Could this be Ukip’s day?
Rotherham is usually a staunch Labour town, but ahead of Thursday’s by-election, many locals are in the mood for changeIs it possible that a party with no MP and fewer councillors than the Green Party could pull off a victory in Rotherham? Photo: Guzelian
It is a ramshackle campaign office, with a loo that has yet to be plumbed in and two deckchairs for seating. But this little property is one of the busiest places in Rotherham, with a stream of volunteers coming in and out, and camera crews setting up outside.
The former clothes boutique – “two floors of fashion” is still written on the front window – is home to the UK Independence Party’s campaign in the South Yorkshire town. Today, Rotherham goes to the polls in a parliamentary by-election. That all the talk is about Ukip rather than Labour, which has provided the town’s MP since 1933, is a remarkable turn of events.
The by-election has been called because Denis MacShane, who as a Labour MP at one point enjoyed a 71 per share of the vote, has stepped down in disgrace after he fiddled his expenses. The assumption until a week ago was that however much the town disapproves of his behaviour, it would return another Labour MP. “You could put a red rosette on a donkey and it would get voted in,” says Peter Downey, owner of The Master Barber’s Shop.
However, Lisa Duffy, who is running Ukip’s office, says: “We are on a roll.” She brandishes a cheque for £500. “I’ve received £8,000 in donations just to this office since Saturday.”
This surge in support follows The Daily Telegraph’s report that the Labour-run council in Rotherham had taken three children from their foster parents because the couple were members of Ukip.
Some have cried foul, accusing Ukip of manipulating the foster parents – both former long-term Labour voters – to suit their own ends. But Ms Duffy is clear that the couple’s story has changed Rotherham’s perception of the party. “I think it’s made a huge difference. People are very angry about others telling them how to run their lives, and it’s opened them up to talking about us,” she says.
This PR coup was followed by Stuart Wheeler, Ukip’s treasurer, boasting of a possible eight Tory MPs defecting to the party, and the Conservative vice-chairman Michael Fabricant mooting a possible alliance ahead of the 2015 general election.
So is it possible that a party with no MP and fewer councillors than the Green Party – which finished sixth at the general election in Rotherham – could pull off a victory here?
Of the four people I meet in The Master Barber’s Shop, one is a Labour voter, one would prefer not to say, and the other two – including its owner – say they are voting Ukip. This is not an unusual ratio. Wherever grumbling voters are gathered, you can find a significant clutch who say they are thinking of voting for party recently dismissed by David Cameron as being home to “mainly fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.
Mr Downey is clear what the appeal of the party is to this town’s voters: “Ukip are doing well here because of the flood of Eastern Europeans in Rotherham,” he says.
Dave Bennett, who is waiting to have his hair cut, agrees. “My mother-in-law will not now come into the town centre because of the amount of Eastern Europeans hanging around in groups. It’s just large groups of men standing around. People don’t want it.”
Mr Bennett might be dismissed as a “fruitcake” or even a “closet racist” by some in Westminster, but he is an NHS worker and lifelong Labour supporter. His views are echoed time and again on the doorsteps of the old Doncaster Road – in the shadow of the enormous Tata steel works, which announced 110 job losses last week. Many are happy to chat about the foster case and their willingness to vote Ukip.
Bryan and Barbara Archer, in their seventies, are not dissimilar to the foster parents themselves. He used to be in the Navy, she was a school teacher for 24 years; both are former Labour supporters. “It’s an utter disgrace what happened to those children,” Mrs Archer says. “Rotherham Council has done nothing but bring shame to this town. They’ve shown us up with EDL [English Defence League] marches and children being exploited. This used to be a lovely town.”
Rotherham centre is still a handsome, bustling place, dominated by the impressive minster, but you don’t have to travel far to find boarded-up shops and a tattoo parlour that has taken up residence in the Temperance Hall. Its glory days as a coal and steel town are well over.
Victoria Parker, aged 26, who is picking up her child Elise from school, says: “The last job I had was six years ago at McDonald’s. It’s been so hard to get a job.”
Would she consider voting for Jane Collins – “she’s a local Yorkshire lass, from a mining family” – asks Ian Clay, a local solicitor out canvassing for Ukip’s candidate. Like others that Clay meets, Ms Parker gives him a warm reception. “I’m certainly thinking about it.”
The feedback from many of the residents is that it is time for a change. What is curious is that so much of their disaffection has led to support for Ukip – a party that began as a one-issue outfit, and an issue that appears to have little relevance in this town.
The party does now have a proper manifesto, with eye-catching and uncosted promises designed to appeal to disillusioned Tories at the libertarian end of the party: a return to smoking in public places, getting rid of employers’ national insurance contributions, a new flat rate of tax, prison sentences to double, student numbers to halve, free eye tests for all citizens.
But these promises – particularly its two central ones: to put a temporary halt to all immigration, and to hold a referendum about pulling out of Europe – have struck a bell far from its roots in the Home Counties, where many regard it as only a half-serious outfit supported by eccentric celebrities such as Peter Stringfellow, the nightclub owner, and Neil Hamilton, the disgraced former MP.
Mrs Archer says: “You work hard all your life for a comfortable retirement and for what? It’s blown away in the wind. There’s all this money being given away to the EU, which could be spent here.”
The economic chaos in Europe has been helpful to Ukip, which believes it has the wind in its sails. Nigel Farage, its leader, claimed the party was “the third force in British politics” after the Corby by-election earlier this month, when it won 14 per cent of the vote and forced the Lib Dems into an embarrassing, deposit-losing fourth place.
Some psephologists believe that Ukip’s importance is over-stated. Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, disagrees that it could cause many Tories with slim majorities to lose their seats: “If Ukip withdrew, some of these people might not vote at all, some might – believe it or not – vote Lib Dem, some might vote for a more radical party. Only in a handful of seats did Ukip make a difference. It’s nowhere near the 20 or 30 suggested.”
Despite the momentum, Ukip is still small, with a mere 19,000 members – the equivalent of just a few tables of pub drinkers in each constituency. But these sums appear to hold little truck in Rotherham, where the lack of jobs and prospects are the main concerns.
Jodie Dolby, a 19-year-old unemployed mother, says she’s considering Ukip because, “I think there’s a lot more immigration now.” Does she worry that some might think that curbing immigration is racist?
“No way. My daughter’s dad is Asian. My grandma is Asian. But there are a lot more people coming in, getting properties, and all the money is going back, not staying here.”
Mr Downey in his barber shop is clear that Rotherham is a world away from Westminster: “What is classed as racist is determined by white middle-class people down in London, not by minorities up here.”