The seaside town of Margate hosted the UKIP spring conference – and its own anti-Farage march
Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is on track to become an MP at the general election in May. A poll last week showed he was 11 per cent ahead of his Labour rival and 12 per cent ahead of the Tory candidate for the seat of Margate and Thanet South. For anyone who’s an immigrant, gay or a woman, UKIP winning is a pretty awful prospect.
So, on Saturday, a group of around 250 anti-UKIPers gathered in Margate to protest against the party. Their plan was to show the people of Margate that there was opposition to UKIP and the party’s rise is not inevitable. I went along to meet those who are standing up to UKIP.
At the start of the march I met a group of university students from Canterbury, who said they’d seen racism rising in their town since they’d started at university. Parties like UKIP enabled this rise and made racism acceptable, they said. “Last week a girl’s hair was set on fire in McDonalds (in Canterbury) in a racist attack late at night. The things people say in the streets are not what they would have dared open their mouth to say five years ago,” Jenni, an undergraduate in her twenties, told me. I asked why they were protesting against UKIP. “I think Farage is a dangerous man – by allowing him and UKIP a voice of this size and saying we condone this, all we’re doing is legitimising everything that’s wrong with Britain.”
The protest was organised by Thanet Stand Up To UKIP, a local anti-UKIP group, who describe themselves as a organisation "campaigning on all fronts to stop Nigel Farage becoming our MP in Thanet south and to stop UKIP taking control of our council". The march had been in the pipeline for three months, drawing people from all over the UK but also from Margate itself: young, old, families, students, members of the Labour party, members of Trot groups (plenty of SWP placards and leaflets), lefty activists; marching to the conference centre from the train station, along the seafront – past the abandoned Dreamland amusement park, fish and chip shops and amusement arcades.
But the protest drew far-right groups into the town. Standing in a group outside the entrance to the conference centre were members of Britain First, a far-right group formed of former BNP members who carry out “Christian patrols” in Muslim neighbourhoods. Britain First were literally guarding the entrance to the UKIP conference. They and others on the far-right shouted “Traitors!” at the anti-UKIP march; “We’re English! Where were you born?!”; and “commie scum off our streets”. A fight broke out briefly after someone stole Britain First’s England flag.
Margate as a town has a lot of problems. It’s one of the most deprived areas in Kent, and its in the bottom 2 per cent, in terms of deprivation, for the whole of England. It's overcrowded and has a high crime rate. It’s been described as a "dumping ground" for vulnerable people by a government think tank and by the local council. Like a lot of British seaside towns, it gradually lost its tourism industry from the 1960s, as British workers went on holiday abroad. Unemployment here is rife, standing at 20 per cent – nearly four times the national average. It's this deprivation which fuels a sense of anger and a betrayal amongst its residents.
I spoke to UKIP voter Steve, a self-employed single father of six – he and his kids were standing on their balcony overlooking to protest shouting “UKIP, UKIP!” Steve said he was voting for the party because of disappointment with mainstream politics. “I feel let down, completely let down, by the politicians. By bureaucrats in general. The whole lot.”
He said he was voting UKIP for their strong anti-EU and anti-immigration stance. “We fought a war to remain independent. By creeping apathy we’ve now got Germany running our country and so what they haven’t succeeded doing with the axe, they’re doing with the pen.” I asked him about immigration: “Do we have a lot here? Yes. Local schools are 90 per cent abysmal. The school just locally is over 50 per cent immigrants. They got a new head in to deal with things who went in and took down the Christmas decorations so as not to offend Muslims. I’m sorry, you know, if the Muslim or Islamic people want their own views, then do it in their own country.”
‘It's not a racist town, but things are changing with UKIP's rise’
Anti-UKIP protestors argue that the UKIP line of "blame immigrants and the EU" is an easy one to peddle. “They’re using people who may not understand certain situations, including immigration and they’re saying ‘this is the problem’... UKIP know what to say. In some ways, and I don’t like to say this, they’re clever. We want to say, no, you’re not: UKIP are stupid, dumb and we���re not going to get sucked into that. We need to tell people it’s completely wrong”, Natalie, a half-Jamaican 20-something who lives in Margate, tells me.
It’s not a racist town, but things are changing with UKIP’s rise, she says. “With UKIP stepping-up in this area, I feel like we’ve gone back 20 years, 40 years, 50 years, and it’s crazy. It’s such a shame that they’re exploiting our town.” John, a Labour Party member marching next to Natalie chipped in: “They’re the frightened old men’s party... Frightened old people who don’t like change...”
But, surprisingly, a large number of people I saw coming out of UKIP’s conference were young: blond haired boys wearing school ties and tweed blazers smoking cigarettes – Farage juniors – and professional looking women in business suits. One of them on being asked about the conference denied that he’d been at it at all, despite the UKIP wristband he was wearing, and covered his face when I tried to take a photograph.
It seems silly and inaccurate to write UKIP off as a party of old-man bigotry and Dad's Army nostalgia. The stand being made against UKIP isn't simply a battle between young and old – UKIP and the far-right have plenty of young members – but a battle of ideas. UKIP’s youth wing (which has at least 3,000 members) shows that the party has a future. Bigotry isn’t just going to go away by itself. It’s surely up to other young people, like those who protested on Saturday, to challenge it and put forward alternative solutions for deprived areas like Margate.
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