appropriately “broken down into bite-sizes,” they could be understood and addressed by anyone. On the second count – extremist outcomes – Stanyer thought it unlikely that the British people would adopt dangerous or abhorrent laws. Unlikely enough, even to warrant denying the need for safeguards against bad referendum results, such as an unconditional political commitment to international human rights standards.
Discussing the Swiss decision by referendum to ban minarets, Stanyer voiced the opinion that “there was something about the Muslim religion the Swiss found unpleasant.” In the case that minorities act in ways the majority mistrust, it is “up to those [minority] organisations to make friends.” He does not personally support the restriction of Muslim expressions of faith, but does support the idea that the legitimacy of the referendum as a political process ensured that its result was, in that case, justified. I asked him if there was a tension between saying a decision making process is always right, if – as Stanyer himself admitted – the outcome could, in theory, be problematically extreme. He saw “no tension there”.
Simply put, the essential political question for Stanyer is: “Who do you most trust to make the decisions?” He argues that UKIP trusts the general population to make them; and the other mainstream parties don’t. The ethos of trusting non-elite people’s judgement in making political decisions applies within the party too. Stanyer also emphasised the no-whip system for UKIP local councillors: he described his fellow party members on local councils as “effectively independents”. This resistance to party whip systems and support for referenda is part of the broader picture of our society Stanyer paints, which I mentioned earlier: of a broken current system, and the need for popular reform.
It is this reformist, populist, anti-establishment side of UKIP which Stanyer believes is attracting voters in Carlisle. It also explains, to him, UKIP’s attraction for voters who were once Conservative (like himself), those who were once Labour, and those who have never or rarely voted at a general election. “For every three votes we take from the Tories, we take two from Labour, one from the Lib Dems and another two from previous nonvoters.” This confidence in vote-snatching is a new phenomenon for UKIP, brought about in part by both increased national prominence and community prominence. Stanyer recounts that he was “rarely approached at similar canvassing events 5 years ago – but now, we’ll be speaking to a few people at a time for as long as we’re stood there”.
As I was interviewing Stanyer, a couple of men approached us and aggressively questioned him about his personal attitudes to ethnic and religious minorities. Throughout this exchange, and my discussion with him, Stanyer consistently maintained that he was not bigoted, and had no bias against people of other races or genders. He said that people who bring up these issues with him are never racist voters looking for sympathy; instead, they are used by partisan opponents to discredit him. He was quick to reel off a list to evidence his non-bigotry: “my daughter is gay, I have a Nigerian son-in-law, I have Japanese students living with me, and I promote capable women to the top in my companies.”
Stanyer was more critical in his attitudes to the Muslim faith, and Muslim communities. Though he never used overtly racial or ethnic generalisations, when I asked him if there were fundamental incompatibilities between the core value systems of Britain and of Islam, he responded emphatically with a “Yes”. In the conversation that followed, anecdote came into play again – having lived in Manchester previously, he cited several personal experiences that, to him, indicated an “unwillingness of Muslims to integrate, culturally, in Great Britain”. He did, though, bring up UKIP MEP Amjad Bashir as an example of a “good Muslim, and a good Briton” – a representative of two core value systems he had, earlier in our conversation, judged as uneasy companions.
Finally, we touched on Clacton Conservative MP Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP. A Conservative defector himself, I asked Stanyer if he thought there was a clash between Carswell’s establishment credentials (ex-Charterhouse, founder of the traditionalist Cornerstone group, longstanding Conservative MP) and the anti-establishment populism which Stanyer first cited as the most important difference between UKIP and the major parties. He responded by observing that “during the many conversations I’ve had with Tory MPs, we’ve agreed on about 90% of issues.”
The key difference between the parties, for him, was the influence of “Big business, and big money, in the Conservative party.” Stanyer once believed David Cameron to be much closer to UKIP on EU policy than he now seems: at a dinner he attended with the Prime Minister when helping him campaign for the 2010 election, Stanyer says that the PM “assured [him] that there would be a referendum on the EU if he won the  election.” This did not eventuate, as we know, and reflecting on the alleged conversation with Cameron Stanyer explains the contrast with the PM’s current EU policy as “50% disingenuous in our conversation, 50% responding to pressure from outside interests while he’s in government”.
Stanyer’s attitude to Carswell and other Conservative defectors (actual and potential) remained positive, despite his views of the current leadership. Coming up to the 2015 race in Carlisle, he’s “under no illusions that [UKIP] will win the seat easily” – despite their much improved response from voters on the street, and performance in local elections. But his prediction is that the impact of UKIP’s increased popularity under his candidacy will be enough to at least demolish Conservative John Stevenson MP’s lead. In a marginal this tight, the enlarged UKIP bloc will certainly have a significant effect on the final outcome. And not, it seems, for the reasons that UKIP makes national headlines.