John Harris

Journalist & Author

Why Ukip’s Little England is full of eastern promise

Nigel Farage’s best hopes of electoral triumph rest on Lincolnshire and East Anglia, where a failing economy and isolation have boosted Ukip’s appeal. But scratch under the surface, and the party’s success looks rather more unstable

For all that it might suggest seaside breaks and afternoons whiled away on the pier, the Norfolk town of Great Yarmouth does not feel like a happy place. I arrive on a sunny Tuesday morning, and talk to a succession of local people whose view of the world seems to be overshadowed by dark clouds: the abundance of pound shops, grim prospects for the tourist trade, the lack of chances for local young people.

All that, and immigration. I meet 58-year-old Kathleen Gonsalves outside M&S, and fall into a conversation about her surname: when he was seven, her husband came to the UK from Trinidad and Tobago. But she and her daughter Jennifer, 35, have a swingeing take on more recent arrivals, and their place in the local economy.

“They’re taking our jobs,” says Jennifer. She mentions a famous local turkey business. “How many foreigners work there? It’s slave labour.”

A trained chef, she tells me she once worked alongside a pot-washer in the kitchen of a nearby holiday camp: she was on £5.75 an hour, he was paid £5.25. “And he didn’t speak a word of English.” The upshot, she says, was such a chronic lack of mutual understanding that there was at least one serious accident.

She and her mother do not strike me as essentially motivated by prejudice; rather people faced with an insecure, unpredictable world whose governing logic they can no longer abide, least of all politically. “I’m Labour through and through,” says Kathleen. But in last year’s local elections, they both voted Ukip – a habit that, with the first of Nigel Farage’s duels with Nick Clegg about to take place and his party’s profile at an all-time high – looks set to endure. “I’ll stick with them,” says Jennifer, with some defiance.

If Ukip has a heartland, it is the great stretch of eastern England that encompasses Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, whose people often seem to feel as remote from London as anyone in the north, Wales or Scotland. In three of these counties, last year’s local elections saw the party win numbers of seats that ran into double figures; in Suffolk, it managed a creditable nine. And at next month’s local and European elections – which Farage thinks could mark the occasion when “the dam bursts upon the complacent political elite” – the party is expecting even more gains.

If Ukip is to break into Westminster in 2015, this is where it may well happen. Certainly, if the party’s local share of the vote last year was replicated in 2015, it would win in Tory-held Great Yarmouth, which Ukip claims it has turned into a three-way marginal.

Some of the explanation for all this lies in a low-grade regional economy built around market gardening and what remains of the holiday industry, and its reliance on cheap labour from overseas – which has resulted in inflows of people to places with no past experience of what the modern vernacular calls diversity, and a race to the bottom of the jobs market.

But there are other sociological factors at work. The recently-published book Revolt on the Right, an incisive analysis of Ukip’s rise by two British academics, identifies a large cluster of promising seats for the party “along the east coast from Durham to Norfolk”, all of which are home to what the authors call “left behind” social groups, and an “ideal combination of an ageing population, a large, low-skilled and traditionally blue-collar workforce and a small population of graduates, ethnic minorities and middle-class professionals”. Lefties should take note, then: in this part of Britain – and others – Ukip fancies its chances as the party of the working class, poised to steal more votes from Labour than the Tories.

In Great Yarmouth, its candidate for 2015 and campaigns director is 26-year-old Matthew Smith, who works in “freelance marketing”, serves as one of Ukip’s Norfolk councillors, and lives above a local music shop called Shake, Rattle and Roll – itself owned by a Ukip councillor, and surely the only place in the UK where a picture of Neil Hamilton is Blu-Tacked next to one of Eric Clapton.

An apparent libertarian who departs from the party line on the legalisation of cannabis (”you could tax it”) and gay marriage (”I couldn’t care less if someone got married to three different people”), Smith also has exotic cultural appetites, by Ukip standards: on one of his upper arms, in among a riot of skulls and flowers, there is a tattooed approximation of the cover art for Joy Division’s first album, and he is such a fan of Morrissey that he has covertly included some of the ex-Smith’s lyrics in his speeches in the council chamber.

To coin the kind of phrase that Farage would use, this particular Smith is full of piss and vinegar, and evidently excited by his party’s local prospects: it already has 14 seats on Norfolk county council – somewhat bizarrely, it has signed a support pact with an administration run by Labour and the Lib Dems – and he thinks there are more successes to come.

But there may be a problem: the day before we meet, it is announced that he is facing charges of electoral malpractice, relating to the alleged forging of signatures and the faking of nomination forms. “I’m pissed off with the police, because it was in the press before the police even told me I had to appear in court,” he says; the allegations, he insists, are “just a load of rubbish, in my opinion”.

Smith agrees that Great Yarmouth’s distance from the centre of power might have something to do with Ukip’s success. “It’s almost like we’re an island,” he says. “We’ve got that tiny little road coming in, and one little road going out the back end. The trains are absolutely woeful. So you are kind of cut off: there’s a sense of isolation … And that maybe helps Ukip, ‘cos we can … insulate ourselves.

“We haven’t got a great economy here,” he goes on. “And people get upset: there’s a large influx of European migrants – unskilled ones. No one’s complaining about the doctors and nurses from whichever countries who work at the big hospital here. But with unskilled people, it’s different.” By way of a crescendo, he says: “I don’t think race is an issue. People just like the comforts of home, and they’re not happy about the fast changes that go on around them. They want to feel like they’re in their own country.”

To judge from something Farage recently said, and for which he was loudly criticised – about sitting on a train moving away from central London, failing to hear people speaking English and feeling “slightly awkward” – Ukip has also decided to start banging on about language.

“Space, jobs and language – they’re the three big things,” says Smith.

Ukip’s stance on immigration is, to some extent, a proxy for its loathing of the European Union but despite the Farage/Clegg debates, and the EU’s centrality to Ukip’s identity, Smith doesn’t really bother the electorate with such things. “I don’t talk about Europe at all,” he says. “It’s not on any of the election leaflets. Why is that an issue for people?”

This year, there are not only the European elections, but contests for 13 seats on Great Yarmouth borough council, with 13 more to follow in 2015, when Smith will also – unless the charges of electoral malpractice stick – be trying to get into parliament. “I think, conceivably, we could have the MP and the borough council in 2015,” he says, and tells me that Ukip’s recent local success has come thanks to disaffected Labour voters. “[Polling company] Survation have put us on 30%, but I think we’re a lot higher than that. And if I get 34 or 35% of the vote, I’ll win.”

“No one needs telling that the land in that part of the world is flat,” wrote Graham Swift in his Faulknerian Fenland novel Waterland. “Flat, with an unrelieved and monotonous flatness, enough of itself, some might say, to drive a man to unquiet and sleep-defeating thoughts.”

That book also describes this area of England as being “far away from the wide world” – and as I drive through Norfolk and into Lincolnshire, I can see what Swift meant. The sky is so huge as to feel oppressive; villages pop up and disappear. There are no motorways and the mobile signal regularly goes dead. Not for the first time, a thought pops into my head: though a huge part of the national conversation remains devoted to the north/south divide, there is also a curious political gap between England’s east and west, for which the rise of Ukip is a potent signifier.

After three hours, I arrive in Skegness, on the coastal edge of Lincolnshire. In the 2013 local elections, this county saw Ukip’s best single result, when 16 new Ukip county councillors were elected, and the party became the official opposition; among the parliamentary seats that are reckoned to be vulnerable to a Ukip surge are Labour-held Great Grimsby, and Boston and Skegness, currently represented by the Tories.

There is usually a “but” in Ukip stories, and round here, it’s a big one. Within four months of its electoral success in Lincolnshire, the leader of its group on the council – who was also a prospective Ukip candidate for parliament – had been suspended amid claims of racist Facebook posts. The result was a convulsive falling-out, which split the Ukip group in two. Since then, rum allegations have swirled around another councillor, who says she also fancies a run at parliament. To paraphrase Swift, unquiet and sleep-defeating intrigue abounds, and what will happen next is anyone’s guess.

