John Harris

Journalist & Author

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Half a million Britons using food banks. What kind of country is this becoming? | John Harris

Friday, May 31st, 2013

Let’s not mess about: a skyrocketing number of people simply cannot afford to eat, thanks to deliberate government policy

Let no one say we didn’t see it coming. Half a million people are now accustomed to using food banks, and according to a report by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty, the UK is now facing “destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale”. Whether this news will achieve the impact it deserves is currently unclear: it doesn’t quite feel like it, which only underlines how inured the media seems to have become to rising poverty, and how easily the government seems to be getting off the hook. Yet the facts are obvious enough: “Food aid” is something firmly built into our national life, the supposed safety net of social security is getting more threadbare by the month – and the question demands to be asked, not for reasons of melodrama, but hard political fact: what kind of country is Britain becoming?

According the Trussell Trust, the UK’s single biggest organiser of food banks, in 2011-12, the number of people who received at least three days’ emergency food was around 130,000. Their own informational material says that in 2012-13, “food banks fed 346,992 people nationwide”, and of those who received help, “126,889 were children”. Now comes this latest report, and the skyrocketing numbers speak for themselves – as does the mess of factors behind them, and the responsibility of the coalition for pushing up the demand – no, need – for food banks so drastically. While we’re here, it may also be worth cutting through the kind of officialspeak used to deal with such things: even the term “food bank” occasionally seems designed to obscure what’s actually afoot, which is simple enough. So, let’s not mess about: a skyrocketing number of people simply cannot afford to eat, and they have been put in that predicament thanks to deliberate government policy.

We are now starting to see the consequences of George Osborne’s move on so-called “welfare uprating”, whereby increases in benefits are to be held at 1%, irrespective of inflation (over the last five years, incidentally, the cost of basic foods has risen by 35%). Changes to disability benefits are set to cut the income of about 600,000 people. A new council tax benefit regime has snatched money from vulnerable people’s pockets, and the infamous bedroom tax has done its work. In all these cases, the people affected are hit by a straightforward enough problem. If your income comes down, your fixed costs – rent, most utility bills, the cost of a phone, or running a car – stay exactly where they are, and two budgets tend to be cut back.

The first is heating. The second, always, is food. By way of highlighting that straightforward fact, I’ll quote from a mother of four I met earlier this year, in Hartlepool, who was facing a cut of at least £16 – and as much as £28 – a week in her family’s housing benefit: “We can’t cut it from fuel, or electricity, or petrol. So when you lay that budget out over a month, with your council tax and water, and all your bills, there’s nowhere else it can come from: the only place we can cut from is our food budget. And we’re already having the cheapest food you can buy.”

There is another factor in all this, which does not get nearly enough coverage, and which plays a huge role in the rising need for food banks. For some time, it has become increasingly clear that rising numbers of people who need social security are being “sanctioned”: having their benefits suddenly cut, or taken away altogether, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Whistleblowers working in job centres have spoken of a “culture change” and the imposition of targets for the numbers of people to be sanctioned, irrespective of the details of their cases. Again, a quote from a cob centre staffer on the frontline speaks volumes: “Most staff go in to work and they’re thinking about it from moment one – who am I going to stop [ie sanction] this week?” Note also that job centre staff are now referring people to food banks, as are councils and housing associations.

At the same time, one other chronically overlooked issue further drives people’s need for emergency food. A couple of months ago, I spoke to a senior manager at a food bank, who talked at length about modern labour markets, and how the rising number of temporary and insecure jobs – witness the rise of the infamous “zero hours” contract – tends to put people who need emergency food in a grim loop. In, say, January, they may turn up in dire need, take their parcel and go away. Weeks later, they’ll apparently find work. But by March or April they’ll be back – freshly laid off, hit by a delay in their benefit payments and hungry.

“The explosion in food poverty and the use of food banks is a national disgrace,” says this latest report. It is. So too is the spectacle of silver-spooned politicians taking refuge in the language of “scroungers” and “welfare crackdowns”; and, for that matter, ministers demanding further cuts to social security so as to shore up defence spending. Enough, too, of those caricatured claims that hacking away at the benefits system will involve the sacrifice of nothing more than fags and flat-screen TVs, and the idea that hunger is something that happens only to the poor and unfortunate overseas. It’s now here: outside everyone’s door, gnawing away, ruining lives. Oh, and one other thing: research from the US suggests that the very “food uncertainty” the food bank phenomenon embodies may be a particularly insidious part of the obesity crisis – something you won’t hear from any minister, but worth pointing out.

