The UKIP press officer said he hadn’t heard of VICE, and he wanted us to leave. Our photographer Cian Oba-Smith was trying to check his bags into the cloakroom when the guy – a former journalist himself – popped up behind us and told the attendant to immediately return them. “These boys are going now,” he breathed. He didn’t like the way Cian had been taking photos of the UKIP gift shop and the raffle on the way in, but who could resist shooting a pewter bulldog with the Union Jack on his back and the EU flag between his teeth? Maybe the two of us looked pretty out of place at a conference that was, with a couple of exceptions, a sea of white hair and skin, but eventually we managed to talk him into letting us stay – provided we behaved.
This year's UKIP Party Conference took place at the Riviera Centre in Torquay, Devon and from the time we arrived on Friday night there was a tension in the air. A recent poll had support for UKIP running somewhere around 19 percent of the national vote. They’ve been bolstered by beating both the Tories and the Lib Dems in recent Northern by-elections, and in this May’s European elections they could easily take a quarter of the vote. But in the eyes of the watching world, the last conference hadn't been a great success. Largely because UKIP member and then-UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom stole the limelight by calling some women "sluts" before hitting a journalist with a rolled up conference programme.
So, with much at stake, UKIP are viewing journalists with about as much suspicion as they would a second-generation British Asian – we were allowed in, but not without having our credentials scrutinised.
I was pleased to be allowed to stay. It meant that I could have a punt on the raffle and get the chance to win a pack of UKIP ale (I couldn't make out the text on the label but let's face it, it's not lager), or a second-hand "Self-Scoring Intelligence Test for Dogs". My plan was to win both, get my dog pissed and once and for all settle the question: Is it stupid to hate the EU? In the event, I didn't win but at least I had dared to dream.
As the conference kicked into gear, Patrick O’Flynn, UKIP’s Director of Communications and political columnist for the Daily Express, took to the stage. He used his speech – "War of Words: The Media Battle Ahead" – to warn the party’s members that they must watch out for the “elephant traps” set by the press.
“In most parties, 50 or 60 percent of their positive media impact will come from their leader,” he said. “In a party like UKIP, it’s more like 85 percent.” That seems about right, with Nigel Farage being more personable than the average party bureaucrat, and UKIP's membership being more bigoted than most. O'Flynn basically warned the grey masses that while there was the off chance they might say something that would actually improve UKIP's election chances, they were probably more likely to ruin everything by being wildly offensive.
O’Flynn sounded like a man terrified of the sort of eccentrics who make up his own party. There was more evidence of this distrust at a lunchtime fringe meeting, when a Telegraph reporter and various other members of the press were initially barred from a discussion about Sharia law in the UK. By the time I arrived all the journalists had been let in and UKIP European Election candidate Amjad Bashir was coming out firmly against “beheading”, among other things, which was a great relief to hear.
Right on cue, the first speaker from the floor, who identified himself as a “UKIP activist”, jumped up to ask Bashir how he can possibly call himself both, “a Muslim and a proud Englishman”? The UKIP spokespeople were quick to dismiss the question, but it seemed to be enough to prove why O’Flynn is so worried about his own rank and file – they have about as much tact as a man on fire.
I decided to go and talk to as many UKIP members as I could, to see if they really were as dumb as their own leadership seems to think. I heard the usual complaints about uncontrolled immigration and foreigners from various people. Then I spoke to Richard Fairman, a UKIP Councillor for Spalding East & Moulton, Lincolnshire.
"When I was campaigning in Wythenshawe recently, I knocked on every door in a street and roughly half were for us," he said. "Those that were against us were very, very hostile. We’ve never had that before. Those that were against us before considered us to be a bit of a joke. Now, we’re a real opposition. They said in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1943, a little bit before your time, the German submarines suddenly started shooting at our escort ships. They said that is the point where we knew we were winning. They thought they could take the escorts out and then go back for the others. Of course, the escorts were too good for them. Royal Navy, you know!
"We now know we’re winning. The Conservatives think they have a monopoly on patriotism. They do not. Flanders' fields are full of Labour patriots." Call me a cynic, but I've never thought of electioneering for UKIP to be comparable to fighting against the Nazis.
Torquil Dick-Erikson starkly warned us, "Continental Europe has a totally different system and they wish to impose it on us through a thing called 'Corpus Juris'. It will mean goodbye to trial by jury and goodbye to habeas corpus. A very different system is intended to be brought in." Then I asked if he was heavily involved in UKIP campaigning and he told me he lives in Rome.
Juliet Cianne Fortescue Rumble has been donating money to UKIP for "quite some time". “I’ve also done a portrait of Nigel Farage, which he has in his home," she told me. "I’m a budding artist, shall we say. Trying to get somewhere on that.”
I have no idea if UKIP have strong policies on arts funding but I'm willing to bet they're more Tate Britain than Tate Modern.
One of the less weathered faces at the conference belonged to this young gunslinger – 21-year-old Sean Howlett, a financial advisor from Hertfordshire. But that didn't mean he was some hipster bandwagon jumper. "I've been a member since 2010 – before the General Election. I'm disillusioned with the Conservative Party and I never trusted Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister, so UKIP was sort of like the 'rebel's cause', in a way."
I don't know, a 17-year-old joining a party run by and for people who want to punish the young doesn't seem that rebellious, but there you go, James Dean's dead and I guess we have Nigel Farage now.
Now, you might have heard about this already, but shockingly some of the UKIP delegates weren't on their best behaviour at the conference. In fact, that guy Howlett was joined on a yacht by a reporter from the Mirror, who observed – get ready for this – party members eating antipasti and drinking champagne. Inevitably, this debauchery led to all sorts of views being aired. But mostly racist ones about Afghans and Arabs.
Two people who probably weren't caught out by booze over the course of the weekend were Sally Grant and Philip Foster, members of Christian Soldiers in UKIP – a group who claim to be "Fighting through Christ for deliverance from EU tyranny". I asked Philip why God hates the EU so much.
"What lies behind capitalism and Adam Smith are basic Christian principles of personal liberty, the right to property and respect for honesty in dealings. A free market only works with an unlevel playing field. If we’re all evened out, you won’t have anything I need, and I won’t have anything you need. The European Union is not a free market. It’s a customs union, which is quite a different thing. It’s a level playing field that’s held like that by regulation. They destroy free trade. Adam Smith would be tearing his hair out."
Away from the theatre where the speeches were taking place were a load of stalls advertising fringe groups like Philip’s Christian Soldiers and various MEPs trying to build their personal brands. There were various print firms advertising here, as well – one with their own cut-out-and-keep Nigel Farage, making him look like the gregarious owner of a second-hand car dealership who insists on being in his own adverts. I couldn't help but wonder if placing a laughing Nigel Farage next to a picture of an explosion was the best idea. It seemed dangerously close to that mocked up Tony Blair selfie.
There was also a stall for something called “The Great UKIP Balloon Launch”, which will stick it to the EU by letting a load of foil balloons waft over the channel. A less insightful political reporter would surely work this for a "full of hot air" gag, or one about "lightweight policies" but I’m content to point out that sending a heart-shaped balloon across the channel probably won't come across as the insult UKIP intend it to.
When the time for Farage’s speech came round, the hall was packed. The crowd couldn’t have been more hyped if Cliff Richard himself were due onstage. Farage in person is a great grinning caricature of himself, like Blackadder’s Captain Darling if he were a Muppet.
He clearly thinks of himself as a fearless warrior, a man who's unafraid to say the unsayable. When he referred to the councillor that UKIP recently kicked out for saying that flooding had been caused by gay marriage, he added, “Although… it is raining outside!” and laughed at his own joke for – I timed it – a full ten seconds. “I promised everybody I wouldn’t say that,” he added with a shit-eating grin.
It’s easy to mock UKIP for being old, white and out of touch with life in Britain’s cosmopolitan cities, but old white people who are out of touch with life in Britain’s cosmopolitan cities decide elections. And there’s a widespread perception that the three main parties in the Westminster clique are just as out of touch with life beyond their respective bubbles. UKIP have already succeeded in pushing Conservatives to the right on Europe, and Farage is confident he can do the same to Labour by threatening their marginal seats. When all the piss-taking is done, it's a sign of how low our opinion of professional politicians has sunk that these eccentrics have become a serious force in British politics.