It is almost a decade since David Cameron declared UKIP to be a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and racists – a description repeated by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi last year when she warned her Party against trying to ‘out UKIP’ Farage’s Party. It is a label that has mostly stuck judging by the angry chants of protestors gathered outside the Midlands Hotel at the election launch of UKIP’s prospective parliamentary candidates (PPCs) for Bradford.
As I entered the opulent ballroom, I was surprised to see a dozen or so ethnic minority UKIP supporters but the packed out crowds that I was anticipating had not materialised. The host acknowledged the low turnout of about 45-50 people and blamed the inclement winter weather. His disappointment was understandable as the Party had defied expectations by fielding not one but two prospective parliamentary candidates of Muslim Pakistani heritage and a full house would have been proof that the Party had shaken off its racist image and was ready to enter the political mainstream.
I was rather more skeptical because I had met Owais Rajput some months earlier, following his decision to stand as Labour’s PPC for Bradford East. His ‘defection’ to UKIP came shortly after he failed to secure the Labour nomination and I was curious about how he would rationalise his switch to UKIP. I was also interested to find out how UKIP would explain Amjad Bashir’s no–show as the keynote speaker, following his high-profile defection to the Tories.
If the audience had felt short-changed at being offered a ‘White’ migration spokesperson, instead of UKIP’s most high-profile ethnic minority politician, they need not have worried. As it turned out Steven Woolfe’s backstory proved to be even more spectacular than the combined Bashir-Boota-Rajput offer that the meeting had been anticipating.
Woolfe declared to the audience that his looks belied the truth about him and his life. He was of mixed-race heritage, brought up on a council estate in Manchester by working class parents at a time when ‘No Irish, No Dogs and No Blacks’ was the dominant coda in race relations and the National Front was on the march. His grandfather was a Black American, his grandmother was Jewish and his other grandparents were Irish. He declared to his audience that he personally understood the debilitating impact that racism had on people’s lives and waving a Hope not Hate leaflet distributed by the protestors who had ‘greeted’ him at the hotel entrance he affirmed, “We are with Them”.
There was no mistaking the fact that Woolfe is a consummate wordsmith and he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hands. He scolded those who labelled UKIP a racist and anti-immigrant party. They do not realise, he asserted, that the Party’s migration policy is ethical because the controls would stem the brain drain of doctors and nurses from poor countries like Malawi and Nigeria. He explained that UKIP wanted to leave the EU and impose a 50,000 annual migration cap because they wanted to attract “talent from across the world’ and “treat everyone in the world equally”.
A protestor, who had infiltrated the meeting, asked why then was the Party in league with the Far-Right, racist, holocaust- denying Polish MEP, Robert Iwaszkiewicz in Europe. Woolfe’s response was that, contrary to popular belief, the Polish MEP would be standing alongside him at a forthcoming Holocaust commemoration event, to condemn anti-Semitism in the EU. So why not take the opportunity, I asked, to also condemn Islamaphobia in view of the increase in targeted attacks of Muslims across the EU, following the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the Paris killings.
There was a response of sorts but no categorical denunciation of the rise in Islamaphobic attacks or even an acknowledgement of its debilitating impact on Muslims. The unease felt by a number of the Muslim UKIP members who were sat next to me was palpable. There were murmurings of “good question” and friendly nods in my direction.
Reality unfortunately has a way of tearing through rhetorical cracks and a question from a party faithful unraveled the Party’s carefully packaged ‘ethical’ stance on immigration. A questioner acknowledged the population pressures brought about by migration but he wanted to know how UKIP intended to tackle the problem of “uncontrolled population growth”. Apparently Bradford had become so overcrowded that there was hardly any place to move.
Clearly, it was an explicit reference to innercity Bradford, where the predominantly Muslim population live cheek-by-jowl in high density and poor quality housing. Surely the comment warranted a reprimand, as what was being implied was that the reproduction rate of UK citizens of Pakistani heritage had to be controlled.
Unfortunately, neither of the two Muslim PPCs hoping to represent the large Muslim electoral constituencies in Bradford West and East challenged the questioner. It was a disappointing, particularly as a number of Muslim UKIP members came up to me after the event and thanked me for challenging the comment.
Whatever the truth behind Boota and Rajput’s political motivation for joining UKIP, it was apparent that they felt unable to challenge the views of its leadership or the UKIP rank and file. Perhaps like Mr. Amjad Bashir, having had little success with the mainstream political parties, they have decided that political expediency is a price worth paying for the prospect of a political prize with UKIP.
Whatever the reasons, both Boota and Rajput should perhaps be mindful of Amjad Bashir’s explanation for leaving UKIP .
“I have been racially abused on social media by other Ukip members who ask offensive questions like: ‘Are you a Muslim?’ … I was outraged when I heard Mr. Farage talk of a ‘fifth column’ of immigrants in Britain. I have worked hard all my life, and when my father came to this country he worked his socks off to provide for his family. It is an insult for him to talk in this way.”
It is difficult to know if Amjad Bashir’s criticism of UKIP is politically convenient or a genuine reaction to the racism and the Islamaphobia he encountered. However on the basis of my personal experience at UKIP’s electoral launch in Bradford, the Party still has a long road to travel before it can claim to be reflective of a truly modern and diverse Britain.