The big recent political story is UKIP’s success at the Rochester by-election. Cameron lost an MP, Miliband lost a Shadow Attorney General and Clegg lost a deposit. The winners were UKIP, with working-class voters flocking to the Party in droves. There are lessons to be learned in the North East: UKIP is on the march here too.
In just 30 years, the percentage of working-class MPs has fallen from 16% to 4%. Meanwhile, the percentage of politicians who had never done a non-political job in their lives went from 3% to 14%.
They don’t know what it’s like to live on the minimum wage, not because they’ve never done it - but because none of their friends and family have ever done it either. Working-class people are a mystery to the cushy Islington dinner-party set which has come to dominate the traditional Westminster parties.
UKIP is different - just look at our MEPs. An umbrella maker from a Gypsy background, a man from an Afro-Caribbean family who grew up in the Moss Side area of Manchester, a Pakistani-born Muslim restaurant owner, a farmer, an openly-gay Scotsman, a miner’s daughter, a teacher.
My father-in-law was a miner, my parents were teachers. My grandfather became a policeman after fighting in WW2; my brother has served in Afghanistan, worked as an aid worker in Malawi, and now drives HGVs. I’ve managed council community sports schemes, been a teacher, and set up a charity working with disadvantaged young people.
We hold public meetings up and down the country - not stage-managed, but genuine debates. Last week, we held two such meetings; the second one in Bedlington was interesting because it was the first time that Labour activists have turned up specifically to attempt to derail our meeting.
Over seventy people turned up, the vast majority not UKIP members. I was privileged to be speaking alongside the great-grandson of Robert Smillie, co-founder of the Labour Party. He joined the Labour Party a few years ago, only to leave it again soon after listening to an Ed Miliband speech, realising that the reality of Labour just didn’t live up to what the Party was set up to achieve.
The reaction from the public in our new Blyth office has been incredible, but one young lad in particular will remain in the memory.
Having turned up to the UKIP office to cover it with spit, he got chatting to some of the local volunteers. He later cleaned the window, having come to realise that UKIP wasn’t the party that he’d been told about. Our volunteers are now supporting him with his attempts to find work.
Some people will no doubt protest, Nigel Farage doesn’t come from a working-class background either. I’ve heard this criticism previously, and the Labour Party can’t seem to understand why it doesn’t resonate.
Why don’t people see Nigel in the same way that they see Miliband, Cameron and Clegg? It’s simple: Nigel regularly spends time with people of all backgrounds. The ‘pub and a pint’ image isn’t for show: Nigel genuinely likes to meet people and talk about their concerns. It’s not stage-managed, like it would be with the political establishment.
Everyone has a life story, something of interest that makes them unique. Nigel doesn’t just talk politics to people, he listens to their stories. Many times I’ve seen him spend 15 minutes just talking to a member of the public - just as one human being talking to another. Focus groups and opinion polls may have their uses, but Nigel Farage connects with the public because he has personal experience.
The enforced resignation of Emily Thornberry over a tweet mocking a Rochester resident for the ‘crime’ of showing an England flag and a white van on their driveway was an overreaction from Ed Miliband in my view.
Yes, she said something stupid. Yes, she should apologise. And yes, she’s given voters a good reason to vote for anyone else at the General Election in May. Was it really a sacking offence though?
I think Miliband overreacted because it hit a nerve: the Labour Party, traditionally the ‘Party of the working class’, couldn’t be seen to openly mock those who work hard for a living. The tweet showed just how out of touch the Labour Party has become with their own voters. UKIP is not.
Jonathan Arnott is UKIP’s North East MEP.