Behind the shuttered, silent main street of South Shields, in a carpark outside two dowdy old Victorian pubs, the crack electoral team of the UK Independence Party is trying to get four people into a small red car. The candidate, Richard Elvin, a sleek silver-black-haired businessman in the UKIP uniform of off-the-rack suit and three-quarter wool overcoat is mucking out the back seat. “I’ll just put this damn stuff in the boot,” he tells me and no one else in particular.
He should have some hotshot young aide to do all this toting and fetching, but the UKIP staff are, god bless ’em, nongs: a triple-chinned woman in a white T-shirt, laughing about something with someone, and that standby of fringe politics, the mustachioed man in an anorak. I’d wandered into UKIP’s lurid campaign office a half-hour earlier — the party’s purple and yellow colours made it hard to tell from a £1 pop-up store — and managed to inveigle myself into a ride-around of the constituency’s polling booths on the day of the South Shields byelection.
Now I was having second thoughts. This week Private Eye had featured UKIP using a stock shot of circus clowns. Were we now about to emulate their automotive habits? Luckily we were saved, when there was a yell behind us “Allo y’alright”, and the purple people eater turned up. The PPE is UKIPs’s campaign minibus, painted the same plasticky purple as the group’s logo, which makes it look inflamed. Across the side, emblazoned in yellow was the legend “common sense is coming”. I looked round the back to see what it would say. “In the end you usually have to finish yourself off”, perhaps? No, “common sense ahead”.
“Ah well, let’s get on that,” said Elvin, showing leadership qualities. Then realised he had no GPS. Decided to get it from the car. Then, “dammit, I’ll use my phone”. The driver, who seemed a gentle soul, ca-chunked the vehicle into motion and we were off. Elvin looked at me darkly. I’d come in to the office what about five pm, and he was just stretching his feet out on the desk, so it was hard not to feel that this whole trip was for my benefit, just in case the party missed its target by 10 votes. I returned the look, stared out the window at the dour terraces, and tried not to entertain the thought that I had joined British politics’ special bus.
This is the day of the South Shields byelection, a fight for the constituency at the mouth of the Tyne, on the north-sea coast, part of England’s north-east megacity, centred around Newcastle. Geordie Shore, Jarrow, South Shields, Sunderland, once distinct and independent cities, now fused together. Misery loves company. When they were rich, shipbuilding places, coalshipping places, they could keep their own life. But they were rendered permanently, witlessly poor by Thatcher’s decision to nobble them, a political rather than economic decision.
They’ve been Labour seats since the ’30s, Shields especially, and in recent years it’s been represented by David Miliband, policy-lifer, son of Hampstead intellectuals, a man so distant from their way of life, that it’s like, I dunno, being cuckolded by Truman Capote or something. The locals have become resigned to a steady, unyielding lack of real representation or largesse in the current electoral system. The real protest in this election — which coincides with dozens of regional local elections across the country — is centred around UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the wacky bunch of Tory dissidents opposed to EU membership who are now threatening to come second, putting the Tories into third place.
UKIP has been around since the early ’90s — it was founded as a protest when John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty, locking the UK into EU control of mobility, trade, laws, etc, etc. Though it has scarfed up the occasional rep in the Lords and the Northern Ireland assembly due to defections, its only real success has been in the European elections — it has 11 of 73 of the UK seats in the EU Parliament, which it is dedicated to the country pulling out of.
Its leader, there and across the country, is the bug-eyed, guffawing barfly Nigel Farage, perpetually photographed in mustard yellow corduroy, snot-green jacket, pint in hand, a Rupert the Bear. Farage plays up to the image, knowing that it plays well with his core constituency — the outraged shires. Said style repels almost everybody else. UKIP wants the UK out of Europe, smoking back in pubs, and a five-year freeze on immigration. It likes the “3Rs” and prison, and hates wind farms. It is a set of policies that sounds best barked at you by someone with a dog and a shooting stick, on a golf course.
However, despite their best attempts to repel anyone who doesn’t own hunting prints and an Elizabeth David box set, UKIP has managed to pick up some working- and lower-middle-class supporters thanks to Labour and the Conservatives.
