There is plenty of national out-cry against the rise in support for UKIP. Suzanne Moore in the Guardian recently described Nigel Farage’s policies as “vicious and unworkable”, and at the other end of Fleet Street’s political spectrum, the Telegraph’s James Kirkup referred to “UKIP’s stupid, horrible and misguided views.”
But, however much certain members of society rage about UKIP in general and Nigel Farage in particular, unless they are registered to vote in South Thanet, there ain’t much they can directly do to keep Farage out of Parliament, which, he has said, would mean “it’s curtains” for his leadership.
Hence a small ecosystem of local left-leaning organisations has taken root in South Thanet, aiming both to prevent Nigel Farage becoming an MP and to get Labour’s Will Scobie elected instead. The task is not necessarily as impossible as it might first seem: although the Conservative majority was a healthy 7,617 votes in 2010, the seat was held by Labour from 1997 to 2010 – admittedly with slightly different borders.
At a rally this weekend in the Victorian seaside resort of Ramsgate, an array of different organisations had turned out in support of Scobie. Thanet Trade Union Action had organised the event, and representatives from Hope Not Hate, Thanet Stand Up to UKIP, and the local Cooperative Party had all set up stalls – the local Labour Party, less surprisingly, were also there.
A local cooperatively-run and decidedly left-wing magazine, Thanet Watch, was also being sold.
Hardly brimming with enthusiasm about Labour and Will Scobie, one article in the magazine concludes that voting Labour makes more sense than voting Green: “We have to vote for the candidate best place to beat the Kippers and the Tories – because the sad, angry and misguided will vote this time – and they will probably vote for Farage, the “Poundshop Enoch Powell.” [This was Russell Brand’s description of the UKIP leader ] So that means voting Scobie.”
But if Thanet Watch was lukewarm in its support for Scobie, the speeches were rather more fiery.
Thanet Trade Union Action had got out the “big guns” in support of Will Scobie. Anneliese Dodds, a Labour MEP for the South East Region, brought up the recent allegations that Janice Atkinson, a UKIP MEP and their candidate for nearby Folkestone and Hythe, had misused her expenses in a restaurant in neighbouring Margate – Atkinson has now been expelled from UKIP. “Surprise, surprise, who would have guessed that they’ve misused public money,” Dodds said.
“One of the great myths about UKIP is that they listen,” she continued, adding that UKIP’s MEPs, according to her constituents , “virtually never” get back to them.
Bunny La Roche, a veteran left-wing campaigner, spoke about Thanet Stand Up to UKIP, the cross-party organisation she founded that aims to prevent Nigel Farage getting elected – campaigns so far have included distributing ‘UKIP put me off my beer’ mats to local pubs.
“We’re going to make Ramsgate town centre a UKIP-free zone in the ten days before the election,” La Roche announced, describing plans for there to be street stalls and music.
Tony Burke, the assistant general secretary of UNITE, spoke on the importance of the trade unions in ensuring a high turn-out. “Apathy and disillusionment are the great challenges to our democracy,” he said.
“Let’s be clear, UKIP have no industrial strategies, they have no manufacturing strategies, but they do have underlying racism and a desire to get back to 1957,” he claimed.
“First of all, we’ve got to get the vote out.”
Host of the rally, Karen Constantine agreed with Burke after his speech, adding, “We need to not take for granted where our colleagues’ vote lies.”
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, was the penultimate speaker. “The TUC is not affiliated to any party, so I’ll give you an objective view of the candidates [in South Thanet],” she said.
“Everyone I talk to and everything I read says Will [Scobie] is the local candidate and that he genuinely cares about people in South Thanet.
“Then we’ve got Nigel Farage” – cue hisses from the audience – “tin-pot general of the so-called People’s Army… He’s said if he loses this election, it’s curtains for Nigel” – cue cheers from the audience – “I see that Dreamland [an amusement park] in Margate is advertising for vacancies; perhaps he can get a job there.”
“Not in my ward!” an audience member shouts out.
“I think we should examine Craig MacKinlay [the Conservative candidate],” continued O’Grady. “Craig, of courses, boasts on his website he was a founder member of UKIP, so you’ve got a choice between UKIP and a UKIP reject.”
Moving on from the electoral contest in South Thanet, O’Grady turned her ire against the budget: “Just this week we had the budget… The truth is we’re not all in it together. We get tax cuts for millionaires and benefits cuts.”
“They want to shrink the state and have ordinary working people fend for themselves. The TUC is not going to stand for it.” Cue cheers from the audience.
She finished her speech with a return to the contest in South Thanet: “We’re the real People’s Army, but if we stick together, organise, and campaign, we will win.”
Will Scobie, the final speaker, was greeted with a big cheer as he came on stage. Admitting this was not a seat that many would expect Labour to win, he nonetheless drew attention to the successes of his campaign. “I was selected two years ago – we now have four staff members, three offices, seventy to eighty volunteers at the weekend, a battle bus.”
“Come see the volunteers at the weekend, come see the staff in the offices,” he exhorted the crowd, then with a brief aside to his staff present. “Sorry, guys, it’s only going to get worse.”
“Someone on the doorstep said to me, ‘Isn’t it a pain we have that Mr Farage standing here.’ But it isn’t, it’s an opportunity – we are the ones that get to say no to division.
“UKIP have managed to drag themselves out of the political doldrums… If we cut the head off the snake here, UKIP will go back to the doldrums. We will make history.”
Referring to the polls of South Thanet by Lord Ashcroft in which Labour have, at times, seemed capable of winning the seat, Scobie proclaimed to the audience, “I say to you now, it is not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ we catch up with Farage.”
Speaking to Scobie after the rally, I asked him whether he’d considered a formal pact with the local Greens and Liberal Democrats, who command about 7% of the vote between them. After all, former Lib Dem Lord Oakeshot recently gave Scobie’s campaign £10,000 and called for an alliance between Labour, Lib Dems, and Greens in marginal Conservative seats.
“That would go down badly,” he says. “People are smart enough to know that if you vote Green and UKIP win by one vote [then it’s sort of your fault]… The Greens and Lib Dems are more lending us their votes than their activists.”
Scobie claims, too, that certain Conservative voters are considering lending their support to Labour: “I meet Tory-voters on the doorstep – one-nation Tories – who don’t like the fact that their candidate is basically a UKIP candidate. Some of them are lending us their vote, some of them are just staying at home.”
The prominence of trade unions at the rally was in rather marked contrast to the news that broke the same morning that Labour had received nearly £600,000 from a hedge-fund manager, Martin Taylor. What did Scobie make of this? “The important thing is not being dependent on one source of funding… The Tories are financed 100% lock, stock, and barrel by wealthy individuals.”
I had far from expected that such a combative Labour and left-wing movement would exist in the seat where Nigel Farage is standing – another striking thing about Ramsgate is that it is not actually very easy to find anyone who would voice their support for UKIP. Most of the people I spoke to were either undecided or uninterested in politics. One woman commented that Farage “receives a bad press, doesn’t he?” but was not keen to be drawn on the matter.
One shopkeeper’s comments may, however, go some way to explaining this: “Half the people in Ramsgate are from London and it’s no secret that UKIP won’t appeal to them. Their target is the people who were born and bred in Thanet.”
UKIP certainly have a strong enough presence in the town to staff an office – not one, unfortunately, that was open when I was in town. But for myself, and other interested folk, they had at least put up some posters explaining what exactly UKIP wants for Thanet, whether people are backing UKIP, and answers to some frequently asked questions: