When I was a child, there was one black family in my town of 70,000 people, that of the dentist, a West Indian. After he left, telling my father he could not stand being the only black man, there were none.
There were some Chinese people, who ran a few restaurants and takeaways, and that was it. There were no other immigrants of any description around.
This was in Barrow-in-Furness, a place hailed as the “working-class capital of Britain”. It was dominated by a shipyard and the unspoken reason given for the bar on foreigners was that the trade unions saw them as a threat because they would provide a ready source of cheap labour.
As you might expect, it’s a safe Labour seat. What you may be surprised to discover is a growing Ukip presence. Small, but getting larger all the time.
Think of Nigel Farage’s party and the image that comes to mind is of disaffected suburban, middle-aged and elderly Tories, angry that the Conservative hierarchy still insists on treading a softly-softly line over the EU, fed up with a leader who supports gay marriage, who took them into coalition with the Lib Dems. For them, Farage has created an appealing alternative, one that clings to traditional “True Blue” values. They don’t like David Cameron, a slick, former PR adviser with his trendy views; Farage, once a City trader who likes a pint and a fag, and is defiantly un-PC, is much more their sort of chap.
In his debate with Nick Clegg this week, the Ukip chief devoted so much attention to the white working-class – a group poles apart from what is perceived as his bedrock support. They feel left behind by increasing globalisation, he said; recent surges in European immigration had “left the white working-class effectively as an underclass” which would be “a disaster for our society”.
The Tories are not the only ones fighting Ukip’s advance. Labour, too, is beginning to get alarmed. I became aware of this, when, in conversation with a senior Labour figure about next year’s general election, I said that of course the Conservative vote was threatened by Ukip. “And Labour’s,” he interjected.
It’s true that Ukip began as an anti-EU spin-off from the Maastricht Treaty protests that so split the Tories. But its appeal and roots are much broader. In a new book, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Public Support for the Radical Right in Britain, authors Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford interview Farage. “This is all Fleet Street,” he says of Ukip’s grumpy blue rinse and harrumphing ex-army officer image. “This is their obsession and they can’t get out of it. But the numbers are perfectly clear: there is now a huge class dimension to the Ukip vote.”
Ukip is reaching out to what Goodwin and Ford describe as the “left-behind” electorate. At their core is the white working-class. They struggle for jobs that offer advancement, either in pay or interest; they’re uneducated beyond 16, unable to cope with the technological changes fast occurring around them; while their lives are a grind, they see, in their eyes, the state bending over backwards to accommodate wave after wave of immigrants.
Their frustration is compounded by the disregard shown to them by the metropolitan elite. The Westminster and media establishment care little for their views, and loves to sneer at their lifestyles, mocking their taste, their unhealthy choice of food and drink, even patronising them after the recent Budget by suggesting they would be pleased by cuts in tax on bingo and duty on beer.
The one party that did historically offer them hope, Labour – the one they’d been brought up supporting – turned into something unrecognisable, into a New Labour populated by smooth graduates, not folk from the factory floor. And, as Labour continued to reign, through three election terms, it grew further apart from them and their needs.
They feel totally disenfranchised from the world inhabited by the leaders of the three main parties, who all look and sound the same, come from privilege, and live in smart parts of London.
Farage is also a toff but he speaks a language they can understand; paints a picture of a Britain they can relate to; affords a vision they grew up with.
Examine Ukip’s membership and you will find very few middle-class professionals. The majority is comprised of blue-collar workers from the industrial North and Midlands – from Old Labour heartlands, in areas like Barrow-in-Furness. The result, tellingly, is that Ukip, not Labour, is now Britain’s most working-class party.
Farage’s activists do conform to the stereotype constructed for Ukip of ex-Tories, Home Counties right-wingers. The reality, as Farage well knows, is that there is a divide between those who knock on doors, hand out leaflets and always seem to be on hand to provide the press with a quote, and the grass roots.
He’s pushing at an open door. Cameron has every reason to be worried, but if Labour was to win the next election, Ed Miliband may also have cause for concern. He could be leading Labour into government with a narrow majority or into partnership with the Lib Dems. He will have no additional money to spend on improving public services. And still the EU migrants arrive. And still Ukip’s popularity continues to rise.
Farage is on to a winner, and he knows it.