UK Politics

Can UKIP build on its successes in 2014?

Nigel Farage stands in front of a Chieftain mk 10 battle tank, at the Heywood Tank Museum in Lancashire while campaigning there in October Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nigel Farage has both the Conservatives and Labour in his sights in 2015

It was the year the UK Independence Party made its long-awaited breakthrough in Westminster, but the party continues to divide opinion, even in its leader Nigel Farage's own backyard.

The sparks are flying as metal is cut, rather loudly, in the Port of Ramsgate.

This is a town on the east Kent coast, 80 miles from Westminster, which has a proud maritime heritage.

"We dragged it out of the water, it has been painted, washed off, all of the repairs have been made to the steel work," says Jim Barratt, as he works on the maintenance of a 320 tonne dredger, which is going through a boat's equivalent of an MOT.

So what springs to mind to Jim, who has devoted his life to ships, when the name of Nigel Farage is mentioned?

"Well, interesting! That's all I'm saying!" he says of the UKIP leader, his words cryptic, his tone sceptic.

This is the spot, the constituency of Thanet South, that Nigel Farage hopes will finally propel him to Westminster as an MP.

'Coming of age'

In May, 24 UKIP MEPs were elected to the European Parliament, more than for any other British party.

But that turned out to be just the start of a momentous year for the party. In October came a moment UKIP had ached to see, but had never before managed. Douglas Carswell became UKIP's first elected MP, having left the Conservatives.

"2014, for me, is certainly the year UKIP started to come of age," Mr Carswell told the BBC.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption UKIP started the year with no MPs and ended it with two

"In a few months' time we are going to go into an election where we are going to field 650 candidates. And it is my absolute determination, my absolute number one ambition for the year, that in all 650 constituencies we offer a credible, sensible, respectable alternative to the established parties," he said.

So, what, realistically, are UKIP's prospects at the general election and beyond?

"If UKIP holds together and maintains their support, the following election - which may be 2020 or maybe sooner - if there is a really messy parliament, UKIP will stand a real chance of a breakthrough," Peter Kellner, president of the pollsters YouGov, says.

"So if I were UKIP I would be having a two election strategy, and I think at the election after next it is possible UKIP will suddenly have 20 or 30 MPs."

Half a mile up the road from the seafront in Ramsgate, Trevor Shonk shows us around UKIP's campaign office. It is a converted shop, with Christmas decorations in the window, alongside some big pictures of Nigel Farage. Metal grates cover the windows.

It is not the only shop in the street with such grates, but most do not have them.

Pavement politics

Councillor Shonk, who represents UKIP on both Ramsgate Town Council and Kent County Council, denies they are there because of a fear of anyone throwing a brick through the window.

Inside, he sits at a desk with a huge Union flag and a huge flag of St George behind him. On the walls, there is a picture of the Queen and another of Sir Winston Churchill.

"I think he would have been UKIP today," Cllr Shonk says, pointing at the former Conservative prime minister.

Trevor Shonk's obvious passion is local, pavement politics - championing small improvements that can make a big difference to a local community, such as a new zebra crossing.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption UKIP activists say they are gaining ground by focusing on local issues

"It is the walking and talking, it is the leaflets that we've done and people have connected with UKIP," he argues.

"One or two don't always get it right, but on the whole we have had people in and out of here, offering their help and support. I work with everybody. Here we just keeping bashing away and it seems to be working," he argues animatedly.

For much of our interview he does not even mention the European Union or immigration. But when asked about his views directly, his analysis is striking.

"The two main parties that have been running this country have made the country racist," he claims.

"It's because of the influx that we've had. When I do leaflets I do every shopkeeper, whether they are Asian or English-born. They are both concerned by the influx. I do believe that. That is my own personal thoughts. If you went and saw 200 people from Thanet, I think they'd agree with that."

National Front

He adds: "It hasn't been staggered. It is just overload. We haven't got the care homes, we haven't got the houses for our own. It is very awkward for me to sit here and say this because I can get on with all races, as I have done all my life."

Close to those pictures on the wall of the Queen and Sir Winston Churchill are UKIP's county councillors in Kent.

Amongst them is Martyn Heale, the branch chairman. Councillor Heale was, briefly, an activist for the National Front in the 1970s.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption UKIP bans anyone who was a BNP member from joining the party

We approached him to request a recorded interview for broadcast, which he declined, so we asked his colleague whether Mr Heale's past could damage UKIP's reputation.

"I'm not going to be judge and jury," Trevor Shonk says. "It was a long time ago. Martyn has to look after his own past. It is a very awkward question for me really. People have elected him, as far as I am concerned, that's good enough. We always keep going back to the past. It is what we are doing now that matters."

Martyn Heale told us by phone his time that just over a year as a National Front activist was something he deeply regretted.

He said he was not racist and had later been a Conservative campaigner for almost 20 years before joining UKIP in 2003.

UKIP told us that, despite a current rule banning former members of the BNP from joining the party, it would be "against natural justice" to backdate that and expel Councillor Heale.

So what do people here in the constituency of Thanet South make of UKIP and Nigel Farage?

Our snapshot on the streets, of course, isn't remotely scientific. There is one thing that most politicians fret about that Mr Farage doesn't need to worry about. Recognition. People instantly know who is he is and that he wants to be their MP.

'Unsavoury'

Immigration, and "offering something different", as one woman put it to us, appear to be the essence of his appeal.

"Immigration is quite dreadful, we've got no work, they are up there in London, they don't see what is happening down here do they," she tells us.

We ask another the very same question we put to Jim Barratt several hours earlier as he was maintaining the dredger in the harbour. When we say Nigel Farage, what springs to mind?

"Racism," another shopper said instantly.

"It is unpleasant for this area. It is unsavoury to get UKIP letters and leaflets through the door."

But whilst, for her, UKIP leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth, she sympathises with those neighbours drawn towards the party.

"They are not pro-UKIP, but they are frustrated with the current situation, there is frustration with the economy, frustration with the jobs in the area," she told us.

Listen to Chris Mason's report and a discussion about it on BBC Radio 4's World at One at 1pm on Friday or afterwards on the BBC website.

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