We are at a fork in the road here. One way lies a collective recognition that British society has tumbled somewhere hitherto unimaginable, and it is time to renew our social contract; in the other direction there lie outcomes that, at this rate, may sooner or later explode into social disorder. By all means let’s start a conversation about the billions of pounds in housing benefit payments thrown at private landlords, the abject waste of money that is the work programme, and more. But enough of the relentless hacking-back of money used for people’s most basic needs. As even the most knuckle-headed members of this wretched government now know, that way lies a world many of us thought we had left behind many, many decades ago.

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OK, this mug’s got my name on it – but that doesn’t mean Starbucks cares | John Harris

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

From coffee shops to airlines, the trend to ‘personalise’ products only serves to underline how impersonal services have become

‘A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking,” said Andy Warhol. “All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.”

Such was the capitalism that was embodied not just by Coca-Cola, but the Ford Motor Company – and named, towards the end of its dominance, “Fordism”. Now, though, we are said to like our transactions personalised and touchy feely. Ergo a summer-long promotion titled “Share a Coke”, whereby the usual logo has been replaced by 150 first names – from Aaron to Zoe, via Faisal, Josh, Lauren and Saima. That all this rather cuts across the imperious yet egalitarian brand that Warhol so loved does not seem to have occurred to anyone; nor, apparently, has the whole idea’s air of awful tweeness (while writing this, I bought my obligatory “John” bottle from Marks & Spencer, and remained unmoved).

At Starbucks, meanwhile, they now insist that your hot caffeine also comes emblazoned with your name – written on a sticker, to be hollered by a barista. This scheme arrived in early 2012, in a similar flurry of faux-enlightened PR: “Have you noticed how everything seems a little impersonal nowadays?” ran the promotional text.

Unlike the Coke wheeze, though, it was also a see-through attempt at damage limitation: six months later, the company’s byzantine tax arrangements would be under intense scrutiny. But in the ordinary world, Starbucks was already becoming a byword for sloppiness and mess, not to mention coffee that tastes like the hot milk my nan used to make me circa 1973. As a former ‘Bucks addict, my own epiphany came in their branch in Birmingham’s Bullring Centre, where the tables were piled high with dirty cups and plates, only two staff seemed to be on duty – and if the place had been an independent business, you would have taken one look and assumed it was rightly headed for the knacker’s yard.

Yet Starbucks is still here, making handsome worldwide profits. Yes, after a major reputational wobble, it has nobly offered to throw £20m over two years at Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. Hosanna! They now shout your name when they hand you your cup of warm milk and a plywood panini. But going to any of its outlets remains a dependably joyless experience, suggestive of something remarkable: the company is not so much too big to fail, as too big to really care. Once enough competitors are out of the way, it seems, modern branding can work magic: providing you avoid killing anyone, that enough people will carry on trudging through your doors, whatever happens

My own recent experience of sclerotic, unresponsive, mind-bogglingly awful treatment runs from Virgin Media (hours waiting on “helplines”, which reached an acme of annoyance when I was offered a choice of what music would be played down the phone – by genre), through the train giant First Great Western (frequently late, insane ticket prices) and on to such behemoths as McDonald’s (vast queues) and PC World (don’t get me started). When it comes to the ubiquitous Amazon, there are once again lines to be drawn from its tax arrangements, through standards of service – I have long given up on its “next day” delivery option – to its predatory behaviour, last seen when it hiked up its fees to independent “marketplace” sellers by up to 70%.

Running through a lot of this, I would imagine, is much the same business model: workforces hacked down to the bare minimum and poorly paid, the apparent belief that if you track your customer’s buys via data accumulation and give them what you think they want, more quaint ideas of customer service can be dumped, fast.

To all this, there is an obvious enough response: hasn’t a mixture of flimsy “personalisation” and arrogant business–as-usual always been the capitalist way? Perhaps. But somewhere between the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and the fall of Lehman Brothers, there were at least fleeting signs of an embrace of half-decent customer service – as proved by plenty of businesses, not least the big British supermarkets.

Bear with me, please. Though I cannot quite date them, I have clear memories of visiting Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s, and realising that though they were strangling independent competitors, squeezing producers and offering an illusion of choice under which lay a remarkably Fordist way of operating, their customer service was actually very good. You may recall the dedicated bag-packers, or the staff’s breezy openness to being sent to scour the aisles when you reached the checkout and realised you’d forgotten the broccoli .

More often than not, my own supermarket shopping now ends with an exasperated glimpse of gridlocked checkouts, and the usual trudge through the self-service terminals sometimes known as “the fast lane”: a con trick that would have caused Marx and Engels to hoot with mirth, whereby the customer now doubles as the worker. I contacted Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco to ask how many were now in operation, and what the increasing dominance of fast lanes meant. Their replies were uniformly evasive, and the one from Tesco was particularly grim: “We believe in giving our customers choice. Over a third of shoppers choose to use self-service tills, not least because they find them quicker and more convenient. For customers who need assistance, there is always a member of staff on hand.” Somewhere in those words is the same arrogance you can taste in your average grande skinny cappuccino and granola bar.

There is, then, a new model of business, which rather puts me in mind of words uttered not by Andy Warhol but the market traders of the West Midlands. “Never make a mug of your punter,” they used to say. But that is what modern business does. And strangest of all, contrary to all that stuff about consumer sovereignty, it seems to be not just getting away with it, but prospering.

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Ukip: the battle for Britain

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

They worship Churchill, Thatcher and the right to smoke, they hate gay marriage and Europe: is Ukip the lunatic fringe or the shape of things to come? We meet Britain’s newest political tribe

Susan McCaffery lives in Billericay, in Essex. She’s 72 and, thanks to the UK Independence Party, a member of the local town council. It’s a hot Wednesday afternoon and she is talking to me in her sitting room, where there’s an organ in one corner and a few piles of bumf from the Pentecostal church of which she’s an enthusiastic member.

Until 2007, she was also the minutes secretary of Basildon Conservative Association. “But I was just so unimpressed with their discussions, with the lack of initiative,” she says. “There was no desire to go forward. No vision. In the end, I thought, I can’t stand this any longer.

“People want, in a sense, to revert back to how we were,” she says. “You know: we won the second world war, only we’ve lost it now, because Germany’s taken over… But we had people then, ready to stand up like Churchill and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ A lot of people in this country are saying, ‘Where are the leaders? Where are the people prepared to take a stand?’ ”

As well as the awfulness of modern politicians, immigration, the amount of money Britain pays into the EU, the alleged failings of multiculturalism, the need drastically to cut the UK’s foreign aid budget and the dazzling brilliance of the late Margaret Thatcher, Ukip members mention the second world war a lot. But McCaffery’s take on 1939-45 is that bit more interesting. Unprompted, she explains her support of the theory that Britain eventually saw off the Germans thanks to the power of prayer. “The soldiers at Dunkirk were able to come back on a calm sea, whereas the German aircraft couldn’t take off from their places because the weather was so bad… There were all sorts of changes that happened, and part of it was a result of people praying and asking God for help.”

She’s sitting on a small sofa. To her right is James Moyies, Ukip’s eastern counties regional chairman, an urbane Scot with a background in Conservative politics, who’s also the director of a ”field marketing” firm. On her left is 21-year-old Carl Whitwell, who splits his time between working for a secondhand electrical goods outlet in Southend and assisting with Ukip’s youth wing (his Twitter feed features the slogan “My only faith is common sense”). Neither looks very comfortable with the conversation, but McCaffery gamely carries on. Ukip members, she says, may not all be Christians, but the party has “a Christian ethos” and a constitution that “goes alongside what the Ten Commandments would say”.

A good example, she says, is the party’s opposition to gay marriage. “There’s lots of Christians standing against that because it’s not right,” she says. “How can you have two people of the same sex and call them married?” She lets out a sarcastic guffaw.

Britain, she says, should be a Christian country, like it used to be. Should it be a country with other faiths as well? “Well, it is, isn’t it? But, you see, other faiths bring with them different… spirits. And that’s the problem. God loves all people: he loves Muslims, he loves Hindus, he loves Sikhs and so on. But it’s the spirit that humans are not particularly aware of that causes some of these extreme Muslims to get bomb equipment” – there’s a brief detour into the recent case of six Islamist fanatics, jailed for plotting an attack on the English Defence League – “and they send hate messages about the Queen and David Cameron. That’s a different spirit to the spirit that we’re used to. Because it’s not a Christian spirit.”

Looking ahead, what does she think of Ukip’s prospects? Intentionally or not, she uses biblical language. “Oh, you can’t stop it. It’s a flood.”

Perhaps it is. Less than 48 hours after I leave Billericay, Ukip will win nine county council seats in Essex and 147 across England. Its national share of the vote will come in at 23%, only two points behind the Conservatives and nine ahead of the Lib Dems. The face of the party’s leader, Nigel Farage – always locked in some expression of extreme merriment and usually inches from a pint of bitter – will once again be staring from all the newspapers. The following week, the government will emphasise measures in the Queen’s speech aimed at tackling immigrants’ access to benefits, medical treatment and housing. And the Conservative party will be in a state of tortured angst, with at least one MP proposing a Tory-Ukip pact and dozens of others wondering if they should now advocate not just one referendum on the EU, but two. For a day or two, in fact, it will feel a bit as if Farage is getting close to running the country.