On a grim and blustery morning in the town some people know as “Skeg”, conversations with locals suggest a town much more weary and fatalistic than Great Yarmouth, although people have a similar litany of complaints: awful local roads, shut-down shops, an economy that effectively dies for half the year. Immigration does not seem to be as much of an issue as elsewhere in the east, but plenty of people mention an example of their concerns about it: Boston, 22 miles away, is a byword for migration from eastern Europe characterised by the Daily Mail as “Lincolngrad”.

I then visit the unbelievably spotless local home of councillor Chris Pain, the man at the centre of Ukip’s local difficulties. The 47-year-old former owner of a chain of fishing shops called Tackle 4U, he joined the party in 2005. Not surprisingly, he puts much of Ukip’s success in Lincolnshire down to the salience of immigration, and the state of local employment. “David Cameron might not dream of going in a field and cutting cabbages and cauliflowers,” he says, “but until 2004, local people could earn good money doing it.”

Pain – whose former colleagues presumably think his surname is all too apt – then spends an hour trying to talk me through his estrangement from the party, but it is all but impossible to follow. Only one thing seems clear: the story begins with one of the many Facebook posts that were discovered and attributed to Ukip activists in the early summer of 2013, just as their profile reached new heights, and they were suddenly subject to forensic scrutiny.

This one was found by the Sunday Mirror, and said to be on Pain’s Facebook page. Among other things, it said that “illegal immigrants” were ” sandal-wearing, bomb-making, camel-riding, goat-f****** ragheads”. “It was never on my Facebook page,” he says. “I spent a whole week going through it, and I couldn’t find it.” He sought the advice of a “security bloke” who “does work for the government”, and claims that this and a similar post were the apparent products of some kind of dirty tricks operation.

At this point, Pain was the leader of the Ukip group on Lincolnshire council, the party’s candidate for Boston Skegness, and its regional chairman in the East Midlands. By September 2013, an investigation by the police into Pain’s alleged Facebook posts was dropped, but by then his relations with people at the top of Ukip were deteriorating fast and, the following month, he was expelled from the party – because, said Ukip, he had not only “misled” their national executive committee, but “recorded a conversation with another party member and circulated that recording without the other member’s consent and passed “confidential information to a litigant against the party” (one Mike Nattrass, a one-time Ukip MEP who was deselected in 2013 after failing a “candidate test”).

“It was about taking me out of Ukip,” Pain insists. “They saw me as a threat to the leadership.” Ukip, he reckons, is run by Farage as “a dictatorship”. “It’s where it is today because of Nigel Farage, but I think it’s no further forward than it is today because of Nigel Farage. Look at Ukip’s byelection results: if you can’t win against Labour or the Conservatives, you’re not going to get a seat in parliament.” Contrary to the idea that Ukip has recently soared, then, he thinks the party is actually underperforming. “All the people in Nigel’s circle are yes-people, who are beholden to him for money,” he says.

Pain says he is making legal moves against his old party, and claims he will stand in the Westminster constituency of Boston and Skegness in 2015, under the banner of a new party whose name he is yet to announce. Given that five other ex-Ukip councillors now sit with him in a splinter group and the party is no longer the official opposition, the whole affair has clearly weakened Ukip, and may yet affect its chances in 2015.

And then there is the case of Victoria Ayling, 54, another Lincolnshire Ukip councillor who has recently found herself in trouble. She defected to the party in 2013 having stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Tories in 2010 (in Great Grimsby, where she finished a mere 614 votes behind the sitting Labour MP – “by sheer force of personality”, she tells me) and now fancies her chances as a Ukip MP, which has sparked two allegations made by her ex-husband, among other people.

First, he gave the Daily Mail a video of his former wife, made in 2008, when she was a Conservative councillor and aspiring parliamentary candidate. In it, she rather hesitantly tried to summarise her take on Tory immigration policy. “Controls should be done fairly,” she said, “and a points system [sic] like they have in Australia, and all those coming here should be encouraged to speak English so they can integrate.”

When told she had made “two or three stumbles”, her patience then seemed to snap. “I just want to send the lot back, but I can’t say that,” she said, a quote which eventually came back to haunt her.

