"It's PC this, PC that," said Mary, the lady next to me, as we headed into Margate's Winter Gardens together. "Multiculturalism and open borders just isn't working, and we need to stop it. I've had enough of the thought police telling me I can't say it."
I was in Margate for UKIP's spring conference. The party's PR machine had a tough week, so it was no surprise that the conference kicked off with a reminder for members to be on their best behaviour. "Folks, you know what not to do," said Tim Scott, Chairman of UKIP South East and prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) for Beaconsfield. "They're scared of us, let's not give them any ammunition."
About that coverage, then. Over the past week, Channel 4 had projected a worrying timeline of the party taking power; we saw Rozanne Duncan talking about how she has "a problem with negroes" and "people with negroid features" on a BBC2 documentary; a UKIP official claimed the Taliban were running a whiplash insurance scam in Leicester; several UKIP candidates were reported to have posted a racist BNP cartoon online. You get the idea.
Taking my seat, I noticed that the average age of the crowd must have been around 65. In the space of an hour, hospital parking costs were mentioned five times, a £130 million-a-year budget was earmarked for dementia and the regulation of care homes was to be "shaken up". I was beginning to think I was at the local day centre, until Louise Bours MEP started talking.
UKIP health spokeswoman and Nick Griffin's constituency successor – who went by the name Louise van de Bours until 2013 – proclaimed, to rapturous applause, "It's not fair for the British taxpayer to pay for foreign nationals to use the NHS. This is Britain."
Downstairs, the merch stall was buzzing, with necklaces, rings and tote bags up for grabs. I got myself a mug, hoping Farage might sign it when he showed up later.
It was only the start of day one, but already the atmosphere was growing dry. A fair few of the seated pensioners had bowed their heads forward for a mid-morning nap. Deputy leader Paul Nuttall was moaning about the SNP on stage, so I headed out to the exhibition fair to have a chat with the Kippers.
Among the tables filled with UKIP-branded purple scarves and weird homemade fox hunting badges was Phillip Foster, a long-serving party member representing the Christian Soldiers in UKIP. He was explaining, at length, the reasons why global warming is bullshit and that, in fact, CO2 levels are actually "dangerously low".
I slowly stepped away as he shoved a pile of leaflets into my hand. I was looking for a bin to throw them in (not a recycling one, though – no need since the environment isn't fucked), but noticed an unassuming flyer called "CHIPS with everything", an "exposé" on the fastest growing and most dangerous force currently taking over Britain: the gays.
"What the LGBT is achieving, of course, is a recruitment drive," I read. "They must recruit fresh blood and this is best done among children in schools, the younger the better."
There were hundreds of these flyers all over the place. Clearly, UKIP had confused gay people with vampires – as I often do myself. When it got onto the subject of same-sex attraction, it read: "Children still have a natural sense of shame about such things." I turned back to the stall and saw that Mark Reckless MP (who was sued by the Tories over wasted campaign expenses) had come to say hello. Him and Foster go "way back", I was told.
Feeling pretty uncomfortable by this point – it being crystal clear now why UKIP's LGBT Chair had resigned from the party just days before – I took a seat next to a friendly-looking bloke, thinking it couldn't get much worse. I was wrong.
Winston McKenzie, self-described "really tough dude", has been a member of at least five different parties, yet has failed to ever be elected. He's standing to be an MP in Croydon, a place he described to me like this: "If you can't see it's a dump, then you need some psychological help."
Despite his electoral failure, McKenzie maintains he's "one of the most experienced politicians in the country – I've sat on all different sides of the fences, I get around, I'm a real man". I wasn't sure if he was coming on to me at this point, so to test the water I asked him about his previous homophobic remarks and what he made of the gays generally.
"The LGBT community exists," he affirmed. "They are real, regardless of whether you believe in what they do or not." He went on to explain that there are people "it seems, within that community, who are actually happy to live that way".