Out in the real world, meanwhile, Britain’s newest political tribe carries on growing. Ukip, founded in 1993, currently claims a membership of around 26,000, and its spokespeople say that around 1,000 new people are joining every month, many from the Conservative party. As things stand, its key heartland lies in the east of England, a part of the country that has attracted relatively large numbers of migrants from eastern Europe. Ukip’s home turf stretches from Kent, through Essex, up to Norfolk and across to Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire; in the latter county, the party is now the official opposition.

Encouraged not just by local election results, but also by its habitual second place in recent parliamentary byelections, the party is in ebullient mood, believing it can top the poll in the European elections of 2014. Even if it is squeezed at the 2015 general election, it has hopes of getting its first properly elected MPs. To some, even though its self-authored Google listing brands it as a “libertarian, non-racist party”, it will always give off the whiff of a kind of rightwing politics that often blurs into the lunatic fringe. To its supporters and members, though, it represents an exciting revolt against the metropolitan consensus: not so much a breath of fresh air as a sharp gust of that very British booze-and-fags smell that once wafted from our pubs.

In the Essex town of Wickford, I meet two more UK activists: Paul Downes (64) and Nigel Le Gresley (62), who are having a coffee in the local Co-op supermarket. Until February this year, Downes – a former estate agent – was a Conservative activist, but he had long felt his loyalty dwindling, thanks partly to David Cameron and George Osborne’s silver-spooned backgrounds. Le Gresley, whose last job was with BT, says he has voted for the Liberals, Conservatives and even New Labour, but now thinks the political class has floated into its own orbit. “You need to have people who’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt,” he says. “The lot we’ve got now haven’t been there or done anything. And they haven’t got the T-shirt.”

There is talk of “the British way of life”. As Downes sees it, “A lot of people of our generation – the grey pound, sort of thing – really feel, why has our culture become unimportant?” There is also unease about same-sex marriage. “The problem is, you’re going to put churches in a position where it won’t be long before someone will go to the European court and say they’re being discriminated against,” he says. “So it opens up a whole hornet’s nest.”

The two also talk, at some length, about the EU – once again with the seemingly obligatory references to Hitler and Churchill. “My father fought in the second world war, as millions of people from this country did,” Downes says. “We fought to free Europe from tyranny. And we’re now in a position where we’re almost being… controlled by a communist regime, in my view, where the EU controls everything.”

“It may not necessarily be communist, but it’s authoritarian,” Le Gresley offers. “It’s no longer non-democratic: it’s anti-democratic.”

For some of the Ukip tribe, the need for Britain to leave the EU still pushes all other issues to one side. For others, it takes its place in a mess of grievances shared by many British people. Some of these issues – immigration, wind farms, even the smoking ban – are reflected in Ukip policy. Some aren’t: there is an obvious tension between, say, Ukip members’ and voters’ complaints about the low end of the job market, and the party’s avowed belief in free-market economics. But for the time being, such tensions come down to matters of mere nuance: Ukip is now the party for a lot of people who have simply lost patience with politics and, as such, its supporters can apparently project on to it anything they like.

Keith Gibbs, 65, joined in 2012. He’s an ex-policeman and another disciple of Margaret Thatcher. “She looked after the armed forces and the police, and I’m all for that,” he tells me, nursing a lunchtime pint in a pub garden in nearby Rayleigh. “I mean, we’re becoming a third world country really, the way we’re going.”

How? “Our military’s going down and down, and you’re going to get to a stage where we won’t be able to defend ourselves.”

Throughout this conversation, Whitwell from Ukip’s youth wing maintains a slightly irritating presence, perching on the edge of the table and trying to put a PR gloss on what Gibbs says. “If that happens,” he says, to no one in particular, “we’ll have to rely on the European Union.”

We move on to immigration. “There’s lots and lots of people coming here, and they’re just coming for the benefits,” Gibbs says. “Take something like that woman who came here: she’s got four kids already, she’s expecting twins, and that cost the government – us, taxpayers, the NHS – £200,000, to treat her to have twins.”

“We don’t blame the people for doing it,” Whitwell says.

“You can’t blame them,” Gibbs adds. “It’s the bloody system.”

Once home, I spend time trying to find anything online that corresponds to Gibbs’ tale about the woman with four kids and twins on the way, but find nothing. The same goes for his claims about what he has seen at a major public-sector employer in Southend.

“I used to watch people come in, to the pay desk,” he says. “Every Friday, they used to come in, and sign, and get a brown envelope. I had a look one day. There was a big list, five pages long – people who just used to come in and get paid money.” A pause, for effect. “All immigrants.”

Next, I am introduced to 52-year-old Jamie Huntman, a native of Barking who owns a timber business near Thundersley, a few miles south of Rayleigh. His pride and joy is a prefab dog-grooming parlour that he has put up on one side of his yard and handed over to a local woman who now turns a £1,000-a-week profit. Neatly dressed in a shirt, tie and green-brown slacks, Huntman explains his long fight over this new venture with Essex county council’s planning department, which seems to have nudged him in Ukip’s direction.

