10 days to go…

We’re just 10 days away from the European elections, and many people will have already voted by post. UKIP is at the top of the polls, but at the bottom of the ballot paper here in the North East. Today, we filmed in Gateshead for Look North. There was nearly two hours of filming, for a piece which will be edited down to 6 minutes. I was surprised that the other candidates all gave long-winded answers to every question: we’ll each get about a minute in total in the final version, so there really wasn’t time to develop a long narrative. There’s no guessing what will and won’t end up on the chopping-room floor, but hopefully I’ve got some good crisp answers in there!

If what we’re seeing on the streets is anything to go by, this election really is looking massive for us. A few recent experiences on the campaign trail bear out what we’re seeing in the opinion polls. I was surprised that two members of the public actually recognised me from the Sunday Politics last week. One lady had attended Sage Gateshead and heard Nigel Farage and I speak already; she tells me that she’s planning to join the Party. Another was enthusiastically pro-UKIP (if wanting an even tougher line than we would take). Still another, local to Gateshead, will (after speaking to John Tennant) even be going out leafleting for UKIP at the weekend!

Members of the public sitting in the ‘hot seat’ were a good spread. There were two pro-EU questioners, four anti-, one concerned about unemployment, and one non-EU national currently fighting deportation from the UK. One of the two who was pro-EU came with a file of paperwork, having clearly decided he wanted to grill anyone who disagreed with him. More there to make a political point, than being a member of the public passing through, I think. The other pro-EU member of the public was more interesting: he believed the scare stories about Nissan – but then, he had worked for an energy company. He didn’t seem to spot the connection between the decline in manufacturing and artificially high energy prices thanks to the EU. I could have pointed this out, but not in a ‘soundbite’ that would work well on television.

I believe the programme will be shown on Wednesday evening. In the meantime, I have BBC Radio Newcastle for half an hour tomorrow morning and then it’s a public meeting at the Cleveland Bay in Redcar in the evening. Wednesday I’ll be teaching (for the last time?) and then a public meeting in Darlington in the evening. Everything’s busy, and all the candidates are clearly quite tired from the campaign.

On Saturday, we saw yet another positive reaction to UKIP in Darlington. With a team of 3 candidates covering the area from Darlington to Berwick-upon-Tweed, we have to split up. Neil Hamilton supported the campaign in South Shields, whilst I was in Darlington with the local branch. I know that North Tyneside also had members out on the ground, and no doubt other branches were out campaigning too. We didn’t just see new UKIP voters where I was, but potential new members. Even the pouring rain at some points didn’t deter people coming up to the stall. My personal favourite was a couple who had never in 40 years voted the same way. She’d voted Labour all her life; he had voted for almost everyone but Labour and in recent years he hadn’t voted at all. Now both enthusiastic UKIP voters; for the first time, they’ll both be voting for the same party.

This year, I think turnout will be higher than in 2009. That year, people were staying at home in protest over the expenses scandal. This time, I think those who intend to vote UKIP are fairly motivated. The fact that UKIP is topping the opinion polls has galvanised our opponents too, to try to stop us. Last time the turnout in the North East was just 30.4%. I expect it to be substantially higher this time, and if I had to guess I’d say somewhere around 35-37%.

People care about immigration, and jobs. These issues are hit time and time again on the doorstep. Ultimately, only UKIP offers answers: the other parties won’t control immigration. And if you want to create jobs, the answer is to make British businesses competitive.

Finally, Guido Fawkes posted a picture of the UKIP North East minibus parked in a disabled bay. Our opponents were quick to judge, forgetting to check the rather obvious point. The bus was displaying a badge because the driver is, in fact, disabled. Yet another failed attempt to smear UKIP.

Our opponents are terrified of us, and with good reason. Bring on the election!

Ground-breaking poll shows UKIP leading in the North

For the first time, UKIP is in the lead for the European elections across the North of England – according to a poll for YouGov.  The figures show that UKIP has overtaken the Labour Party – see page 2 of the data here for the full poll, including regional breakdown for the North.

UKIP 35%

Labour 33%

Conservatives 16%

Liberal Democrats 6%

Green Party 9%

What does this mean for the parties in the North East of England?  Firstly, it’s a huge bonus for UKIP.

The regional breakdown is based on just over 400 people – so it’s not exactly the smallest of sample sizes.  This isn’t a guarantee of success, for many reasons:

1.  The margin of error for 400 people is roughly +/-5%

2. We  don’t know whether the North East is truly representative of the North

3.  We’re still nearly 4 weeks away from the election.  One poll showed the Lib Dems would ‘win’ the General Election a few weeks before polling day in 2010; that didn’t happen or even come close to happening.

On the other hand, there’s every reason to be optimistic:

1.  Across the country, when only those ‘certain to vote’ are taken into account, the UKIP lead increases by another 5%.  Turnout in the European elections is usually low (c.35%) and this poll shows 46% of people are ‘certain to vote’.  Perhaps the ‘certain to vote’ figure is an even better reflection of the true picture?

2.  This poll isn’t a one-off.  UKIP across the North were 10% behind Labour a few weeks ago, then the gap closed to 4% – and UKIP has had a lot of publicity recently.  A poll putting UKIP in the lead is hardly a surprise, so there’s no reason to suppose that this is an outlier.

3.  UKIP’s support has always gone up during the final weeks of a European election campaign; it may well do so again.  We’re confident that our election address leaflet will be far better than the other parties, and we’re running a billboard campaign in two waves – which others don’t seem to be.

There are a lot of caveats here.  But IF this were to hold across the North East of England, then out of the three seats UKIP would take TWO, and Labour just ONE.  Could Richard Elvin be on his way to Brussels?

What does it mean for Labour?  Well, on the face of it Labour’s vote would be increasing – although they would be disappointed not to gain a second seat.  The problem for Labour is that the North East has been their traditional heartland – so if they were to be beaten across the region they would have to acknowledge that UKIP are now a genuine threat to them.

What does it mean for the Conservatives?  At these figures, their vote would hold up reasonably well in the North East.  It would ‘only’ have dropped by about 4% since 2009.  But they would still lose their seat, which doesn’t offer much comfort.

What does it mean for the Liberal Democrats?  This result would be rather humiliating for them, as they would drop into fifth place behind the Greens.   At this point I might be expected to crow about the demise of the Liberal Democrats, but I won’t do so.

So far in this campaign, the Green Party candidate has been somewhat less than honest about UKIP.  Most if not all of her claims about UKIP have been untrue – for example the claim that UKIP ‘wants people on minimum wage to pay the same tax as millionaires’.  This is an appalling slur – UKIP believes people on minimum wage should pay ZERO in income tax and national insurance.

By contrast, although I profoundly disagree with the Liberal Democrat candidate, she has at least presented her views honestly and fairly – that much cannot be said about the Labour or Green campaigns (the Conservative campaign has been conspicuous by its absence).

I suspect, though, that the Liberal Democrats are resigned to losing their North East seat at these elections.  They sneaked the third North East seat just 2% ahead of UKIP in 2009; since then, their vote has plummeted as UKIP’s has surged.  As their candidate said on Radio Tees after the first Farage v Clegg debate, “He [Nigel Farage] is a more popular leader of a more popular party”.  I couldn’t have put it better myself.

 

 

Sage Gateshead event a huge success

Yesterday was, without a doubt, the best day on the campaign trail so far. The media scrum, of course, turned up to Yarm to do interviews with UKIP Leader Nigel Farage MEP in the early afternoon. I did a few brief interviews, but nothing major.

Not long after stepping off the bus, Nigel met a member of the public – who said that he’d be voting UKIP after decades of being a non-voter.

Then we had the public meeting at Sage Gateshead. With just over 1,200 people present it was the biggest public meeting ever in the history of UKIP. Once again, there was plenty of media there.

Sage Gateshead is a phenomenal venue, and what a statement of intent it was from UKIP to hold a public meeting at such a venue!

The promised ‘massive protests’ were something of a damp squib, much bigger on Twitter than in reality. A few dozen far-left protesters and a smaller number of far-right protesters did turn up, but given the internet hype by those protesting on Twitter I’d expected far more protesters to turn up.

What really strikes me about far-left and far-right protesters is the hatred. I agree with many people, I disagree with many people. But there’s no reason for bitterness, hostility or the pure bile spewed out by so many of them.

Two of them were inside, and chose to chant slogans football-style at Nigel Farage at the start of his speech. Nigel, to his credit, tried to engage them in debate – but they just continued to chant until they had to be escorted from the building. Fundamentally, that’s the difference: we believe in freedom of speech and democracy for all; they believe in freedom of speech only if you happen to agree with their own world view.

My own speech went down very well. The audience reaction was warm, and it’s possibly the biggest audience I’ve ever spoken to. Speaking in front of a large (500+) audience is dramatically different from any other kind of public speaking. Content which ‘works’ in front of an audience of 1000 may not go down well with an audience of 50, and to an extent vice versa.

I focused on UKIP v Labour; there have been so many anti-UKIP attacks by Labour in the North East that it was time to set the record straight. With the media there, it was good to be asked the ‘75% of laws’ question and to be able to explain in detail why Clegg’s 6.8% and 14% are just plain wrong.

When Nigel Farage asked later, most audience members said that they weren’t (yet) UKIP members. That’s the most encouraging part of having these public meetings, like we’ve been doing up and down the region. We’re meeting real people. We’re the only party going out there and doing it.

On the campaign trail so far, I’ve met a number of card-carrying Labour members saying they intend to vote UKIP this time. One lady said she’d been so impressed that I ‘spoke better than Ed Milliband’ – I’m not entirely sure how impressive that ‘feat’ is really – and that she’d vote UKIP in the Europeans. The best one, though, was a couple who’d been Labour Party members for about 125 years (combined!). They couldn’t bring themselves to resign from a Party they once loved, but whose policies had betrayed them so much over years. They’d remain members of Labour till the day they die, but are out persuading friends and family to come across and support us. It’s the sheer enthusiasm of new ‘converts’ to the cause that never ceases to amaze me.

But back to Sage Gateshead. It was an incredible event, with so much work having gone in to organising it. I thanked Amjad Bashir on stage for funding the cost of the hall (what a gesture!) but so many people did a sterling job to make it happen. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the volunteers. We needed around 40 volunteers to make the event run smoothly, and they did their jobs very professionally.

The media coverage is positive, our campaign is off to a flying start and I’m looking forward to the campaign becoming even more intense. This morning, two more media ‘dates for the diary’ have come up. We’re less than a month from May 22nd, not long now to go – but remember, the hard work doesn’t stop on May 23rd.

After all, there’s a General Election for the Party to fight.

 

UKIP candidates’ Brussels visit

The European Parliament and surrounding buildings are the perfect metaphor for the institutions themselves.  Everything is larger than life, expensive and luxurious.  Floor upon floor of office space dominates the skyline and everything around it, with an army of staff shuttling backwards and forwards – from one building to another, or from Brussels to Luxembourg, from Luxembourg to Strasbourg.  But for all the luxury, the buildings are grey and entirely soulless.  Today, though, the sun is shining because a UKIP visit is in town.

We are lectured at every turn; in the restaurant, a sign informs us of the carbon footprint of the different types of food on the menu.

The chamber in Brussels hasn’t been used for a plenary session in over 18 months.  The roof suffered damage, and in typical Brussels fashion the simple task of repair has dragged on and on incessantly, with bills getting higher and higher as time rolls on.  Perhaps, we are told with no real enthusiasm, it might be ready for the April sitting.

The roof in Strasbourg also collapsed, but that was fixed within a month.  The French would surely not allow a minor matter such as the collapse of a roof to endanger the 150 million euro travelling circus, whereby the entire staff, paperwork and contents of offices make a long road trip to Strasbourg on a monthly basis.  What, one might ask, is the carbon footprint of that?  But there will be no answers to that question.

The 15-million euro ‘Parliamentarium’ building was initially a failure, with just 20,000 visitors in its first year.  Undeterred, the European Union found a way to turn it into a success.  It’s now a compulsory part of the tour of the European Parliament, and visitors on official visits sponsored by MEPs have to go if they want to get their cash.  This, perhaps, is the only Parliament that has to pay people to go and visit it!  The Parliamentarium becomes an overnight success, through the simple expedient of forcing people to go.  The irony is lost on the European Union, which doesn’t think twice about asking people to vote a second time when their referendum gives the ‘wrong’ answer.  Switzerland’s democracy now appears to be the next target.
The European Parliament’s ‘House of History’ is still being built.  The cost has escalated from 12 million euros to 44 million euros already, and the project is years behind schedule.  The House of History will no doubt be revisionist history, with people talking in hushed tones about the ‘second European Civil War’ rather than World War 2.  The absurdity of such a proposition is beyond satire; how, for example, could America and Japan have been such a part of a ‘European Civil War’?  But if you’re comfortable with rewriting history, perhaps rewriting geography is not such a problem either.  
These are not the biggest examples of European Union waste that we see.  Hundreds of millions of euros spent on projects here and there all add up, and after a while you become almost immune to the obscene amounts of money.  Local people are aware too: in some streets around the European Parliament, almost every house is boarded up.  The owners are just waiting for the European Parliament to buy the buildings at inflated, above-market prices.  The senselessness of it all is breathtaking, just as outside the European Commission a sign boldly describes what the ‘soul of Brussels’ looked like before the European Union, with vibrant parks and buildings making a city of real interest.  Now, the city has the dullest of hearts.
I would hate to spend too much time in this place, and I think that should be the same for all MEPs.  It’s all too obvious how Lib Dem, Conservative and Labour MEPs might ‘go native’, growing to love the institution through luxury.  Anyone who likes to spend time in Brussels is eminently unsuitable for the role of MEP.  MEPs should be coming back to the UK whenever possible, and letting the public know just how badly our 55 million pounds a day is being mismanaged.

Conservative MEP says ‘vote Conservative’

When Daniel Hannan (here) writes about UKIP’s chances in the North East, there is only one logical conclusion: he expects the Conservatives to take a real battering at the polls in May.  It shouldn’t really be any surprise that one Conservative MEP suggests that people vote for….another Conservative MEP.  In other news, bears do indeed defecate in the woods and the Pope’s Catholicism is undeniable.

But the detail is interesting – why is he worried about the Conservative seat in the North East?

The North East has three seats: one Labour, one Conservative and one Liberal Democrat.  Since their high-water mark in 2009/2010, the Lib Dems’ vote shares have plummeted dramatically.  Yet in 2009 UKIP was barely a couple of percentage points behind them.  As the UKIP vote has risen, with all other things being equal one would expect the Liberal Democrats to lose their seat to UKIP.

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative who believes that Britain would be better off outside the European Union.  A good view to hold, but with the odd exception (his voting record in the European Parliament doesn’t inspire the utmost confidence), he’s one of the least-worst Conservative MEPs.  In many ways he’s more in tune with UKIP beliefs than those of his own Party, which begs the question why he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions and join UKIP.

So why, then, is Daniel Hannan portraying Martin Callanan as an arch-eurosceptic?  We’re talking about an MEP who supported the EU’s multi-annual financial framework deal for example.  If it’s the Lib Dem seat under threat, surely Dan Hannan would prefer a UKIP MEP to a Lib Dem one?  

The answer must be that he feels Martin Callanan’s seat is not safe.  It cannot be the Lib Dems that worry him, surely.  Perhaps he’s concerned about such a Labour landslide that Labour wins two seats to UKIP’s one – or even a UKIP landslide where UKIP wins two, and Labour one.  If so, then Mr. Hannan must have very low expectations indeed of his party’s chances.

Uncontrolled immigration from Bulgaria and Romania

Much has been written on the situation in Sheffield’s Page Hall district regarding the Roma community, mainly from Slovakia.  UKIP’s position is perfectly clear: immigrants are guests in our country and should be expected to respect our culture.  Those who commit crimes in the UK should expect to be deported.  But of course, whilst in the EU we lack the power to enforce deportations.

 

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by the Times newspaper.  I have yet to see the story that will be printed but for almost an hour and a half the journalist grilled me, trying to get me to make anti-Roma comments.  I have never, and will never, attack anyone based upon their ethnicity or culture.  But I will oppose the EU’s uncontrolled mass net immigration into the UK.

 

The plight of the Roma people is truly heartbreaking, but the appropriate response to that is not to simply open the UK’s borders to anyone who wants to come into the country.  The problem with unlimited immigration from Bulgaria and Romania is the scale.  When months ago, 4.2% of the working-age Bulgarian population were estimated by the BBC to be ‘actively planning’ to move to the UK, that figure could well be an underestimate.  Will the expected wave of immigration from those countries result in increased crime?  It may do.   The situation in Page Hall is certainly a cause for concern, but we can do something about it without resorting to racism.

 

David Blunkett warns of riots, but offers no solution.  I can’t help but feel that it’s irresponsible, planting the idea of riots into the public’s mind without proposing a realistic, workable solution.  UKIP proposes that solution:

 

1.  Leave the European Union, so that we can once again control our borders

 

2.  Deport those immigrants who abuse our hospitality by committing crimes whilst in the UK

 

Eventually, the message will get out: guests are welcome in the UK only when they act like guests.  Something can be done about Page Hall, but not whilst we’re members of the European Union.

A great weekend for UKIP

There’s not much that beats speaking to potential new UKIP members, so I was actually quite pleased to get the call to speak at a public meeting in Stockton on Friday before the NE Conference – even though it meant I’d miss out on the Tynemouth dinner.  By all accounts, the dinner was a real success – with Nigel Farage providing a video address.  Paul Nuttall MEP deputised (that is, after all, his role as Deputy Leader).  By all accounts there were almost 200 people there for the dinner, and although I haven’t seen a figure I’m sure it will have raised plenty of money for the Party.

So I went to the Stockton public meeting which was attended by over 60 people, mostly non-members. Particularly good to spend some time with Cllr. