The opening speech at this year’s Ukip conference culminated in a cry: “We’re looking for a referendum on Europe. Now!” No huge policy surprises there, then, but it seemed to please the crowd, who met the announcement with raucous applause.
This was different to previous conferences, though. “A lot of interest this year,” the steward had said proudly as he led me to my seat. He was right—unlike previous years, the place was filled with journalists and camera crews. It’s the first time in five years that their conference has been held in London, and it was held in Westminster Central Hall, on Parliament Square, as if presenting a challenge to the politicians currently residing in the building opposite.
Since earlier this year, Ukip has pushed ahead in the polls to become Britain’s third most popular party. Throughout the morning there were efforts to stress that, despite its reputation for conservatism and traditionalism, this is the party of the future. “We’re forward thinking, we’re modern,” declared deputy leader Paul Nuttall. A Ukip billboard van parked outside the building even referred to the three “old” parties—not the “other” ones, but the “old” ones.
They seem to have overtaken the Liberal Democrats already, and the risk they pose to the Conservatives is well known, so they turned their attention to the Labour Party. “Labour voters are easy pickings for Ukip,” claimed Nuttall, with the party having caused Labour some discomfort in recent years by finishing second in by-elections in Barnsley, Middlesbrough and most recently South Shields—Labour strongholds. “It’s clear that Ukip is the major competition, the only competition, to Labour in the north,” he said. Labour no longer represents the interests of the working classes, he claimed, and Ukip is the answer—“it’s the working classes who are most affected by mass immigration.”
There were efforts to show that this party is not Europe-hating, but EU-hating. European politicians took to the stage—speakers from eurosceptic parties in Finland and Bulgaria, who often appear at Ukip conferences. One supporter turned up in a Ukip branded jumper bearing the slogan: “Love Europe, Hate The EU.” Without specifically mentioning the latest allegations of xenophobia to haunt the party—Godfrey Bloom’s infamous “Bongo Bongo land” remark and the concerns of Nigel Farage’s school teachers—there was an obvious attempt to combat them. The phrase “we are against racism and extremism” was a leitmotif of the morning.
And there were some…