As UKIP has expanded, it has not only shamelessly adopted a whole series of Left policies — on the NHS, etc — which it loathes, but acquired a huge number of workers and candidates, one or two of whom have been a little unreliable, as in, posting themselves giving Nazi salutes on Twitter unreliable. Then they also have workers who are just plain odd. Every political party gets this, but it’s a problem when it is entirely composed of them. When I ventured into UKIP’s office, the first guy I spoke to was a saucer-eyed young man in black from head-to-toe who had been “in the services”, and every time I tried to ask him a question about his beliefs, the candidate interrupted to give the party line. So god knows what he actually believed, it must have been off-the-scale, ZOG and blaming the Masons for fluoridation level-stuff.But once we were out, in the enpurpled bus, some giant throbbing thing moving through the streets of South Shields, it was a different story, with one punter after another coming up to congratulate the candidate — many of them short, weather-beaten middle-aged men and women, clearly one-time Labour supporters, who though they might give UKIP a go. Had they seen inside the bus, they might have voted for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Look, you need to give clear directions to Trevor,” said Elvins, out of earshot of the driver. “He’s had two strokes and a heart attack, and this is his way of contributing.”
Elvins himself was either wily or mildly touched in the same way as his supporters. “Are you worried abut BNP infiltration?” I asked outside the bus, but he was off on a rave about his shoes. “I got these in Fuengerola eight years ago for 20 quid,” he said holding up his leather-clad feet to the assembled staff. Like many a UKIP candidate — Farage is married to a German, of all things — his life abounds in ironies. He’s a former tour operator who wants to close borders, in boots of Spanish leather. He’s local, but with a neutralised accent, where a real northern one might have done him better. Everyone else sounds like a Ken Loach movie.
Sometime after seven we picked UKIP campaign director Lisa Duffy — we were late because the person giving the directions to Trevor was dyslexic, had forgotten her glasses and sent us to the cemetery rather than the ceremonial hall, at which point the Symbolicometer exploded — and it was clear that there was energy and purpose in the campaign. Firing off short sharp phone calls, she tapped a range of contacts in the other campaigns, to find that voting numbers were up of older first-time voters (good), that it had tripled at some inner-city booths — either very good or a Labour stack — and that Labour was planning to flood the ballot count with guests and volunteers.
By the time the polls closed — at an exhausting 10pm — I’d abandoned the purpled bus to drink with the Monster Raving Loony Party, four South Londoners, who constitute just about the whole of the outfit started by pop star the late Screaming Lord Sutch. This time the Loonies had a mission, which they announced, decked out in madhatterish finery, big felt top hats,, big medallions, like some pale parboiled Wutang Clan, sitting in the bar of their semi-boutique hotel, South Shields’s only: “We think we can knock off the Lib Dems”, “We want to name the airport after [Newcastle football legend] Jackie Milburn” “But that’s a sensible policy” “Yeah, we’re branching out”.
Outside, the stone city, quiet in the late evening, spring sun bouncing off the main street’s metal shutters, appeared to sigh and age. Half-demolished, green verges and ticky-tacky apartment buldings breaking up the old terraces, there is no sense that the place will ever recover past glories. They perhaps won’t do great either, but the fact remains that there is no-one on the ballot offering them the transformed economy they would really need to re-centre their economy locally and globally, connected to the world not swamped by it. There’s enough that feel that immigration and Europe are at the root of that decentering, to give UKIP a run. That threatened the major parties to such a degree that the whle week has been taken up with the political establishement to UKIP. It’s a measure of how little the former has to offer, that it can be shaken to its very root, by a bus of fools, wandering lost the backstreets of Great Britain driven by a man who hears right as left and vice versa, directed by a man without a GPS.
Postscript: The vote went as supposed. Labour won, but UKIP came a good second with 24% of the vote — a stonking result in a northern constituency they hadn’t bothered to compete in five years ago, and a big embarrassment for the Tories. The Lib Dems were knocked into seventh place, behind the BNP and selected crazy independents. They lost their deposit, but their 352 — 352 votes! — were enough, just, to keep them above the Raving Loonies, who hit 200. It appears to be the worst major party vote since the end of the War. The Lib Dems that is — not the Loonies, who are looking comparatively healthy.