14 November 2019

Nigel Farage in the ring - could have been a contender?

Nigel Farage came to Hainault in east London yesterday to take his election fight to the gym of heavyweight boxer, Dereck Chisora. What sort of ringside crowd would he attract? Did his performance there suggest he is likely to land any blows on his opponents? 

The pavement leading to the Gator ABC Boxing Club was blocked by double-parked vehicles being worked on from the many nearby motor-trade units. Walking down the centre of the road, dodging the van traffic, I passed a breaker’s yard and a rag-trade studio then went down an alley to the venue. The Brexit Party Leader’s luxury minibus was left up on the road where it was indistinguishable from the overflow vehicles of an adjoining car-detailing workshop.

The doors of the venue opened to a rush by the crowd for the handful of white, plastic garden-chairs. The rest of us in the audience of 200 or so stood amongst the punch-bags and gym equipment. A few winced when over-loud dance-music heralded the undercard speakers stepping into the ring.

Farage’s first warm-up was Michael Heaver MEP, and until his Leader’s fiat, the party’s PPC for the Tory seat of Castle Point, Essex. He is co-owner of the shuttered right-wing website, Westmonster, and is reported to have applied to join the Conservative Party between leaving UKIP and the start of the Brexit Party.

The start to the end of his act was knocking Labour. He made no appeal to Labour voters, just simply listed many reasons why he thought that party unworthy of support, including a 'lack of patriotism' and its plans to extend Freedom of Movement before finishing with, “Don’t send your kids for maths lessons with Dianne Abbott." But how does the Brexit Party intend to attract - not just drive away from Labour - the latter party's voters on matters other than Brexit, I wondered? I’m still wondering. 

Heaver, an MEP for the East of England, told us we were in the East End. Yet Hainault is far from there. Some who call it home do originate from that place but are now at the eastern edge of the London conurbation, looking out onto the fields of Essex. The Daily Telegraph’s Chief Political Commentator, who today reported that the Conservatives had offered Farage a deal - with the Tories putting up just paper candidates in forty seats to which the Brexit Party would restrict itself - said the meeting, which he attended, was three miles away, in Dagenham, in his paper's coverage yesterday. That’s in another borough.

If Farage, Heaver and company really had wanted to meet the people, they would have been out - in Dagenham talking to shoppers in its Heathway, or over in Barkingside High Street. But that audience would be more likely to ask them about the NHS, crime, housing or schools then the focus there was on Brexit in the controlled conditions of this gym.

Next was Ben Habib MEP; the EU’s MEP with the highest earnings outside their parliamentary salary. If the intended audience had been those there looking up at him in the ring, rather than those for whom the event was organised - watching the feed going from the camera erected over a ring corner to their screen - he would have lost some of them when railing against the Prime Minister’s “sophistry” and when giving his advice for the assembled to “cogitate”. There was an obvious contrast between the many Brexit Party supporters there who had managed to source several different clothing items in their party’s shade of light blue and this candidate’s Saville Row suit. But some like to look up to their leaders.

Munish Sharma followed. The Brexit Party candidate for nearby Ilford South, and who would be presumed to have a least a modicum of economic understanding (he had just left his job at a financial regulator to fight the election) related how he had recently discovered that for a couple of his retired supporters, ‘their pension does not match their living costs.’ He announced that ‘I will be looking into these matters,’ doubtless aware that such is for the never-never; in the 2017 General Election, UKIP got 477 votes in Ilford South; Labour received 43,724. 

Emma Stockdale, Brexit Party candidate for West Ham, was ‘keen on the 50s.’ That was a time of 'self-discipline' - (applause) but 'also the Treaty of Rome' - (boos). We will see how well she fares with the former “arable farming background in North Yorkshire” that she mentioned. She is standing in the London Borough of Newham where every politician - local and national - is Labour. There is just the one farm in Newham, the council-owned Newham City Farm that introduces local children to what may well be their first view of a cow in the flesh. Labour won forty times more votes than UKIP in West Ham in the 2017 General Election. Stockdale seemed not to have an idea of how to germinate support where's she's standing; in places such as Plaistow and Forest Gate her party is seen by many as being not far from the politics of the BNP.

It’s hard not to write in clich├ęs when such are apt about those who were there. Many of the women in the audience were hardened, late middle-aged - often blonde - still with their original inner London cadences and who meet a common expectation of how will be many residents of south Essex.