As with so many Ukip members, he pines for the days when politicians had tasted at least a flavour of lives like his. “They go straight from Eton into Oxbridge and into Westminster,” he says. “I’ve always been of the opinion that you never judge a man until you walk a mile in his moccasins. But what do they know about standing in my yard, serving wood or grooming a dog?”

A few days ago, I remind him, the somewhat notorious Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom appeared on 5 Live, reiterating his previous claim that employers could not be blamed for not wanting to give jobs to women who might then get pregnant. What did he make of that?

“He’s a very entertaining man. I always watch his clips on YouTube. He makes his point; he overstates his point sometimes. But the fact is… the hardest job a small business has is finding staff. And remember: if someone comes to us and then gets pregnant – if they’re off work for quite a number of months, it’s very difficult to survive. It’s just pounds, shillings and pence, really.

“It’s very difficult running a small business,” he says. “There was something in what he said. Maybe the way he said it was… Well, who am I to say? He’s an MEP and I’m just a man in Thundersley.”

Two days later, Huntman is a little bit more than that. Alongside Keith Gibbs, Nigel Le Gresley and six others, he is a freshly-elected Ukip county councillor and the party’s deputy leader in Essex, having beaten a sitting Tory called Bill Dick. When I speak to him on the phone, he sounds amazed. “I’ve got to admit I was shocked,” he says. “Though not as shocked as the Tory, who seemed to go very pale. My feet haven’t touched the ground.” As far as national politics is concerned, he sounds equally surprised. Ukip, he says, “seems to be steering the Tory agenda at the moment. They can’t say anything without mentioning one of our policies. It’s a force for good, I think.”

“It all started in Huntingdonshire,” Farage said recently. He was referring to the miracles worked by his party in the small Fenland town of Ramsey. It’s now the party’s key eastern redoubt, as proved by the sign that greets you as you enter the place: a huge board on a patch of grass that carries two messages: “Let’s put Britain first for once” and “Thank you” – a reference to the avalanche of votes that came Ukip’s way on 2 May. Since 2011, Ukip has run the town council here, with nine out of 17 councillors – and as things stand, it remains the only elected authority the party controls.

For the past six years, Ramsey has been the home of Lisa Duffy and her partner Peter Reeve, who moved here from Manchester and have been Ukip members since 2004. She is the mayor of Ramsey and Ukip’s national campaign director. He sits on the town council, the local district council and Cambridgeshire county council: on 2 May, he scored 67% of the local vote, the highest share managed by any Ukip candidate. As well as working full-time for a Ukip MEP, he serves as Ukip’s national nominating officer, the person ultimately responsible for signing off its candidates for elected office; his mother, Shirley, is one of Ramsey’s Ukip town councillors. Among Duffy and Reeve’s six children is Jazmine, 13, who has already spoken at Ukip events: her mother says proudly that she recently gave Farage six years’ notice, suggesting she wanted to be the leader before she turned 20.

Reeve, 36, is an animated, engaging presence, dressed in a suit, waistcoat and yellow and purple Ukip tie. He comes from a farming family in Norfolk; he says his father would always put up Conservative hoardings at election time, until the fall of Margaret Thatcher. “That hurt my family, absolutely,” he says. “They said they wouldn’t help the Tories any more.” His basic politics, he explains, is “libertarian”. He goes on: “If you’re asking me rather than the party, I think all taxation is immoral… I genuinely believe that if there’s a real need for people to give money, then people will give it if they’re not forced to.”

This takes me aback. He really thinks that an entirely voluntary system could fund, say, schools, hospitals, the police and the roads? “If people needed roads and there wasn’t this comfort blanket of the state providing everything, they’d be built.” What about the NHS? “I’m probably straying too far off policy now. But people would donate to make sure people were fit and healthy.”

I came to Ramsey a couple of months ago and spoke to local people about Ukip’s success: I half-expected to find a boiling hotbed of anger about immigration and Brussels bureaucrats, but instead found a sleepy, apparently almost apolitical place, where people’s biggest moan was the dire effect a big Tesco has had on local shops. On the high street named the Great Whyte, where most of the shops shut at 3pm and human traffic is usually no more than a trickle, people tended to put the party’s rise down to the hard work put in by its activists, and Reeve in particular.

He is renowned for coming into town every morning and evening to open and shut the public toilets, which now feature signs displaying his mobile number. Before Ukip won control of the town council, Duffy says, he would “clear up dog muck, do litter-picks and clear out the cemetery – if someone had a problem, they could turn to him”. Among his most frequent phone calls, she says, are those from people who have locked themselves in the loo.