McKenzie also held a pretty strong stance on the idea of same-sex SRE, believing that it should be segregation all the way. "You have to look at the majority and what they're feeling," he said. "If you have parents who say they don't want their children to learn about LGBT stuff, then you have to have segregation."
Really? "Yes, then the teacher would tell the straight ones why the others are against them."
He went on: "There was some controversy when I said that gays and lesbians shouldn't adopt. It's against my beliefs. I said that it was tantamount to child abuse, but I still believe that."
It was lunchtime by this point, so I headed back to the main hall to consider whether I – as a gay man – should be allowed near children. A woman munched away on a packed lunch next to me, repeatedly offering me one of her cheese sandwiches. We started to chat. I'd been keen to speak to other non-white party members – the majority of whom seemed to be PPCs for the 2015 election – and this woman turned out to be Rathy Alagaratnam, the hopeful future MP for Dulwich.
An ex-Labour activist, she told me why she left. "Labour talks so much about people having an equal share, but they're not. You still have just a few people owning a whole lot of property compared to the majority of us," she said. I asked whether, in that case, socialism was a UKIP policy. "Like everything in life, UKIP takes time. I'm thinking about the future."
Unsurprisingly, talk turned to immigration pretty quickly. "What about the Malaysian airlines flight that disappeared?" she asked. "You could have had people who were illegal immigrants. Maybe there was a crime racket going on that we don't know about on board. If it had crashed the box would have been found."
I went back inside.
Up on stage was Nathan Gill MEP, who was talking foreign aid. He kicked off with eight reasons why we need to cut the aid budget. Coming it at number six: "It goes to terrorists". A leaflet that was handed out as he spoke helpfully pointed out that foreign aid is actually spent on "giving dance lessons to Africans", and on "Palestinian children trained by the government in 'Paradise Camps' to become suicide bombers".
The couple next to me were getting restless. "When will Nige be on? I want to get home for The Simpsons," one said. Waiting for the headline act, one bloke whispered to his friend that he needed a slash, but couldn't risk missing the big speech. Then the crowd went ape-shit. Nige was up.
Farage entered as a cult-like figure, whipping the audience into a whooping frenzy just by putting one foot in front of the other. He talked about the politics of hope and how much he hated the establishment – the result, one can only assume, of hanging out with Owen Jones too much.
At UKIP's last conference in Doncaster, Mark Reckless MP had defected. I was expecting another big name to join him on stage, but instead Farage introduced Harriet Yeo, an ex-Labour politician. No one seemed to know who she was, but gave her a standing ovation nonetheless.
"It's not an international or European health service, but a British National Health Service for the British national people," she said as part of her opening gambit. Just in case anyone doubted her right-wing credentials, she then assured us that, on welfare, she makes Iain Duncan Smith "look warm and cuddly".
Sitting next door I found Neil Hamilton, Deputy Chairman of UKIP. Conversation turned to now ex-UKIP Councillor Rozanne Duncan's racist rant. "People with unacceptable opinions should leave, but that's not to say we take the bludgeon to anyone with some weird views on the world," he said.
I showed him the gay vampire literature to see what he made of it: "They presumably believe the big man with a beard in the sky will probably be really displeased with all this stuff."
Is there really a space within UKIP for people who preach this hate, though? "I don't get too worked up about people with weird religious views," he said.
Hamilton talked about a public mood of anti-establishment politics, but as a former Tory MP with his own expenses controversy, he's clearly pretty establishment. He had a strong message to the anti-UKIP protesters expected to show the next day: "Don't think our vote will be diminished by abuse yelled by losers."
Farage had announced an Australian-style points system as the answer on immigration. I asked Harjinder Sehmi, an Indian-born hopeful MP, if he'd have had enough points when he arrived in the UK. "No, actually," he said. "I moved here to get married."
As the first day of the conference winded down and the centre was emptied, I heard someone shout, "Where are the racists?" from down a stairwell. A ruddy-faced man appeared. He took a picture of the programme, before getting into a shouting match with a Kipper about who was "really the racist", before finally being chased away by a throng of guards.
