Farage eyes up Labour votes as Ukip march on

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Nigel Farage’s choice of opening words are as revealing as any he uses in the time we spend together.

“I’m not really a politician at all, of course,” the Ukip leader begins, smartly dressed and effortlessly relaxed in the backstreet Westminster restaurant where we meet. “That’s the extraordinary thing. Almost everybody in politics today, from about the age of 14 or 15 they want to be politicians. They have this career path.

“They generally have to go to Eton or St Paul’s – the odd Westminster old boy gets in too.

“They all go to Oxbridge, they all do PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics degrees), and they all become researchers aged 22 or 23, and politicians aged 27 or 28. They are absolutely career politicians.

“I never had any intention of being involved in this at all.”

There, just 30 seconds into the conversation, is the Farage pitch.

He thrives on being a man of the people, a breed apart from the other party leaders, never in danger of taking himself to seriously, unafraid to speak his mind.

It doesn’t seem to matter that he himself attended public school, the £11,000-a-term Dulwich College, a member of the Eton Group.

Never mind that he then spent 20 years or more working as a stockbroker in the City – nor indeed, that he has represented Britain in the European Parliament for almost 15 years, with all the famous perks that go with it.

Mr Farage clearly revels in being anti-establishment; anti-politics even. And it is a patter which is working for him.

The party he helped to found way back in 1992 has come of age this year; winning scores of council seats in May’s local elections and finishing in second place in both the Eastleigh and South Shields by-elections.

He accepts his party’s surge in popularity is in part a protest against those in charge.

“Yes, it is a rejection of the career political class – of that there is no doubt,” he says. “A sense of ‘they’re all the same, they don’t offer very much’... All of that is true.”

But for Mr Farage, Ukip’s support cuts far deeper than a mere protest by disaffected Tories.

He speaks of public meetings in places such as Hull and Grimsby, where it is clear the Ukip message has spread far beyond the Right.

“There’s still the Daily Mail view that everyone who votes for Ukip is a retired half-Colonel living on Salisbury Plain, with extremely right-wing views on absolutely everything,” he says. “It really isn’t like that.”

He points to polling by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft which showed a fairly even split of Ukip defectors from all three main parties.

“The message is we are drawing (from) across the board,” he says.

There is evidence in Yorkshire to support the thesis – most recently his party’s by-election victory in a rock-solid Labour council seat in Rotherham last month, which followed success in two former Tory seats in North Yorkshire.

“The further north you go in England, the greater the percentage of Labour voters that vote for us,” he says.

Winning Labour votes is important for Ukip, partly because it helps neutralise the Tories’ 2015 strategy – the message that a vote for Nigel Farage might let Ed Miliband in by the back door.

“But what’s the difference anyway?” he asks. “I spent 20 years in the commodities business – quite an important part of the British economy. It is irrelevant now to my brother and my son, who work in that industry, totally irrelevant who is in Downing Street.

“Every piece of legislation that affects that industry now comes from (Europe). It doesn’t really matter who wins the General Election. We’ve given so much away.”

He is as confident as you would expect discussing Europe, and even more so on immigration.

He talks about the “anger” of people who wait hours at A&E departments “because the population has exploded, and the resources just aren’t there to cope.”

I point out that many of those hospitals actually rely on large numbers of staff from overseas.

“Well let me tell you, that is bringing huge problems,” he says. “We have a lot of doctors now in Britain whose medical standards are not up to scratch.

“We’ve got reciprocal arrangements with all the doctors in Europe, and a lot of these people are qualified under the old competence system, and are not up to speed. They simply had lower standards. Having said that, there are some very good people from Eastern Europe.”

Intriguingly, he says Ukip is now drawing up a radical new approach to the NHS, which he says is “clearly” in crisis.

“(Tony) Blair doubled spending on the NHS, and did we get a better bang for our buck? No,” he says. “I was at Leeds General Infirmary recently and I met lots of good people, trying very hard, but battling against the system – and it struck me it wasn’t working.

“I’m going to have a completely fresh think about how we’re organising and funding public health in this country.”

He extols the virtues of the way France out-sources care to the private sector, but insists he is “not talking about privatisation”.

Healthcare, he says, will be a key area as the party makes a more serious pitch to the electorate than in 2010, when its manifesto included a raft of uncosted promises including three new high-speed rail lines, £30bn on flood defences, and a flat-rate tax for high and low-earners alike.

The document, regularly cited by Ukip’s opponents, is no longer on the party website.

“No. We’ve burnt it,” he laughs.