Around Christmas last year it seemed very possible that Rochdale was going to have a UKIP MP – not because of the strength of the local association’s campaigning, but because Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for the city, was seen having a drink (pints, of course) with Nigel Farage.
Danczuk later strenuously denied he was considering switching allegiances to UKIP, and it’s too late for him now anyway. The local UKIP association, which operates in Rochdale and the neighbouring constituency of Heywood and Middleton, has already chosen their candidate for the seat: Masud Mohammed, a local housing officer.
“If Masud can get some steam behind him, we’ll have a north-west powerhouse here,” says John Bickley, who came second to the Labour candidate Liz McInnes by only 607 votes at the recent bye-election in Heywood and Middleton, a once-safe Labour seat. Bickley is standing again in the same constituency in May and has high hopes for his and Mohammed’s chances.
“There’ll be a halo effect in Heywood and Middleton that will spill over into Rochdale, and that’ll backspill over here. Labour’ll be panicking,” Bickley continues.
When I join UKIP Heywood and Middleton and Rochdale for some canvassing and leafleting in a Lib Dem-held ward in Heywood, Warren Mitchell, the local association’s twenty-two year old chairman, is expectant of a UKIP victory in Heywood and Middleton and a solid second place in Rochdale.
“If the other parties take enough votes off Labour, we might just win in Rochdale, but it’s not likely.”
Warren, who also stood to be UKIP’s candidate in Rochdale, got involved in politics because his anger at the way the nearby Diane Hill estate has been renovated – or needlessly demolished and rebuilt less well, as he sees it. “I just wanted to help out with some leafleting, and I’ve ended up running the branch.”
Working night shifts in Aldi, running the local party during the day, and occasionally sleeping, Warren is just the sort of frenetically busy, modestly paid person the Labour Party might have appealed to in generations past. Indeed, the campaign leaflets being distributed when I joined them were decidedly aimed at working class voters. “Stop wasting £55m a day on EU membership while ordinary working people face hardship here,” they angrily proclaim:
Most of the leaflets in the UKIP Heywood and Middleton and Rochdale headquarters were specifically targeted against Labour, too.
Mike, one of the local activists out campaigning with us, described himself as “very close” to Jim Dobbin, the Labour MP whose sudden death triggered the Heywood and Middleton bye-election last October.
But why not join the Greens, if he’s become disillusioned with Labour – aren’t they more appropriate for a leftie? “I couldn’t join the Greens because of their policies on defence. So much technology in our society began in the aviation industry.”
“With Labour you can’t say anything without asking NEC [the National Executive Committee],” he adds. “With UKIP it’s about achieving their aims. If they thought they could work within other parties, I honestly believe they wouldn’t have formed.
“The other parties are only interested in having power, not what they want to achieve with it.”
None of which is to say that in these parts of Greater Manchester UKIP only appeal to disillusioned Labour voters. Before we set out from their HQ in the town centre of Heywood, James, a Young Conservative activist, was chatting with Warren.
“I’m still a member of the Conservatives,” James says. “They don’t know I’m here, but they probably wouldn’t mind too much… UKIP should be the right wing of the Conservative Party, but Cameron hasn’t been the Prime Minister we’d have liked.”
We end up discussing how the EU may have been founded in imitation of the Holy Roman Empire, with the trading centre of Frankfurt loosely corresponding to London today – “[Jean] Monnet probably had it in mind. The similarities are too great… But I suppose this sounds like a conspiracy theory.”
When I catch up with Masud Mohammed later, he is much more confident about his chances of success in Rochdale – he is expecting not to come second place, but to win with a “big majority,” although he does add the caveat that it’s “too early to tell” how his campaign is really going.
Mohammed served as a councillor in Rochdale for eleven years, from 2001 to 2012. Initially a Labour councillor, he switched allegiances in 2003 to the Liberal Democrats, partly in opposition to the Iraq war, partly because of a fall-out in the local branch of Labour.
“There are quite a few shops empty in Rochdale town centre. People are really struggling to make ends meet; people are fed up, especially with the bedroom tax,” Mohammed says when I ask what issues he is focusing his campaign on. The closure of the accident and emergency unit in the Rochdale Infirmary is a cause of concern in the area, too.
“A few thousand people are waiting for social housing – it’s purely because of the influx of Europeans,” he continues.
Moving on to more national aims, Mohammed says, “UKIP will abolish tuition fees and the bedroom tax, and we’ll invest £3bn into the NHS… There was a piece of literature put round by Labour recently that said UKIP want to privatise the NHS, but it’s Labour who privatised the NHS with PFIs [Private Finance Initiatives].”
Originally from Kashmir in Pakistan, Mohammed, whose children were born in the UK, describes himself as “proud to be British.” Given the stereotype of UKIP as a party of slightly racist white people, I ask whether he’s ever encountered racism within UKIP: “The racism is just scaremongering. Why would I be the PPC [Prospective Parliamentary Candidate], if UKIP was racist? And there are many other non-white UKIP candidates.”
But what about people like Kerry Smith, who resigned over a phone call in which he referred to “fucking disgusting old poofters” and a woman with a “chinky” name? “You’ll find a few racists in any group of people… Voters aren’t surprised to see a non-white UKIP candidate.”
More than because of Danczuk’s alleged flirtations with Nigel Farage, Rochdale has made headlines recently because of the grooming scandals in which gangs of largely Pakistani taxi drivers sexually assaulted young white girls. Is there still tension in Rochdale because of this? Do white people ever react badly to Mohammed because of his Pakistani origins?
“No, no. There is no tension. Overwhelmingly I’m welcomed by every single community, Muslim or non-Muslim. People want a change.”
When I asked Warren Mitchell similar questions earlier in the day, he said, “I don’t like talking about it; I knew some of the girls involved… There’s some people in the CPS [Child Protection Services] that deserve to be strung up – well, sacked at least.
“We’ve got a rule of thumb that we don’t discuss race and religion on the doorstep. Whatever you say, you’re bound to offend someone.”
Some names have been changed.