Three years ago, just two lonely journalists turned up to the UKIP annual conference. This year, they have accredited 150 of them. Now Britain’s third-largest party (it has led the LibDems in the polls since March) Nigel Farage positions himself as an insurgent whose message is so incendiary that the mainstream would not dare to broadcast it. Today was his chance. The UKIP conference is getting plenty coverage on BBC Parliament Channel, a huge chance. And one that was not really taken.
We’re used to seeing Farage with a pint and fag in hand, looking mischievous and raising hell. Today he looked fretful and sweaty. He didn’t use autocues – which is fine, neither does David Cameron when things get sticky. But Farage kept looking at his notes, and for most of the speech his eyes were down (above). When you’re giving a speech for a television audience, this kind of thing matters. Powder is the enemy of sweat. Rehearsal is the alternative to autocues.
I say in my Daily Telegraph column today that UKIP is more of a phenomenon than a political party – and that its strategy is to mutate from being a Eurosceptic party into a general party of the working class. But Farage’s speech showed no sign of this: it was mostly about Europe. And the technical aspects of it that bore even Westminster wonks, let alone target voters. Phrases like “insurance, reinsurance, stocks and shares, commodities” simply should not be in a keynote speech aimed at general voters. “We’ve had to absorb in the British Economy 120,000 pages of legislation… inspection and regulation have taken over from production, leadership and enterprise. We’ve got to get European Law off their backs.” I quite agree, but this is a point better-suited to a CBI conference speech.
Even on the most emotive issues – immigration vs youth unemployment, Farage seemed to speak with less force than usual.
“I feel very sorry for the one million youngsters in this country who are without work yet we have a massive oversupply in the unskilled labour market coming in from Eastern Europe and elsewhere”
I’ve hard Farage make this point far better, without using wonk phrases like ‘unskilled labour market’, in town hall meetings. He was good when making clear that UKIP (unlike the BNP) does “firmly, fiercely oppose the racism and sectarianism of left or right”.
“Let’s be clear: we don’t blame people from Romania and Bulgaria for wanting to come here: goodness me, I’d be packing my bags now. It is about money, isn’t it? A wage here is worth five or six time what it is in Romania and Bulgaria.”
That said, he has a word of warning about those Romanians…
“London is already experiencing a Romanian crimewave – 92 per cent of ATM crime in the capital is being committee by Romanian gangs. We should not be opening our doors on January 1st to Romanian criminal gangs. We need to get back the power to deport people who come here and commit offences. Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg, Mr Miliband – are you listening? Because we demand action. But we’re the only people with a solution, aren’t we?”
Not that he seemed to like London very much, speaking about it with disdain that you normally only hear from Alex Salmond. “London commentators” were the bogeymen. Fair enough if you’re giving a speech in a Yorkshire town hall, but I’d have dialled this down for a speech held in London primarily for the benefit of these London commentators.
And, he should also be more careful with his figures if he’s going to berate the press. “Last year 497,000 settled in this country, And I’m not sure the commentators even understand this.” I’m not sure that Farage understands that this figure includes about 80,000 Brits returning from a spell living abroad. You’ll never hear Migration Watch use this misleading, grossed-up figure, and neither should UKIP. Not if it wants to play at this level of politics.
Britain opted out of EU crime and justice laws, but next year we will opt back in to the European Arrest Warrant. It’s a scandal, certainly, and Farage had this to say:-
“The European Arrest Warrant is a total abomination to those who care about freed. We can’t deport a rapist or a murdered because they have a right to family life. We need to throw this in the bin.”
He’s quite right: we could and should have bilateral extradition deals. But all this excites a very small chunk of the electorate. Am even smaller chunk get worked up about regulatory overload:-
“We’ve had to absorb in the British Economy 120,000 pages of legislation… inspection and regulation have taken over from production, leadership and enterprise. We’ve got to get European Law off their backs.”
How many of the C2DE voters (an impressive 19 per cent of whom now back UKIP) worry about European Law? It sounded as if Farage had crafted a speech for UKIP’s 2010 conference audience, not a 2013 television audience.
His best bit – which he should have constructed his entire speech around – was defining UKIP voters as ordinary people bored with the Westminster menu. Here’s the clip:-
Here, he spoke to the general voter. But not for long. His Hi-De-Hi start “Good morning everybody!” onwards, he was speaking activists, not to potential voters watching on TV. It took him less than a minute to use phrases like “Middlesborough parliamentary by-election” name-checking candidates with no national profile as if to underline his party’s obscurity. Even his peroration was a bit flat.
UKIP supporters (many of whom I expect to welcome in the comments section below) see a virtue in their amateurism, and understandably – their greatest asset is a homespun vibe. But if you’re aiming at a 2014 breakthrough, taking entire councils, you need to up your game. I’m not quite sure that Farage (whom I admire) did so today.
All told, this was not a breakthrough moment for UKIP. And rather a wasted opportunity for Nigel Farage.