I speak to both Duffy and Reeve outside a local cafe with the worryingly European name the Rendezvous. Immigration, Duffy agrees, is much more of an issue up the road in Peterborough, though in Ramsey “it’s getting stronger. There are more people talking about it now than when we moved here. Class sizes are going up. They’re seeing more immigrants come into the town. But it’s not on the same level as, say, Peterborough or Corby. When someone says to me, ‘There’s three immigrants in our class’ and they’re worried that their child might be kept back because they’ve got to have extra support to help them speak English, I’m just like, ‘You’re actually quite lucky that there’s only three.’” Does she know, say, any Polish people? “One or two. But purely because they’re in the same class as our children.”

Duffy – who’s 44 and used to be a store manager for TK Maxx – has been in charge of Ukip’s campaigning in all those recent parliamentary byelections, where it has sounded its customary loud notes about the supposed multitudes soon to arrive from Romania and Bulgaria. Given that in some places there are real tensions around immigration, not to mention outbreaks of violence, does she ever worry that Ukip’s campaigning might make things worse?

“I think it’s how you put that message across,” she says. “It’s about talking to people, showing them what the effects are, how it’s having an effect on the benefits system, on the housing system: talking through real-life situations. Saying, ‘It’s not the people – it’s the open-door, mass immigration policy the country has got. That’s what’s got to change.’ ”

In Eastleigh, where the campaign Duffy commanded led to Ukip beating the Tories to second place, its electioneering included one leaflet claiming: “Next year, the EU will allow 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK.” The number was derived by simply adding together the two countries’ populations. Which is alarmist, to say the least, isn’t it?

“It’s not a lie,” she says.

But the implication is that a lot of those 29 million people will soon arrive. And that’s not going to happen.

“We were very clear in that leaflet that the projected numbers are currently sitting at around 4 million,” she says. “That was based on the research that Paul Nuttall [MEP and Ukip deputy leader] did when he went over to Romania.”

Back at home, I’m reminded that official figures have estimated initial numbers at around 13,000, though government ministers have expressed doubts about that number. The famously hardline pressure group Migration Watch reckons that numbers of new arrivals from both countries will be in the region of 250,000 over five years. Back in Ramsey, I ask the same question again: isn’t Ukip needlessly scaring people?

“It does scare people. But not unnecessarily. It’s just being honest.”

But 29 million is its headline figure. And if you didn’t know any better, you’d look at that leaflet and think that many people were about to arrive.

“Yeah,” Duffy says. “But the whole point is, you grab the attention with the headline and then hope people will read the article underneath and find out more about it.”

One or two Ukip candidates in the local elections were accused of very rum doings, and some were dropped. One woman was suspended after online posts were discovered blaming the second world war on “the Zionist” (she claimed her account was hacked); another had saluted Russia for banning gay pride marches and offered the opinion that homosexuality could be kept at bay via vigorous exercise. Another was alleged to have been pictured giving a Nazi salute, though the Ukip leadership accepted his claim that he was actually trying to stop his girlfriend taking a photograph of him “imitating a pot plant“.

Given Reeve’s job as the national nominating officer, he must have had an interesting time. “We were expecting a significant amount of risk from fielding a lot of candidates,” he says. “We didn’t have the capacity to vet every candidate at council level… We had to take people at face value, and we let the local branches vet them as much as they had the capacity to do it.” The selection procedures for next year’s European elections, he says, are much more rigorous – and as far as the past histories of members are concerned, the BNP and the English Defence League are both proscribed organisations.

So how often has he had to throw out people’s membership applications? “Oh jeez,” he says. “All the time. There have been some really sad cases of kids, 19 or 20 years old – a couple of years ago, they joined the BNP, and when they went to a meeting they were all racist nutters, and they left. I’ve had numerous conversations with these kids and said, ‘Look – as much as we would defend your right to join a nutty organisation, you will have to take responsibility for that.’ ”

At the general election of 2015, Duffy thinks Ukip’s share of the vote will be higher than the Lib Dems’. “Realistically, wouldn’t it be nice to get between 10 and 15 MPs elected?” she says. And in terms of the big forces of history, she knows why she and her comrades put all the effort in. “Why did my grandad go to war?” she wonders. “What did he fight for?” From there she’s off, into familiar themes: how much money we give to the EU, Britain’s foreign aid budget.

