Outsiders might assume that supporters of UKIP who live in the UK’s gateway to Europe would be motivated to vote by immigration. UKIP is also seen as a more natural destination for ex-Tory Eurosceptics than left-leaning Labourites. But David Little, UKIP candidate for Dover and Deal, has other ideas about what’s driving UKIP support in the constituency.
“As far as the general public is concerned across the UK, the impression of UKIP is that we are a party of disaffected Tories. But among our supporters on the doorstep, I’d say it’s almost a 50:50 split between ex-Tory and ex-Labour. So, therefore, each individual has different reasons for voting UKIP. But I think the main reason — the underlying reason, I suppose — is disaffection with career politicians. Whatever party they’re from, whether it’s Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Ed Miliband, they all look the same, they all sound the same, they all say the same things. And I think that a massive rump of the electorate is just completely disaffected and disenchanted.”
By contrast, Little says “if I were to speak to 100 people, maybe 2 or 3 would raise immigration”. Doorstep exchanges with partisan candidates might not be a perfect means of exposing voters’ motives. But even allowing for some reasons left unsaid, 3% is an astonishingly low figure. Yet, while Dover is an iconic port town and has been a target for anti-immigration activity, it has separate perennial problems within the local community and economy. It’s these problems that Little jumps to, when I ask him about the challenges the MP for Dover and Deal will face come May 2015.
“What we’ve been in the last 30 years, as a community, is absolutely battered. There used to be three coal mines here. In the 1980s, those coal mines closed. Dover and Deal were both garrison towns, and in the last 20 years they’ve lost three barracks. We’ve got the East Kent Health Trust which is in special measures, we’ve got a few schools recently closed, we’ve got other schools that are in special measures. What we’ve got now is a situation where we’ve got a growing population, but we’ve fewer and fewer well paid jobs to go round. In every way, we’re totally neglected down here.”
“We’re 70 miles from London, we’re an hour from London on the train, but it seems like a million miles away. Dover and Deal is part of what is perceived as the wealthy South of England. But we have some of the most deprived areas, not just in Kent, but in the whole of the country. People need someone to blame, and quite frankly, they blame politicians.”
Politicians from the major parties face an obstacle on the doorstep that UKIP campaigners don’t: a track record. “We currently have no representation at any level at all in Dover and Deal. We don’t have so much as a Parish Councillor. So we’re starting with a clean sheet of paper”, observes Little.
So, how are UKIP capitalising on this? “We’ve got a group of people that are incredibly enthusiastic, that are committed to the cause, that are out canvassing and campaigning with me. We’re just a bunch of ordinary local people, and we feel that we reflect how the local electorate is feeling at the moment — which as I say is disaffection and disenchantment, and a disconnect”
Having no track record is an advantage in this sense – but it also equates to an absence of governing experience. Little has plans, though, for specific solutions after the election, which tap into the ‘common sense’ attitude at the heart of UKIP’s rhetoric. One of the perennial Dover problems is Operation Stack – the measures taken to ease congestion in the case of blockages at the port, for example due to bad weather conditions.
“Dover is the busiest passenger port in the UK: 15 million people use it every year. And because of where it is, it becomes a bottleneck. Recently, the queues went up as far as Maidstone. It was backed up for two, three days — and as you can imagine, this has a huge impact on the local community, and the local economy. This has been going on for twenty years. And nothing has been done.”
“I have a solution to this problem. Last year, a tax was imposed on foreign lorries using the ports. That’s estimated in the last year to raise £24 million. That’s going directly to the Treasury, as things stand. What I’m campaigning for at the moment is for all of that money which is collected in the port, to be spent in the port. £24 million to the Treasury is peanuts; £24 million to Dover and Deal is an absolute fortune. I don’t see anyone else campaigning for that. We could start to put that towards different traffic plans, to creating new lorry parks to divert them off the motorway, to fill in potholes, to regenerate the town.”
But previous local governments and groups have had no shortage of plans to solve some of the problems Dover and Deal faces. Indeed, on February 3rd Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, speaking in Parliament, proposed using that same levy to improve Operation Stack. A major part of the problem to date has been achieving consensus and implementation.
In the past the Local Council, the District Council and the Westminster seat have often been controlled by different parties. As Little remarked earlier, there is no current UKIP representation on these other bodies. Any party is unlikely to get a clean sweep come May. So, I put the following question to him: why would UKIP be able to achieve consensus when other parties have struggled to do so in the past, especially when UKIP’s message is perceived by some as divisive?