I meet Ayling – a “trusted ally” of Farage, according to some reports – at her sumptuous country house, a stone’s throw from Boston. A large union jack flutters above the roof; inside her drawing room, on top of the piano, there’s a photo of her and Farage. She is personable enough, though as soon as my voice recorder is switched on, she starts talking to me as if I were a public meeting. Throughout, she maintains an intense stare, and seems slightly angry: what with all this, her nasal, estuarine vowels, and a sense of cast-iron certainty (the EU, she says at one point, “dictates to us how we should think, feel and act”), she puts me in mind of the young John Lydon.

What, I wonder, of the Daily Mail video? She repeats the line Ukip stuck to when the story broke: that she was only referring to people in the UK illegally. “It was a malicious smear. I was a Conservative when [the video] was made. They knew about it; nobody cared then. It was a non-story.”

In December last year, more allegations were made – by her mother, among other people. This time, it was said that she had once been a member of the fascist National Front. In the face of claims that she had attended NF meetings while doing her A-levels, Ukip insisted she had only ever done so when she was researching extremist parties for an undergraduate thesis – which, she said, was part of the law degree she took at Southampton University.

So was she a member of the NF? “Never was, never was. That’s a complete lie and a smear, by people … my mother, for example, didn’t know what the hell I was up to then.”

Her mother says she went to NF meetings “because she wanted to”.

“She didn’t know me. I hardly knew my mother then. Think back; you’re a teenager. Would you tell your mum where you’re going and what you’re doing?”

For some reason, in the 2008 video – made when the NF had long been superseded as the face of British fascism by the BNP – there are two mentions of the NF: one by her former husband in an exchange about whether or not to “soften” her script, and another when Ayling uses the line “Multiculturalism doesn’t work – Britishness does”, and then wonders whether the word Britishness “is waving the National Front flag a bit”.

Why did she mention the NF in that context? “Erm … I can’t remember that. All I was referring to was illegal immigrants. Erm … I can’t remember that bit. I really can’t.”

Ayling says she is interested in being Ukip’s parliamentary candidate in either Great Grimsby or Boston and Skegness. Now that Pain says he will be standing in the latter seat, is she concerned that he’ll split the vote? “Absolutely not. He can say what he likes. He’s not Ukip, and quite frankly, he’ll be lucky to grab a few votes.”

And how does she rate Ukip’s chances in those two seats? “Excellent,” she says. Ayling thinks that, overall, Ukip could win as many as 20 seats in the House of Commons: “Enough to have a seriously strong influence in a hung parliament. And, hopefully, we can get some sense knocked into the main parties.”

Back in Great Yarmouth, I walk up and down King Street, which is split between retail chains and a long run of convenience stores that cater to new arrivals. I try talking to a woman working at the Portuguese Ce Ki Sabe delicatessen, but she says she doesn’t speak English; the same goes for a Lithuanian woman smoking in the doorway of a nearby cafe. On the window of a Polish shop, I notice, there is a sticker advertising the far-right British movement; directly across the street is an army surplus shop run by a Ukip activist, with a stack of recruitment leaflets among the parkas and boots.

At the other end of the town centre, Andrea Martins, 34, and Tiaso Monteiro, 29 – both Portuguese, and residents since 2008 – are taking a break from their jobs at a mobile phone shop, and smoking bootleg Russian cigarettes.

A lot of people here, I say, seem very wound up about immigration. “I’ve never had any problems myself,” says Martins. “But, sometimes, people are right. There are people who come here to cause trouble and claim benefits, so maybe they’ve got a point. I wouldn’t be happy, either. It’s not a general thing – it’s not everybody. But maybe around 50%.”

What do they make of Ukip and its rise? “I don’t think anything,” she says. “I just let them go on and on. They just generalise everything. A lot of people come here and contribute to the country.”

It starts to drizzle, and they put out their cigarettes, offering one last indication that even in Ukip-land, simple human understanding can at least occasionally find a way.

“We’re actually really well integrated,” says Martins.

“Oh yeah,” says Monteiro. “I’ve probably got more English friends than Portuguese ones now.” © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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