From the next table, there comes a sudden movement. The two women sitting at it are probably old enough to remember the era of Spitfires, rations and prayer supposedly stilling the Channel; given Ukip’s local successes, I’m half-expecting them to come over and offer Duffy and Reeve their congratulations. But no: they are trying to enjoy a quiet al fresco fag. “Do you think you could keep it down a little bit?” one says, suddenly looking angry. “We can’t hear ourselves.” •

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Clampdown: Pop-cultural Wars on Class and Gender by Rhian E Jones – review

Friday, May 17th, 2013

A fierce and valuable book that charts the sell-out of pop culture since the 1980s

When Margaret Thatcher died, the great ocean of writing that was suddenly released included the inevitable remembrances of 1980s culture: in some part, a huge carnival of dissent, in which pop musicians felt compelled to write and sing about what her governments did to Britain. I wrote one such piece, which cited such songs as the Jam’s “Town Called Malice” and the Beat’s “Stand Down Margaret”, and implicitly wondered: why, when we live in times every bit as tumultuous, has everything gone so quiet?

The question has been regularly aired for half a decade now, and Rhian Jones sympathises with it. But in this thoughtful, short book, she argues essentially that our pop culture remains reflective of what’s happening, but it has done a 180-degree flip, so that the dominant voices now mirror the values of the powerful. Good examples are the hugely successful Mumford & Sons, privately educated chancers whose banjos, beards and raggedy clothes embody a woeful kind of austerity chic, or the equally posh Noah and the Whale, products of the same affectedly folky milieu whose music sounds like a noncommittal shrug (the embodiment, perhaps, of all that “Keep Calm and Carry On” paraphernalia).

As far as musicians are concerned, little of this is a matter of conscious intent: it’s down to the fact that they are usually lightning rods of one kind or another, and what they channel these days is a kind of post-ideological establishment-think, complete with the blank acceptance of the rightward march of politics. In certain cases, moreover, men with guitars harbour the same zeitgeisty snobbery evident in much modern comedy, fiction and journalism – which tends to place working-class women at the bottom of the heap, and has played its part in a hardening of public attitudes, particularly to the welfare state.

This is all heady, ambitious stuff, probably better suited to a full-length book. At first glance, much of what Jones writes is over-done, and in thrall to the strangulated cult-studs vernacular; it’s too full of words such as “concordance” and “atavistic”. But quickly, the intensity of her critique makes her book unputdownable. As proved by her prodigious blogging at a site called Velvet Coalmine, she draws on a range of reference points, from the Spice Girls to the left-leaning conservatism of “Blue Labour”. And the fact that she sprinkles the text with references to those great pop-cultural intellectuals the Manic Street Preachers – like her, products of the South Wales valleys – says a lot about what she thinks pop music might still aspire to.

Stripped down, this is a cultural history that goes from the early 1990s to the present. Everything hangs on a passage in the opening pages: “A distinguishing mark of the 90s in Britain was a cultural shift from the nuanced and pluralistic articulation of identities to their appearance in a simulated or appropriated form, as stereotypes.” Class, Jones says, was depoliticised at speed, and rendered camp. Meanwhile, she writes, “those who happened to be born with the same signifiers involuntarily bolted on” – that is, your actual working class – “were vanishing from public view, their place on the political and cultural stage taken by ersatz, commodified versions of themselves, in a process so seamless as to be sinister.”

Quite so. The watershed in her story is the moment embodied by so-called Britpop, and lad culture, both of which encouraged a kind of class tourism, whereby many a young bourgeois could fake an interest in such totems of supposed proletarian authenticity as football, dog racing and greasy spoon cafés, all of which defined the tenor of British pop circa 1994-5 (witness Blur’s breakthrough album Parklife). As Jones sees it, the way was thus opened for a horror show that arrived just under a decade later, when two former private schoolboys came up with the cheap and nasty cast of the hugely successful sketch show Little Britain, not least Matt Lucas’s Vicky Pollard, every right-wing trope about working-class women brought to life. Jones juxtaposes her with the infamous 1992 speech by the-then Tory minister Peter Lilley, who took aim at a “little list” of “benefit offenders” including “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list”.

Her point is that cultural expression can carry much political weight: as it turned out, the Little Britain worldview dovetailed conveniently with the programme of the current government. Or, as she puts it: “Labelling, shaming and ridiculing the working class through the use of signifiers and stereotypes in popular culture is a means of making the political, social and economic clampdown occasioned by austerity appear less harsh than it is.” 

She is right, too, that there was another 1990s, embodied in politicised writing in the music press, and no end of non-rock music (how distant we now are from a world that spawned the London-based band Stereolab’s “overtly communist indietronica”). She also writes about the punk-feminist subculture known as riot grrrl, one last go at giving rock a bold female refit, before what followed pushed women to the margins. Among the casualties were Kenickie, a three-quarters female band from the post-industrial north-east, fronted by the future TV and radio presenter Lauren Laverne. “Their music,” Jones points out, “offered a presentation of provincial female life crafted with sympathy and solidarity, and an insistence on their social and sexual agency.” It really did, and we have heard nothing like it since.

