DOVER, England – Saul Webster enjoys a good tipple, and nobody begrudges him one. But that doesn’t make it good politics for the retired schoolteacher to pose for a campaign event with Nigel Farage, the U.K. Independence Party leader, while carrying a bottle of hard cider and a half-drained glass.
He looks crestfallen as a UKIP functionary discretely removes the drink from his hands before the gathered media horde starts snapping away at Farage and his backers in front of an anti-immigration billboard at the foot of the White Cliffs of Dover.
Farage – the bad boy of British politics – is trying to clean up his image ahead of the May 7 general election. His once surging party has started to languish in the polls and Farage himself admits he is in a dog-fight to try to win his first seat in the British Parliament.
So the UKIP leader is running a tightly focused campaign that relentlessly pushes a single message: Opposition to continued membership in the European Union and the increased immigration that membership has brought. It’s a nationalist theme that is gaining momentum in other major European nations including France and Germany.
Webster is on Farage’s side. After a lifetime supporting the Labour Party, with its socialist roots, the 68-year-old is jumping to UKIP. He agrees that Britain is hosting far too many immigrants from countries like Romania and Bulgaria, both poor EU newcomers whose people have the right to live and work in Britain.
“I have a great deal of sympathy for people coming here from our ex-colonies, from war-torn lands,” Webster said. “But the people of Eastern Europe, with whom we have no cultural, historical or social links whatsoever, I wonder what they’re doing here.
“They’re allowed to just swan in. No one’s monitored them, no one’s checked them for criminal records. So in they come, and too many, with not enough to offer and no real reason to be here, either.”
In Webster’s view, Labour sold out its working-class roots when former Prime Minister Tony Blair embraced big business, making the party indistinguishable from the Conservatives. And, while the Tories are also wooing the euro-skeptic crowd, the idea of voting for them turns his stomach.
Webster, like an increasing number of his compatriots, wants to see the number of immigrants from Eastern Europe substantially cut. But he knows there is no practical way to make that happen, since EU regulations guarantee freedom of movement between member countries.
That leads to the second foundation of UKIP’s platform. Farage wants Britain to withdraw from the 28-nation EU, calling it a vast, wasteful bureaucracy that has robbed Britain of its sovereignty and control of its borders. Farage is chasing voters tired of EU regulations about the shape of bananas as well as those who think the European Court of Human Rights has made it harder for Britain to deport known terrorists.
The UKIP leader, who skipped university to become a successful metals-trader, loves to mock the major parties, and he has pulled the immigration debate his way, prompting both Labour and the Conservatives to take a tougher stance against providing benefits to newcomers. But now he has to produce enough votes in the South Thanet district to win a tightly contested seat. He says he will resign as party leader if he fails.
Farage enjoys strong name recognition, and many refer to him as just “Nigel” – indicating a high level of familiarity. He’s happy to pose with a pint of beer with a group of strangers, and he doesn’t mind talking about his struggle to stop smoking and his experimentation with e-cigarettes (he likes them). In his recent campaign book, he derides American politicians and activists for not drinking enough red wine at lunch.
Farage, 51, is coming off an impressive year. Under his stewardship, UKIP, which was founded in 1993, outperformed both the Conservatives and Labour in the competition for European Parliament seats in May, and also won its first two places in the British Parliament in special elections. But he admits the party has started to falter slightly in the polls.
Farage strikes a balance in his anti-immigrant stance He is comfortable complaining about the high cost of using the government-funded National Health Service to provide anti-HIV drugs to immigrants who test positive for the AIDS virus, but stops just short of saying they should be denied the life-saving treatment. Instead he argues that immigrants should only be allowed in if they have health insurance.
His “Britain first” program calls for a 10 billion pound ($15 billion) cut to foreign aid – targeting programs that provide safe water and disease prevention in developing countries – with the savings to be used to reduce Britain’s deficit and strengthen its armed forces.
Farage, with his country squire clothes, shabby-chic Barbour jacket and perfectly polished brogues, is almost always on-message. His party, however, has suffered from the shenanigans of less media-savvy members, who in unguarded moments have let fly with statements that are openly racist, sexist, anti-gay – or just plain bizarre.
There have been a series of resignations, most recently when Jeremy Zeid, a UKIP candidate for Parliament, was replaced after he suggested that Israel should kidnap Barack Obama and put “the bastard” on trial just as it had kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960.
One UKIP councillor was suspended after he blamed record flooding and extreme storms on the government’s support for gay marriage. Another got in trouble for referring to female UKIP supporters as “sluts.” The list of gaffes goes on and on.
Polls show the crucial race for South Thanet is close, with Farage trailing in some surveys. And his high-profile presence has attracted more competition, ranging from the Reality Party – a fringe group of youthful anti-Farage activists – to popular “pub landlord” comedian Al Murray.
“We don’t want a political tourist bringing this town down,” said Daisy Warne, 24, who is helping to organize the Reality Party’s grassroots effort. “I don’t like the way he’s taking advantage of the people here, thinking ‘Oh, they’re stupid, they’ll believe all of this.”’
She said Farage has no connection to the region but simply chose it as a convenient location for his anti-immigrant barrage.
For every voter who embraces Farage’s message, there seems to be another who argues that immigrants help Britain’s economy. Some seem embarrassed by Farage’s ascent; others say the party peaked in last year’s European Parliament elections – where turnout was low – and won’t do nearly as well this time around.
“They might grab a couple of seats scattered around the country but obviously they’re not strong enough to form a government,” said Chris Egan, a Labour backer who believes UKIP voters are trying to turn back the clock to an era 50 or 60 years ago, when England was more insulated from the outside world.
“Common sense will tell you that when a bunch of immigrants come, they get jobs, they have to live somewhere, they spend money, and that’s good, that keeps businesses open,” said Egan, 56, who works in a local supermarket. “When you start blocking it, it’s not good.”