On my way to the hotel, I asked my cab driver, Riaz, how he coped with the UKIP rise in the area. "They're ignorant," he says. "They don't realise the history or what built this country. Imperialism built this country – these people have no idea. That this country is just for white people is completely wrong. If they don't like it, they should leave".
At the hotel, the man on reception was pretty sure UKIP would win his vote. He reckoned that Farage was "bringing attention to an area that's been completely forgotten", and he had a point. As one local pointed out earlier, "When even the McDonalds is shutting down, you know you're fucked."
Arriving for breakfast in the morning, the man from reception was chatting to the table next to me, a crowd of Kippers, about his childhood. "I remember in RE, our teacher made us go home and make a list of Jews," he said. "I could only think of one – Des O'Conner – so I just wrote a list of juices instead."
I was mentally trying to get to the bottom of the Des O'Conner thing, but got distracted by the hotelier shouting "Jews/Juice" as he replenished the miniature marmalades.
It was time to head back to the conference for round two.
Janice Atkinson, UKIP MEP and the party's spokesperson for women, was up first. She bemoaned the "London liberal elite" who insisted on having a Minister for Women and Equality – something she intends to scrap. She was visibly angry as she talked about how shops no longer sell pink toys for girls, before scolding the media for describing female politicians by their "hair, cleavage and clothes".
As she left the stage, the Chair (a guy called Steve) and the Party Director called out for some men who were needed by "the woman in the bright yellow blazer" next door. I tried to catch up with Atkinson after her speech, but she wasn't keen on talking. An aide told her I was from VICE, then she grabbed a passing UKIP staffer and whispered in his ear as they rushed off together. Once around the corner she thanked him and walked away, thinking I could no longer see. It's a shame, really. I'd hoped to ask Janice about why she used the term "ting tong" for a Thai woman, or why she'd piggybacked on the serious issue of child trafficking to offer her warnings on Eastern European "gang masters" infecting Margate.
I nipped outside to find Deputy Chair of the party, Suzanne Evans, on a UKIP bus. With Atkinson avoiding me, I asked Evans if she thought someone who uses "ting-tong" was in a position to call for a scrapping of the Minister for Equality post. "I don't think she is racist," said Evans. "She just made a mistake. If we're going to have a Minster for Women, we need to have one for men... they need representation." Yes, lads!
Back inside, I asked seven different people who was on stage. No one had a clue. Whoever it was was spouting nonsense about Europe. "At the risk of sounding melodramatic, let's suppose our leader was issued with a European arrest warrant for allegedly stealing a chicken from a Carrefour in France," was one of his most memorable sentences.
Peter Baillie, another parliamentary candidate, told me about the secretive ball held for members only the night before. "It certainly wasn't the black and white ball," he explained – a reference to the Tory Mayfair bash held a few weeks ago, rather than an observation on the lack of racial diversity, I hoped.
By this point I was desperate to talk to a young Kipper. There are over 3,000 members of Young Independence, the UKIP youth wing, but finding someone under the age of 40 had been pretty challenging. So 15-year-old Jonathan, dressed sharply in a suit and tie, cut quite a conspicuous figure. "UKIP want to introduce grammar schools, so people from all backgrounds can have a better education," he said.
"Some of my teachers are Labour and we have a bit of banter, but some of them are just horrible to me," he explained. I asked what he made of voting at 16. "At the moment I don't think it's a good idea. Our education system fails to teach us about politics properly, so it's very easy for far-left or far-right organisations to indoctrinate us." Is that why he's part of UKIP? "No," he said, firmly. "I'm different."
Feeling saddened by my conversation with Jonathan, I fell into the path of a lady called Linda, from West London, who had joined UKIP in November, popping her party political cherry.
