Why UKIP Crowned a Complete Nobody as Leader
And managed to avert a properly far-right takeover in the process.
New UKIP leader Henry Bolton (All photos by James Poulter)
UKIP seemed to postpone consigning itself to absolute electoral oblivion at its annual conference in Torquay on Friday, when an anti-Muslim obsessive failed to hijack the anti-EU party. But questions over the party's relationship to the far-right still hung over the event.
Anne Marie Waters was favourite to win the leadership election. She is further right even than UKIP has tended to be; while the party is dominated by Brussels-obsessed wing-nuts who are likely to come out with some extremely dodgy opinions, Waters has actively organised Islamophobic marches with far-right figures such as Tommy Robinson.
Had Waters won there would have been a mass walkout at the conference, her speech would have been interrupted and a large chunk of the party would have quit, with most MEPs and many branches (including some whole regions) all leaving to launch a new party. But the chaos didn't happen. As it turned out, she was beaten into second place by a complete unknown, Henry Bolton.
If you want a flavour of what the conference was like, at one point I noticed Bruce Forsyth's 1968 track "I'm Backing Britain" was being played on repeat in the arena containing the stalls and tables where UKIP members were eating the jacket potatoes and pasties on sale at the venue. The track was released as part of a grassroots campaign to get British workers to work an extra half-hour each day without pay, bizarrely thinking it would boost productivity. The campaign was massively popular at the time, even receiving government backing, but is now seen as a failed attempt to transform Britain's economy. Perhaps the same will one day be said of Brexit.
In Henry Bolton, the party elected somebody so unknown that even UKIP members were left wondering 'who?' He came from nowhere to win 29.9 percent of the vote. So how did he do it?
Turns out the party sent a leadership election magazine to all members with the ballot papers. Each candidate was given an A4 side to make their case. Bolton used several party branches as focus groups, and he tested various options. Following his research, he opted to publish a CV rather than any policies. And he won.
Bolton is a former cop and army officer who has worked for the European Union and stood for the Liberal Democrats before joining UKIP. He's comes across as a functionary rather than an inspiring leader, a clone of former leader Nigel Farage without any of the personality.
As I arrived at the conference on Friday afternoon, the sky was overcast and a small protest was happening outside the EU-funded Riviera International Centre, the drab, 80s-built concrete building that was hosting the conference. The protest was against UKIP's decision to invite a senior member of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to speak at the conference. The protesters – mostly Momentum and SWP members – spent most of their time trying to win UKIP members around with political discussion. For a while, some of them were chatting to the the AfD speaker without realising it was him.
In the conference hall, Ray Finch MEP was giving away free pamphlets with snappy engaging titles like "European Bass: Condemned to Death – by trendy diners and EU policy" and "Calling ALL Sea Anglers! – to reject EU policy and take back our own seas". This wasn't the only stall to mention fishing, which is obviously serious business for UKIP.
Some stalls were carrying promotional material for last year's EU referendum campaign, presumably as mementos for party members and not just because the party is focused on fighting the battles of the past. Other stalls carried material warning of "Brexit betrayal", which is a major concern for the party, particularly after Theresa May's Florence speech. One highlight was the Christian Soldiers – UKIP stall. An article in a magazine they'd produced said they are praying for their god to use Nigel Farage's "strength and talents on the world stage to thwart the efforts of those dreaming of a New World Order". Another article on the "role of women" seemed to suggest women should submit to their husbands to please their god.
Eventually I set up in the gallery overlooking the conference hall and started listening to speeches. The crowd below looked like they were all on day release from retirement homes and, unsurprisingly, were nearly entirely white.
Shortly before the leadership election results came out, Waters appeared. Walking down the side of the conference hall, mobbed by photographers, looking like a leader in waiting, posing for photographs at the side of the stage. Flash bulbs were going off while the speaker tried to continue unfazed as if this interruption wasn't taking place only yards away. Then came the announcement. Waters had come second, with 21.3 percent of the vote. The conference hall erupted: disaster for UKIP had been averted. She was ushered out by UKIP officials who tried to keep journalists and a camera crew away. As she was led down a flight of stairs towards the back exit she refused to confirm she would remain in UKIP after the result. After she had left the building I didn't see her again for the rest of the conference. Her biggest supporters didn't stick around for long, either – within hours one of them announced Waters would form her own political party.
Another group to walk out with Bolton's election was UKIP's LGBT group. During leadership hustings for the leadership election, which took place up and down the country, Bolton revealed he would make London Assembly member David Kurten deputy leader of the party if he won (although Bolton subsequently backtracked at a later hustings). Kurten has recently been in trouble for linking homosexuality to being abused as a child.
Speaking after his victory, Bolton seemed to be aware how close to the precipice his party had come. He referenced Waters' supporters by saying the party had narrowly avoided becoming the "UK Nazi Party". Then he made some efforts to placate her supporters and the reactionary party faithful, saying Britain is being "swamped" by multiculturalism and British culture is being "buried" by Islam.
One person who will be sad to see Waters leave is disgraced former Conservative minister Neil Hamilton, who is now a Welsh Assembly Member for UKIP. Hamilton told me: "Waters has been demonised unfairly over the last few months. I hope we can make use of [Waters'] skills." He added: "She is a very unusual kind of person to have in UKIP; people don't immediately think of UKIP as being as lesbian-friendly, Irish-friendly, woman-friendly and so on. I'm keen to have her as part of a broad-based team of leadership."
How the UK should respond to the country's growing Muslim population is one of the many dividing lines within UKIP. There were a fair few Islamophobes about, but there were also people like Derek Walker from Burton-on-Trent, who wore a T-shirt to the conference emblazoned with the slogan "UKIP is not anti-Islam". He described this as "a direct hit" against Waters.
Friday's business ended with a speech from AfD representative Dr Hugh Bronson MEP. Bronson congratulated UKIP for Brexit and was widely applauded when he revealed AfD had won 94 out of 700 seats in the Bundestag election the previous Sunday.
In his speech, he talked about "so-called refugees" and Britain dodging a bullet in the migrant crisis by opting to leave the EU. Bronson revealed that when he arrived at his hotel a UKIP supporter had told him they would never support the AfD's agenda because he had a Jewish wife and didn't like some of the things senior AfD candidates said during the Bundestag campaign (one said Germany should be proud of its soldiers in both World Wars).
Bronson told the audience: "Be careful not to waste your energy looking for enemies where in fact you have friends," and received another wide round of applause. The audience seemingly values their relationship with the AfD over their colleague who doesn't approve of anti-Semitism. When Bronson's speech ended, he received a standing ovation. It seemed to sum up the weird contradiction of the UKIP conference – they had avoided being taken over by someone with real links to the far right, but they're happy to foster their own.