“Hey, you’re on the telly right now!” shouts a guy sneaking a crafty cigarette in the shelter of his own doorway. Every candidate who’s ever worked a campaign trail must have wished they could be in two places at once and, thanks to the magic of television, John Bickley is. On a bitterly cold Sunday morning, UKIP’s candidate in the Wythenshawe and Sale by-election is simultaneously haranguing his Labour opponent Mike Kane for “betraying the working class” on the BBC’s Sunday Politics and out knocking on doors in the Brooklands area of the constituency. “I was just laughing at you giving it to that Labour guy,” the man with the cigarette grins. “You really let him have it!”
Wythenshawe, in the south of Manchester, is staunch Labour country and although the more affluent Sale has a Conservative-controlled council, the Wythenshawe and Sale constituency is considered a safe seat. In 2010, Paul Goggins was returned for a fourth consecutive time with a majority of over 7,000; his unfortunate death on 7 January triggered this by-election. After finishing second in Eastleigh, South Shields and Middlesbrough, UKIP believe they can repeat the trick here and in doing so strike fear into Labour in what should be their heartland.
Last week, Peter Hain vocalised this fear in an interview with The Independent. “UKIP is hoovering up the anti-politics vote,” he said. “It goes beyond Europe and even beyond immigration. Some of it is plain bigotry. A lot of it is deep, deep antagonism to the political class, of which all the major parties are part. Under New Labour – and it has still not been wiped away – there has been a big disillusionment with us as a party among white working class traditional Labour supporters.”
A morning spent canvassing with Bickley proves Hain right. Granted, at the first few doors Bickley gets the expected responses: “I’m voting, but not for you. Get out.” Or “We’re Labour here.” Then the yet more disheartening: “Oh, there’s an election? How do you vote?”
However, as Bickley works his way around the streets, more and more people start to promise him their support. A 73-year-old pensioner is keen to talk to Bickley. She says she feels disillusioned with Labour and even more so with the coalition government. “It’s disgusting what they’ve done to the pensioners. They’ve taken money off us.” She brings up immigration straight away: “What are they letting all these foreigners come in the country for? This is what I can’t understand. People want jobs and they can’t get them because of the Polish and what have you.”
A handful of people tell Bickley they’ve given up on politics as a whole, but just as many present him with the opportunity to win them over for the same reason. He’s “not like the others”. Bickley has a smart response whenever people bring up Labour, as they inevitably do: that his family were Labour voters, but that he feels let down by them. This strikes a chord with a woman in her mid-forties. “I’ve always been Labour but I’ll vote UKIP this time,” she says. “My parents were Labour, and my husband’s parents. Just the last twelve months we feel totally let down with everything that’s happened.” As Bickley leaves, she shouts: “Good luck to you!”
Before long, two or three houses in a row start telling Bickley he has their support, and he’s tallying up as many yeses as nos. While privately he admits that he still expects Labour to win – particularly due to the short timeframe the election has been run over and the prevalence of postal votes, which Labour have been encouraging people to return early – it’s difficult to come away without a sense that UKIP are proving attractive.
“I think you’re picking up a flavour there of people’s frustration,” Bickley says when we duck back into the car to warm our frozen fingers. “They perceive the political class as ignoring them and favouring non-British citizens.”
It’s striking how rarely Bickley, or indeed any of the other UKIP activists on the campaign trail directly bring up withdrawing from the European Union. While the party may have formed back in 1993 as a single-issue party, their ambitions are now much broader. They campaign primarily on jobs – which are then linked back to immigration – and foreign aid, which they believe should be suspended in order to divert that money to help people affected by flooding in the South West.
There’s a sense that UKIP are attempting to be all things to all people. While they can campaign on tax cuts or social conservatism in the south, here they want to present themselves as a working class party to fill the void left by Labour. Bickley says this is why they’re taking votes from both sides. “These voters will never vote Tory,” he says. “Maybe 30 years ago they briefly lent Thatcher their vote, but I don’t think that will happen again. They’re looking around, and they’re starting to listen to what UKIP has to say.”
In the hotel bar at the Britannia Airport Hotel, UKIP supporters who have come from across the country to attempt to sway the undecided gather for pints of Tetley’s. It’s fair to describe them as enthusiastic amateurs, rather than cadres of slickly professional politicians – and that’s a badge they’d wear with pride. One thing mentioned time and again is a disillusionment with being represented by career politicians with no life experience outside of Westminster. James Hadfield-Hyde, who nominated Bickley and is out supporting his campaign, once presented a Granada television programme as ‘Lord Lust’. That’s certainly a life outside politics.
Tony Hooke, a county councillor from Hampshire, describes joining UKIP as an act of “rebellion”: “People are sick and tired of the way the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals are fighting over the same middle ground. You could interchange any of the party leaders and they’d be at home in their new parties.”
Melanie Hurst, the Chairperson of UKIP’s Tynedale branch, adds that their mere presence has already invigorated local politics. “Where I live locally we’ve seen real improvements since we set up our UKIP branch. We’ve seen our MP out knocking on doors in villages that he’s never set foot in before in his life.”
Nigel Farage wants more. The party seem hopeful that a strong showing in May’s European elections could set them up to take a scalp in next year’s general election. Judging by the palpable anger against the political class on the streets of Wythenshawe, you wouldn’t want to bet against them pulling it off.
It’s easy to poke holes in UKIP’s belief that withdraw from Europe would be a panacea for all of Britain’s ills. For a start, this week the Financial Times dampened their mass immigration argument by pointing out that the number of European migrants in the UK is almost exactly balanced by the number of British people living in the EU. (2.2m people have gone in either direction, with over 1m Brits now living in Spain alone.) Furthermore, their uncomfortableness with same-sex marriage seems out of step with the country at large and it’s not clear that their proposed flat rate of tax adds up. But it almost doesn’t matter if their policies are thin and their budgets uncosted, as long as they can tap into the wellspring of anger at how remote Westminster appears when viewed from the rest of the country.
At first glance, there might appear to be little in common between Nigel Farage and Russell Brand, but in fact what’s powering UKIP at the moment is the same sense of dissatisfaction that Brand tapped into in his much discussedNewsnight interview. Farage would almost certainly have nodded along with Brand’s description of the “weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class” and his description of a “disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system.” The difference is, Brand isn’t on the doorsteps of Wythenshawe preaching about social justice. UKIP are, here to offer up Europe as a scapegoat.
There’s an alternative narrative to be told – one that talks about the value of European integration and the worth of foreign aid – but for the people out in the cold in Wythenshawe who are disillusioned with the mainstream political class as a whole, right now UKIP are the only game in town.
Originally published by British GQ.