"It's like when you get into a lift," she said, on immigration. "At first you can all fit in, but then people don't." On accusations of the party's racism, she dismissed it as "nonsense", stating with some rigour how she had friends "from lots of different backgrounds". But then things took a strange turn as she told me how any racist headline was part of a conspiracy from the far-left. "I keep thinking, logically speaking, 'Are these people planted into the party?' There are some people with their own axes to grind, with the primary intention of bringing us down, and Councillor Duncan may well be one of them," she actually said.
Outside the main entrance stood eight members of far-right group Britain First. Led by Steve Lewis, their regional commanding officer, they stood guard to counter "the communist left-wing militia" gathering down the promenade. He said he "quite liked" UKIP, adding he "wasn't fussed" when I pointed out that Farage has banned people from "extremist" groups from joining. Instead, he told me how busy him and his mates had been "stopping the Islamification of the UK".
Sue Sanders, Chair of Schools Out, was waving a rainbow flag outside the venue. I was about to call security, but thought I'd better check if she really was here on the hunt for fresh blood first. Turns out she wasn't, instead saying, "It's a load of shite."
Walking down towards the protest I met a man called Robert who lived down the road. He told me UKIP "attract a whole load of racists" and explained that "this nationalism all started in Germany in the 1930s. In the end, they'll put you in a uniform and fascism is go."
I turned back to Britain First, whose members were all decked out in their trademark embroidered green fleeces. More than 500 protesters blocked the road, but a car got through. It was a Polish man, driving towards ASDA. He wound down his window, telling a group of trade union types with a London Branch Banner to "fuck off back to where they'd come from".
Back in the crowd, a couple called Eve and Steve had travelled from France for the protest, striking a double blow to the Kippers inside. Keeping an eye on my wallet, I asked Eve what she was trying to nick, as I'd heard inside that the French were trying to steal British schools, jobs and car parks. She was having none of it. "He's exploiting peoples fears," she said, on Farage, "and leaving the real issues behind."
Earlier in the afternoon one UKIP MEP had called this lot the "great unwashed", but Steve was adamant that he'd showered that very morning. Just in case, the lads from Britain First were on hand, spraying deodorant in the faces of the lefties marching past.
Shortly after, a man called Prophet Zebediah (above) rocked up. A founding member of the Al-Zebabist Nation of OOOG, he's running against Farage in the constituency, demanding that Thanet be cut off from England to form an independent state. His manifesto pledges include "the peaceful annihilation of Broadstairs, giving one half to Margate and the other half to Ramsgate", as well as turning "the college into a barracks to train the youth ready for the coming war against England". He was up for battle with the People's Army of UKIP, it seemed, telling me that "England is doomed."
Just after Sandrom, a German man who'd joined the march, introduced me to his pregnant wife – whose imminent due date would proudly see "another immigrant child taking up space in Kent" – two men across the road in England shirts were shouting, "Send them all home," among other slurs. Another Kipper – all in tweed – came out to tell the protesters that Farage "will invest in mental health, to sort you loons right out".
Back inside, I made a final attempt to chat with Martyn Heale (like Atkinson, he seemed very reluctant to talk to VICE), who used to be in the National Front. Unfortunately, he wasn't having it. It was time to leave. As I exited the conference centre for the final time, I stumbled across a woman, standing alone and telling the last dregs of the party faithful that she thought they were "racists, fascist, nasty people". She lived locally, and looked exhausted by it all.
Of course, once the media had all pissed off, Margate would have to carry on as before. Many of its inhabitants believe that UKIP are bringing attention to an area that feels like it's been forgotten. They feel forgotten themselves: unemployment is high, shops are empty and, unless you're part of the increasing influx of ex-Londoners able to actually buy property there, there is still a pervading sense of hopelessness in this east Kent town.
I grabbed some chips on the way back to the station, asking a lady in the queue what she made of the party. "I know sod all about politics, but at least this lot are here," she said. "I'm not convinced that they're right, but it feels like they're trying."
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