It remains to be seen whether Winston McKenzie’s description of Croydon – “unsafe” and “a dump” were only part of it – will win him votes as a Ukip candidate in the council elections. In Croydon. But no doubt he needed such terms to explain the unscheduled non-appearance of Nigel Farage at what had been billed as a “carnival rally” in the precincts of the Whitgift shopping centre.
OK, not everything had gone to plan. The Endurance steel band – engaged to demonstrate that the party was not racist – packed up when the leader, Marlon Hibbert, discovered they were here for Ukip, which McKenzie, himself black, had omitted to mention when he hired them. There was a small group of East European women, brandishing signs declaring “We are Romanians, and we don’t feel comfortable with your racism”, and the pithier: “Ukip modern Nazi party”. And though both groups were outnumbered by journalists there were almost as many opponents as supporters noisily waiting for the supposed front-runner.
And waiting. Nigel Farage had been due at 2.30pm. But it was around 3.40pm when the voluble McKenzie announced that “Mr Farage, my leader, has weighed up the situation… and probably decided not to come down here today.” He explained that Croydon had “progressively deteriorated” and had under the Coalition “descended into depravity”. We looked around; one or two bystanders might have enjoyed a lunchtime drink. But this seemed over the top. However he added: “He wouldn’t have felt safe, and can you blame him?”
Given a police presence, this was surely doubtful. A more likely explanation was the embarrassment of Endurance Steel cancelling their gig. The dignified Hibbert, 22, said quietly that his parents “came over from Jamaica to work. If Ukip had their way I would not be here. The country would be not so diverse.”
Whatever the reason, Farage’s absence triggered an intensity of street-level political argument that would have shamed a party leaders’ TV debate. In one vigorous exchange with Colin Perera, a local Ukip-supporting businessman who said he was married to a Pole and used East European contractors, a Romanian woman said immigrants came here because this was “rich country” and added: “These people are desperate and everything they want is to come here and clean your toilets.”
And in a running argument with McKenzie, who to his credit ignored the advice of other Ukip supporters not to engage, Anthony St Croix, 26, working in black community radio on a career break from a local bank, was contemptuous of Ukip’s recruitment of “one or two” Afro-Caribbeans. “This is divide and conquer. But there are young people here who are smart and educated. They will not follow them like sheep.”
Farage was rumoured to be lurking nearby. One white middle-aged Ukip supporter repeatedly said his car was in the shopping centre car park. But it hardly mattered. Say what you like about the Ukip leader. There are few British politicians who could arrange such an interesting afternoon by not showing up.