Ukip’s autumn conference made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. It was supposed to be a showcase of how grown up the party is these days, but it ended up being about Godfrey Bloom calling women ‘sluts’ and hitting a journalist. In the conference hall, Nigel Farage bounded onto the stage to a strange remix of 1990s dance music and his famous ‘who are you’ diatribe at Herman van Rompuy.
But while Bloom stole the headlines and Farage delivered his usual routine, the most impressive performance of the day came from Paul Nuttall MEP, the party’s deputy leader. Nuttall is quite a different Ukipper to his boss. He’s a bald Liverpuddlian who sees his main mission as attracting Labour voters to the party. He told the conference that Ukip was the ‘official opposition’ in the North of England. The party has been trying to prove this point in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election – and we’ll see how much of an impact the party has made when the result is announced in the small hours of tomorrow morning. But Nuttall has also been mentioned as a potential future leader of the party. So when I met up with him in Ukip’s London offices on the eve of the by-election I was curious to learn whether that’s where Nuttall sees his future – and what difference that would make to the party.
‘Er,’ he says uncomfortably, when I ask whether he wants to lead the party one day. ‘Not really. Look, Nigel and I came pretty much at the same time… we’re good friends, very good friends.’
What if Farage decided to stand down?
‘Would I stand in a leadership election? I’ve had two opportunities before and I’ve said no, it just wasn’t right. The first time I was 32, the second time I was 33. I thought I was too young and too inexperienced to go on and do it. If Nigel stood down I think the likelihood is that I wouldn’t, no, I don’t think so.
‘I think to be perfectly honest with you as well, I think to be the leader of Ukip or to be the leader of a political party, you’ve got to be based primarily down in London and I’m not. I’m based up in the north of England and I want to build Ukip in the north of England more than anything else.’
Nuttall is fascinated not just by the way working class Labour voters are up for grabs in the North but by the decline of Conservatism in northern cities, too. He is in the middle of a PhD in history at Liverpool Hope University, which he hopes to finish once the European elections are over, on the survival of the Conservative party in Liverpool between the wars. He explains:
‘Between the wars, every single town and city was going Labour and only one city stuck strictly to the Conservative line and that was Liverpool and I wanted to know why Liverpool was different.’
He was a Conservative once, too. He stood as a councillor in the local elections in 2001, but lost faith in the party when Iain Duncan Smith was booted out. It wasn’t just that he thought that ousting IDS was ‘fundamentally undemocratic’, but that the party was ‘all becoming a bit wishy-washy’. He started hearing about Ukip in 2004, joined up, and by 2005 was standing as a parliamentary candidate in Bootle, where he grew up. Four years after joining, he was made party chairman. ‘It was a mess,’ he says, remembering the party in the early days.
Farage – who pops in at one point for a natter, surrounded by an aura of cigarette smoke, tidied the party up, but Nuttall accepts that even by 2010 the party was still making big mistakes. He says ‘we got our campaign wrong in 2010′ and that the party ‘spread our resources right across the country and what we did was try to affect the result and spend money in areas where we could keep people out. There wasn’t the ambition to get people in, I don’t think.’
In 2015, he argues, the party should focus on areas where Ukip has councillors and strong local branches and focus on getting one person elected to the House of Commons. There might still be local deals where an association decides not to field a candidate against a sufficiently eurosceptic Conservative, or even a Labour MP (the party did not fight Frank Field in 2010 because he was considered sufficiently robust). But neither Farage nor Nuttall seem that interested in courting sitting MPs for defections. Farage insists that Ukip is its own party now and he isn’t trying to meet up with potential defectors, but he also accepts that David Cameron’s pledge for an EU referendum last year also weakened Ukip’s appeal to disaffected Conservatives.
But even though Farage isn’t courting Conservative MPs, he is still focusing on courting the Conservative vote while Nuttall focuses on Labour. He certainly seems a better fit for a north-western doorstep than Farage: he’s a cheery chap who tends to break into a big grin halfway through an answer for no apparent reason. Nuttall has never voted Labour, but his parents were Labour supporters, and so were his friends – although he adds hastily that they ‘have voted Labour up to now’. He says:
‘I think Nigel appeals pretty much across the board on common sense, but the idea that we’ve had over the years is that I will lead the charge on the Labour vote basically because I am from that kind of background. I think the seat where I was brought up was Labour’s safest seat in the country from 1997 to 2005, so I was brought up very much in that background and I just think it’s low hanging fruit.
‘People aren’t voting Labour any more, people feel let down, people feel as if the Labour party isn’t representing them. There is a significant proportion of old Labour, patriotic voters out there who are looking for something new.’
But is Ukip the answer to the questions these old Labour voters are asking? Nuttall thinks they are, but he accepts that the party needs to have ‘slightly different policies’ in different parts of the country (although ‘we’re not chancers like the Lib Dems’).
What does play very well in Labour areas is immigration. The only problem is that so far there doesn’t seem to have been much of a ‘deluge’ of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania that Farage and Nuttall were predicting at their autumn conference. Isn’t that a problem for Ukip?
Nuttall thinks ‘there might well be’ a deluge of migrants from April. ‘We’re six weeks in,’ he says. ‘This is going to have to be measured over a longer period of time, probably a year. Let’s not forget they can’t claim benefits until April 1st, April Fool’s Day.’
And he suggests that large numbers of new migrants could cause community tensions:
‘Well you just have to see what’s going on in Sheffield at the moment and David Blunkett has spoken out about it, with a huge Roma influx. In fact what Blunkett said wasn’t too dissimilar to what Enoch Powell said, strangely enough. My fear is that if people come in large numbers, don’t speak the language, don’t assimilate then there is the cause for potential community tensions.’
When I probe him on other party policies, though, it’s difficult to see much that is left-wing in it other than a desire to protect universal benefits for pensioners.
‘I believe in a small state,’ he says. ‘But equally, at the same time, I mean what do these people actually want? What they want is to have more money in their pockets, what they want is to feel safe when they go out of an evening, what they want is to see our borders protected, what they want is to get a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. This is what they want, we all want the same in effect.’
He dodges questions on whether the party should commit to a flat tax again in 2015, but he agrees that the current top rate of tax is too high. And the party’s commitment to pensioner benefits is partly because ‘what killed us in Labour areas [in 2010] was a commitment to take away the means-tested bus pass’.
How well Ukip does in today’s by-election will show whether Nuttall and his colleagues are really gaining the attention of Labour voters, or whether Ed Miliband’s party is still managing to kill Ukip in Labour areas. And even though Nuttall claims he doesn’t want the party leadership, there’s a funny look on his face as he says it that makes me suspect that he probably does, deep down. If he does, then results such as Wythenshawe will be key to whether the boy from Bootle ends up leading a party he joined a decade ago.
Read more about Ukip’s Wythenshawe and Sale East campaign here.