The down-at-heel Brexit Party supporter, waiting outside for his Leader to appear after the meeting, struck up a conversation with a security guard who had ambled over from the next-door unit to check on the spectacle. “They” (those running society) “don’t want little people like us.” was his comment after, ‘hello’, to the hi-viz jacketed worker. That supporter had previously been pleased to see two young blokes leaving the alley and remarked upon their youth and the hope it gave him. They told him they had been at another unit and that they despised Farage but now that they “knew that c*** was here” they would have waited to abuse him had they not needed to be elsewhere. Farage later walked past his supporter and gave a slight acknowledgement, although Ben Habib had earlier momentarily shaken his hand, made his excuses and left.

Those in the gym weren’t completely white as there were also security guards, media, others at work, a candidate and perhaps, two of the party’s supporters. About twenty-five of the audience were under forty; a majority would be retired. The Brexit Party can’t do well with such a limited demographic. How did their savvy digital media operation get them this audience? The Essex badlands aren't just like this, despite the misconceptions of outsiders.

Waiting for Farage to arrive, I wondered why the Brexit Party were doing this gig? Other similar rallies have been cancelled. Would he have anything new to say that the undercard did not know about?

Brexit Party cogitations would have identified the Ilford North constituency where we were as about as good as it gets for them in London. It is at the eastern edge of the phalanx of continuous Labour seats that stretch in a Y shape thirty miles from here to Heathrow on the other side of London. There is nowhere Labour eastwards from Hainault until one seat in Ipswich and one in Norwich. 

And that’s Brexit’s problem; UKIP’s best result in the Ilford North constituency was 8.9% in 2015. They didn’t run in 2017. Heading towards town, support for the Brexit Party will likely plummet to be as minimal as it was for their UKIP predecessor. With Farage’s announcement that they are not fighting the Tories in their 2017 seats, the Brexit Party will be a Midlands and Northern party, or more likely, it will be a nothing.

UKIP came third in support - with 12.6% of the popular vote - in the 2015 General Election. They were receiving similar in opinion polls just before polling day. They won one seat. The Tories won 36.8% and 330 MPs in 2015. A rolling seven-day average of polls to yesterday placed the Brexit Party on 8%.

Nigel Farage arrived and ducked under the ropes onto the canvas to cheering and applause. The previous day he had said the Brexit Party would be standing in all seats against Labour. Earlier in the week he had made his announcement that they would not fight in Tory seats. How were they going to fight Labour?

By calling them bad names and restricting the fight to Brexit, apparently. He did not mention or employ any strategy to try and take seats from Labour other than on this single issue. 

It was a wrong-turn. Any training that Farage has done in the past has been for different types of bouts, not for a national, head-to-head with Labour. Nothing yesterday indicated any work by the Brexit Party on the preparations that even lightweights know to be necessary - studying the form of your opponent and then adapting your fight to win. 

Farage has not got on the fighter's exercise bicycle or watched videos of old fights. What is true about how this ‘strategy’ will get his party nowhere in Newham is also more true than not in Nottingham and Newcastle. He would “fight like crazy” those “doing their damndest to overturn democracy.” Farage claimed there are many Labour voters ‘who won’t ever vote “Tory but will vote Brexit Party” and ‘it’s the Tory Party who will split the vote, not the Brexit Party in solid Labour constituencies.’ “They (the Conservatives) genuinely fear us” he also claimed. 

We put “country before party” was repeated by him and contrasted with a claim that the Tories were doing the reverse. His claim about the Brexit Party's conduct would have more resonance if someone independent was saying this rather than the Leader of his own party remarking on his own conduct. “I am not for sale” he said. I’m not for underselling either, he might have added. 

Farage did try one new theme, or rather a warmed-up one that he had first raised upon the result of that 2015 General Election when the party he led, UKIP, got one in eight votes but one in six hundred and fifty seats. ‘The system needs changing' and 'the House of Lords is' “political corruption.”

In less than ten minutes he was done. He then answered two questions and posed for photos.

What did his supporters there think about what he says, I asked? “He is the Leader; he can do what he wants.” And from another, “I almost hero-worship him.”

Clive Power

All photos copyright - Clive Power. All Rights Reserved.

Fowler Road, Hainault - site of Gator ABC Boxing Club.