Little agrees that coordination has been a big issue in the past – “Apart from the Local and District Councils, the third iron in the fire is Dover Harbour Board, which in theory is apolitical but in the past has not seen eye to eye with the Local or the District Council. So what we have had is three different factions pulling in different directions, all believing themselves to be right. On top of that, there’s Kent County Council. And it’s the electorate that suffer.”
But, he disputes the idea that UKIP are a divisive party. “What’s happened now — and this doesn’t just happen in politics, it happens in all walks of life – is that if you had a pub, if your pub was losing trade and my pub came in next door and was being very successful, you would become resentful.”
“There is nothing divisive about UKIP at all. The key word in UKIP is Independence. We believe that party politics should be put aside for the best of the community. I’m a local man. I’ve lived here all my life. First and foremost I’m a local resident. I went to school here, my children went to school here, my mum and dad went to school here. I own a business here. First and foremost I’m a local person, who wants the best for my local community. I don’t see any evidence that that applies to the other parties.”
The evidence that this applies to other parties is, I countered, that many other local candidates, past and present, have been local residents with strong roots in the area and seemingly good intentions. It’s transforming those intentions into actual outcomes which is the challenge of government. But Little is reluctant to discuss other parties and candidates – he prefers to focus on his own message, and on the specifics of what UKIP offers.
“There are three types of people. There are people that are very strongly for us, there are people that are against us, and a lot of people who haven’t made their minds up yet. Now the people who haven’t decided, we will speak to them again. The people that are against us, they have every right to be against us, in the same way that different people have a right to be against the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems. But as far as I’m concerned, we won’t try to change the mind of anybody that’s against us.”
The public’s view of UKIP is certainly divided – even if Little’s message is, as he says, not a divisive one. This is partly due to disagreement in the media and in the minds of the public over the line between objecting to immigration and expounding xenophobia. Divisions between the party line and the views of some UKIP supporters are also relevant here. Chris Price, former chairman of UKIP’s Dover and Deal Branch, is quoted in a local newspaper as saying:
“To be fair, 75 per cent of the people I meet who intend to vote UKIP are just normal people…But when I saw the comments on Facebook it was quite clear there was another element there….I felt uncomfortable with that. I’m not an extremist…But in Deal High Street people were calling me a fascist and a racist.”
Speaking to Little about this side of UKIP’s image provokes a strong response.
“At the moment, we have 615 Parliamentary candidates, and between 8000 and 9000 local candidates. So, we have around 10,000 candidates standing across the UK. To the best of my knowledge, we’ve had to sack three of them. By anybody’s standards, that’s a tiny proportion. But now, if anyone brings the party into disrepute, they are dealt with in the strongest ways possible — disciplined, ejected from the party. The other parties, they all have candidates in prison – look at Chris Huhne and Dennis MacShane”.
“My conscience is absolutely clear. One or two people from UKIP have said unfortunate things. They have been dealt with. But I will not take any lessons in morality from parties that have got MPs in jail for theft. Let’s be clear on this. MPs were not ‘fiddling expenses’ — they were stealing from taxpayers. We are by and large ordinary local people who want the best for their communities. Yes, we have the odd nutter. But other parties have people in jail. I won’t have people in glass houses throwing stones”.
As a candidate, Little is clear on what he thinks the constituency of Dover and Deal needs: “what the area needs is regeneration. There are areas where pit sites have been neglected, where really visible development sites stand barren and neglected.” Asking him which national issues he would prioritise were he to become a UKIP MP in Westminster, the response is not necessarily what would be expected from a UKIP candidate; but it is classically populist.
“The police. The primary goal of government is to protect its citizens. Crime has gone up in the local area by 62%. In the last 4 years, Kent County Constabulary has lost 500 officers and 700 staff. Deal police station is open for 2hrs 3 days a week. 6hrs a week. The street lights now go out at night. We think that signals some seriously wrong priorities.”
UKIP’s messages are, at a local level in Dover and Deal, simple and plainly presented. Little believes that his brand of politics is working there, across the political spectrum. “We have houses on the cliff tops for £2 million. Only miles from there, we’ve got ex mining villages which are traditionally Labour, where we are getting enormous support. It’s a very wide and varied constituency. And we’re making huge inroads across demographics.”
With a choice between troubled track records and no track record at all, style and loyalty clearly matter in Dover and Deal for parties and candidates alike. We’re already seeing clashes between UKIP’s David Little, the Conservative candidate Charlie Elphicke, and Labour candidate Clair Hawkins already play out in the local press and on Twitter (see here, here and here for a fair partisan spread of Tweet-fighting). The bookies are currently backing the Conservatives for this seat; but Dover is clearly still a close contest — and one in which UKIP is now a major factor.