Ukip leader Nigel Farage boasts: We will hold balance of power at next general election, just as Nick Clegg did
Adoring crowd in Labour stronghold cheers Ukip’s leader at his biggest rally yet
The 1,200-strong crowd had waited for the best part of an hour, marinated on a diet of soft jazz and expectation in the cavernous surroundings of the Sage in Gateshead.
Abdul Bashir, Ukip’s small business spokesman and master of ceremonies, who had paid for the hire of the hall out of his own pocket, did his best to whip them up into a frenzy. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” he intoned.
Striding on to the stage to a standing ovation at the largest public meeting the party had ever held, Mr Farage was a man radiating belief that the time was now and the man was indeed him.
The Ukip leader was on Tyneside to take the fight to the Labour Party in its political fortress. Shrugging off the shouts of two noisy protesters who had evaded the tight security, he took little time in striking out.
“They [Labour] have turned their backs on you in favour of the European project and big corporations in the private sector. You are no longer represented by that party – we will stand up and fight for you,” he promised to waves of applause.
According to Mr Farage, a strong showing by his “people’s army” will mean neither Labour nor the Conservatives will be able to “rat on the deal” of an in/out European referendum. Moreover, at the next general election Ukip would “hold the balance of power as Nick Clegg did in 2010,” he added. “There will be a referendum then.”
But it was not just Europe which lit up a crowd clearly disaffected by the mainstream parties. There was immigration too – a central plank of the “bomb-proof argument” which is threatening a political earthquake under the political establishment, he claimed. “We want our country back… We are run by a bunch of college kids who have never done a day’s work in their life,” he warned.
The North-east has yet to return a Ukip MEP but the numbers are stacking up. Last time the party came fourth with 90,000 votes, with Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats returning one MEP each.
The collapse of Mr Clegg’s party – down to just eight per cent in some polls – means a seat here is almost guaranteed. The party is talking loudly about winning two.
Since the televised debate Ukip polling puts it just four points behind Labour in the North-east, where it believes it is likely to replicate recent second places in parliamentary votes in Middlesbrough and South Shields as well as a close finish in a recent Sunderland council election.
It may have been a sign of how rattled they are but Ukip’s opponents had campaigned hard against the event even taking place, pointing out that the Sage – the centrepiece of Gateshead’s regenerated quayside – was the beneficiary of £5.6m of European funding.
Ukip argued back that this was just a tenth of the daily amount it claims the UK pays to Brussels each day. And when social media opponents urged the venue to refuse to host the rally, it fell to Billy Bragg to speak out in support of the party’s freedom of assembly.
On the night, the main door was picketed by Labour activists, Socialist Workers and gay rights campaigners proclaiming “migrants welcome – racists not”. Supporters of the English Defence League protested at the side door.
Inside there was a mixture of the committed, the hopeful and the curious. Bryan Ray, 73, a retired oil and gas worker, had been a Ukip man since 1996. This year he persuaded his wife to join too.
“It was very, very slow up here starting up. The branch I belong to only really got cracking in July. It’s about getting the right people with the right enthusiasm,” he said. “The difference is Nigel Farage without a doubt. Without him as a leader and his personality we would not be where we are.”
Shaun Rowland, 14, was here with his mother. One day he fancied being an MP and was shopping around for a party. While Labour once offered the only choice for aspiring politicians, times have changed. “I think in this part of the country we have voted for Labour for too long and we have seen nothing happen. We need to vote for a different party. We have been stuck in the 1980s for too long,” he said.
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