Instead, a whole expanse of pop culture remains fond of the enduring idea of the “chav”, and often characterises working-class life as, to quote from the book, a “threatening and marginalised carnival of horrors, rendered almost alien”. This applies to women in particular, as evidenced by the Kaiser Chiefs’ once-inescapable hit “I Predict A Riot”. “Girls scrabble round with no clothes on / To borrow a pound for a condom / If it wasn’t for chip fat they’d be frozen” – this is much the same view of the female herd as emerges from the pages of the Daily Mail, and another example of the kind of drab and reactionary stuff that compelled Jones to work on this fierce and valuable book.

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What if Ukip’s rise is more than a blip? | John Harris

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

The Guardian/ICM poll showing voters turning away from established parties could be the shape of things to come

What will the average Westminster politician think when he or she sees this fascinating, potentially watershed poll, and begins to digest what might happen if it represents not a blip, but the shape of things to come?

As often happens, perhaps the best thing is to step outside the usual terms of debate and quote Bob Dylan. Specifically, Ballad of a Thin Man, released as the world was tilting in all kinds of directions in 1965: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr Jones?”

Clearly, we are in the midst of a popular revolt against the political class. In Scotland, it has put a rocket under the SNP, who largely trade from the centre-left. In England, the de facto nationalist party is Ukip, proudly pitched on the populist right.

That their rise is an almost uniquely English story is self-evident: they currently score 23% in England, but only 2% and 6% respectively in Scotland and Wales. Their surge is also driven by men rather than women, by a ratio of nearly 2:1.

Just to offset the idea that their appeal runs no further than the south-east, they are apparently most popular in the Midlands. And though they seem to be attracting former Labour and Lib Dem voters in equal measure, those numbers are dwarfed by the support they are nicking from the Tories. This is, then, a story built around the realignment – whether temporary or permanent – of conservative politics, with both a small and a large “c”.

If you want to picture it in its barest essentials, think of an increasingly irate white man of 65 in Edgbaston, who once voted Tory, but now can’t see the point.Note the fact that on these numbers, the public has slightly warmed to the EU, which only points up what a multifaceted business this is. On the occasions I’ve observed Ukip’s campaigning, what has hit home is that both their voters and recent recruits express an exasperation with the Conservative party that is more cultural than policy-based. Certainly, there are issues in there, which run from EU withdrawal, through the linked subject of immigration, to Britain’s foreign aid budget.

But what’s most interesting is the sense of a disconnection between former members of the English Tory tribe, and its current supposed leaders. Many former Conservatives miss the demotic straight-talking of your Thatchers and Tebbits. They sense not just that David Cameron and George Osborne have no understanding of the daily grind, but that they are made from the same stuff as Tony Blair, whom they still hate: metropolitan, affected, slick and superficial.

Underneath all this, many more aspects of British politics are in flux. Before 2010, the Lib Dems provided the centre-left with the equivalent of what Ukip now offers on the right, but beyond a big drop in support, the end of their time as a fuzzy protest party is something whose consequences are still rippling through politics (that said, they are now clinging on to double figures, which is some achievement).

While the economy is in such a mess and Tories are freshly at each other’s throats, if Labour is only attracting 34% support among people who are likely to vote, it is in a pretty bad place.

In fact, its travails are partly of a piece with those of the Tories, and come down to a sense that Labour politicians have long been uncoupled from their voters. Despite Ed Miliband’s recent efforts, orating from a wooden pallet in provincial shopping centres and taking on all-comers, that does not look like a breach that is likely to be quickly healed.

These figures, in fact, evoke a long story, which takes in decades of slow voter dealignment, and such recent(ish) stories as the Iraq war and the expenses scandal. Its single biggest strand, though, is the professionalisation of politics, which was cemented during the New Labour years, and has since created not just disaffection, but the gaping hole into which Nigel Farage has been only too happy to jump. Now, we could be witnessing the birth pangs of a four-party political model that our creaking electoral system simply cannot accommodate (note that Ukip was on the “‘yes” side in the 2011 AV referendum).

In the meantime, even if they are squeezed in 2015, Ukip spells big electoral trouble for the Tories, and presents them with an almost unanswerable question: should the Conservative party further chase after its malcontents to the right and risk what the PM and his circle would call “retoxification”? Or try and somehow stay put, while Farage continues to wreak his mischief? More generally, on these figures, another coalition of some kind looks like a very reasonable bet.

To finish, then, back to Dylan, and his obligatory protest classic The Times they are a-Changin’: “The line it is drawn/ The curse it is cast/ The slow one now Will later be fast … The order is/Rapidly fadin’.” It certainly is.

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