It doesn’t take long before Julian Deverell gets distracted. Within moments of ordering his coffee, Councillor Paul Crossley walks in and for a few seconds, Julian is lost for words. It isn’t hard to understand why: Julian is running for Parliament next year under the UKIP banner and Cllr. Crossley is Leader of the Liberal Democrat run Council. Come May 2015, UKIP are likely to have played a key part in wiping his party off the map, both locally and nationally.
He quickly gets his attention back and relaxes again, placing a foot on the chair next to him. Campaigning, he tells me, is going well. “It has just kicked off and it has actually surprised us”, he says, “we’ve known that UKIP is doing really well nationally, but Bath has always been somewhere considered by the conventional parties to be not particularly fertile territory.”
The Bath constituency has, indeed, long been a Liberal Democrat stronghold since the election of Don Foster in 1992, who is stepping down next year. Since then the Lib Dems haven’t scored below 40% of the seat’s votes, but four controversial years in a Conservative-led coalition have changed things dramatically. A poll from the Western Daily Press in May this year – shortly before the European Parliament elections – suggested that 25% of voters are aligned with UKIP, just 2% behind the Conservatives and over 10% more than the Liberal Democrats.
“If UKIP were running the Council,” he tells me, “I think it is fair to say we would be a lot less draconian.” At this point, he is referring to Article 4, the controversial measure pushed by the Liberal Democrat Council which meant Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs) – generally used by students – must be distributed more evenly around the city, even if house prices are higher or with poorer transport links. “The problem in Bath is that you have a lot of local residents who make a lot of noise about the ‘student issues’”.
Would a UKIP-led Council abolish Article 4? He isn’t entirely sure. He does, however, promise to be “more proportionate” and not allow the “small minority who shout very loudly and represent students in a very bad way.”
Julian spends little time talking about ‘immigration’ or ‘traditional values’; he is far from the caricature of a UKIP candidate. His buzzwords are ‘libertarianism’ and ‘common sense’, something he extends to the way students, who make up 25% of the city’s population, are perceived by local residents. “I guess that I grew up at the end of a generation when people would knock on each other’s doors to sort things out, but now they phone the Council. And the Council in Bath is very happy to oblige.”
From time to time, Julian does extoll the ‘traditional’ UKIP image on certain social values, in particular, ‘human spurred’ climate change. “We now have a situation where climate change is being taught in schools as being factual,” he tells me, “so if you’re asking why the younger generations believe that, it’s because the government has taught them that.” This was matched with an equally scathing critique of EU-funding on the issue and, naturally, the media’s portrayal of it.
It is on issues like this which might help explain the often negative way young people perceive them. A YouGov poll conducted in October showed that 56% of under-24s believed UKIP were a ‘racist party’, whilst 60% of youths rejected the notion that UKIP is “more in tune with the concerns of people like me than the other three parties”. For a candidate standing in a seat with such a significant student population, a poll by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft which signalled support of only 12% from 18-to-24 year olds might prove some concern.
Julian, however, isn’t deterred: “I think that one of the things about the polls is that they’re all getting it very wrong and things are moving too fast for them and they cannot keep up with the way things are moving.” And he isn’t wrong: the 12% figure is 7% higher than a similar poll taken in June, and it trumps both young people intending to vote Conservative and Liberal Democrat. “One thing I do know is that the Youth Independence movement has seen massive gains in its membership and for the first time we’re launching a group here at the University of Bath.”
Dan Evans is one of the leading Young Independence members, hoping to transform the image of the party and convince students that UKIP is not a one-trick party focussed on Europe. As Young Independence Chairman for Bath & North East Somerset, Evans says that “UKIP propose policies for no tax on the minimum wage (£13,500) and removing tuition fees for science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM) and medicine”, policies he claims “are resonating with students and young people alike.”
This isn’t just hyperbole; Young Independence has seen support shoot up by 40% in the last nine months, taking membership to 2,906 nationally. Evans believes a lot of this is down to the fact that “young people often challenge the status quo messages, and are turning to UKIP for honest and open debate, something that is lacking in the old three parties.”
“Perception problems,” he says, “come primarily because UKIP talk about issues other political parties have called taboo.” But UKIP’s increasingly broad repertoire of policies has also helped convince young people: “Only recently at a university open Q&A we received questions around money creation and using direct democracy in Hong Kong. This shows the spectrum for conversations with UKIP is opening up and we are starting to be treated as a serious player on the political scene”, Evans claims.
UKIPs fleeting attention on youth and student issues in the past might explain why it took so long for Young Independence to mobilise in Bath, but at their party conference last month they unravelled a number of policies including the scrapping of the 50% target for young people in higher education and greatly reduced tuition fees for those in ‘academic’ subjects, such as the so-called STEM courses.
But the decision to rid education policy of targets has been seen by some as countering improvements to social mobility in the last twenty years. “We’re not about targets, we’re about individual people,” Julian says, “the tuition fees were a retrogressive step, but I do believe the target was wrong. You should have the opportunity if it is the right thing to do and you want to do it.”
On student issues relating to the EU, Julian is more uncomfortable. On the topic of Erasmus, the EU grant established to help students work or study abroad for a year, he was unable to comment and danced around how it might affect EU residents studying in the UK, who UKIP would force to pay the far higher international fees, which can be as high as £17,400 a year.
“It’s certainly not going to stop students studying abroad and we’re not talking about stopping immigration, it’s about controlling it and student visas will go on,” he says, “but in terms of the ins-and-outs [of Erasmus and EU-students], I’m no expert and I can’t tell you exactly how that would work.”
A significant proportion of University of Bath students take placement or study years, many of them within EU countries. Meanwhile, around 15% of the student body are European-based.
When asked to name a ‘Mickey Mouse’ subject, the UKIP name for courses deemed less academic, Julian quickly dodged the topic: “I can’t think of any and I’m not going to say any now”.
But Julian is sure of one thing, voting UKIP is the right choice for young people; the difference between UKIP versus the three ‘conventional parties’ “is a prosperous, free country that gives them the opportunity and freedom to prosper again, or an economic disaster.”
It is unlikely that swathes of students will be convinced in the coming months about UKIP’s ability to represent them, both in Bath and across the country. But, for better or for worse, UKIP are now at our doorstep. Julian oozes a likeability which is difficult to explain, it is neither the ‘faux-everyman’ appeal of Nigel Farage nor the sincere confidence of a pre-election Nick Clegg.
Perhaps it is because he isn’t, strictly speaking, a politician; he has never, by his own admission, been involved in local or national politics (he is, in fact, the owner of one of Britain’s largest chessboard manufactuers). He is how UKIP wants to be seen: small government, not isolationist. Common sense, not racist. He might even have ideas which appeal to a number of young people. But with UKIP comes the baggage, something which may well slow him down when campaigning among students.