Election 2015: Nigel Farage off to a low-tech start

Nigel Farage stands in front of the cliffs of Dover Image copyright AP

"Welcome to France", read the message on my mobile phone.

I was most definitely not in France, although I could see it off in the distance, across the English Channel, and was clearly close enough to pick up its mobile signals.

Instead I, along with dozens of reporters and camera operators, was milling around a parking lot at the base of the white cliffs of Dover, waiting for UK Independence Party head Nigel Farage to arrive.

That this was the location Mr Farage chose to give a speech on his party's immigration policy was by no means an accident. The famed cliffs, towering over the coastline of the region, were labelled England's "glittering breastplate" by British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy - a majestic barrier protecting the islands at their closest point to the European mainland.

Image copyright Anthony Zurcher
Image caption The media turn out for Nigel Farage's seaside event

Now, Mr Farage says, that barrier has been breached - and his country is being overrun by a flood of unassimilated new arrivals.

As any veteran of American-style politics knows, good visuals and a compelling narrative are as important to a campaign event as what a candidate actually, you know, says.

Ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, political advance teams and consultants in the US have obsessed over how their events are stage-managed - the backdrop, the imagery, the process, every minute detail.

For Mr Farage, the setting could not have been better. The execution, however, was decidedly low-tech - quaint even, by American standards. Mr Farage strode out of his car at 11:00 and stood in front of a line of placard-carrying supporters, as a cover was pulled to reveal a lorry-sized campaign poster on the immigration issue.

The image was of those guardian cliffs, surmounted by giant escalators.

"Immigration is three times higher than what the Tories promised," the sign read. "UKIP: The only party you can trust to reduce immigration."

Image copyright Anthony Zurcher
Image caption Nigel Farage says David Cameron was "wilfully deceitful" on immigration

After the unveiling, Mr Farage gave a short speech.

"Immigration goes right to the heart of the public's disillusion with politics and politicians," he said. "It is all about trust."

He pledged that his party would bring about a "return to normality", reducing immigration to the UK to about 30,000 per year. (For the first nine months of 2014, that number topped 260,000.)

He accused Prime Minister David Cameron of falsely claiming the Conservative Party has an immigration policy. "To pretend they do is a wilful deceit," he said.

After Mr Farage's speech, I spoke with one of the placard-carrying entourage, Steve Heather, who is a resident of the nearby town of Deal. He said he had voted for both Labour and the Conservatives in the past, but has grown disillusioned with establishment positions on issues like immigration and membership in the European Union.

"It's the same old tired politics from the same old tired politicians," he said. "We need a message of change in this country, and I believe UKIP will do that."

Image copyright Anthony Zurcher
Image caption Pledge cards and posters are part of UKIP's low-tech campaign offensive

Mr Farage must hope that there are more voters out there like Mr Heather - not only for the good of his party, but for his future as an elected politician.

Mr Farage himself is a candidate for office from the south-eastern coastal constituency of South Thanet. He pledges to resign from UKIP leadership if he loses. This marks the sixth time Mr Farage has run in a general election. In 2010 he garnered 17% of the vote in a race in Buckingham against the sitting speaker of the House of Commons. Five years earlier he tried in South Thanet and received just 5%.

His opponents this year are Conservative Craig Mackinlay, Liberal Democrat Russ Timpson and Labour's Will Scobie, who in a recent issue of the New Statesman says that UKIP is trying to gain a foothold in the more remote regions of the UK.

"If you look at the other UKIP target seats they are, more often than not, places cut off transport-wise, and serviced by rickety, unreliable and overpriced rail services," he writes. "Divisions - between Britain and Europe and between London and the rest of the country - are what UKIP thrive on."

This could be a defining election for Mr Farage's UKIP. Just last year, it received the most votes in the European Parliamentary elections - the first time in more than 100 years that a party other than the big two won the most seats in a British nation-wide election.

But can that support translate into gains where it counts, in the British Parliament?

UKIP is currently polling in the mid-teens, which puts it in a position to be a spoiler in many races but a favourite in few. The party needs to finish first in many of the constituencies it's targeting to have real power in Westminster.

This raises another interesting takeaway from Tuesday's seaside event. In the US, one of the roles of a presidential nominee is to boost the chances of down-ticket candidates running under the party's banner. The success of candidates is measured not just by their victory, but also by their congressional "coat-tails".

Tuesday's UKIP event was held in South Thanet's neighbouring Dover constituency, and its nominee, David Little, was in attendance.

Image copyright Anthony Zurcher
Image caption UKIP Dover candidate David Little (left) stands aside as Nigel Farage (right) smiles for the cameras

Not once during his speech did Mr Farage mention his party's local candidate by name. When Mr Farage and Mr Little posed with the cliffs in the background, one photographer shouted "Just Nigel", and Mr Little dutifully stood aside.

After another round of photos and interviews, Mr Farage headed into a nearby restaurant, the Coastguard, where he ordered a coffee - not beer, despite his reputation as a dedicated drinker. The venue proved too small for the pack of media, leaving reporters crowed outside and television cameras pressed against the windows - the stuff that would cause an experienced American political advance team to break into a cold sweat.

Image copyright Anthony Zurcher
Image caption Somewhere inside The Coastguard at St Margaret's Bay, Nigel Farage enjoys a cup of coffee

After his refreshment, Mr Farage left the way he arrived - in the back of a black SUV, which began the curvy journey up from the shoreline.

Several moments later, Mr Little popped out of the restaurant and looked around.

"Is Nigel gone?" he asked.

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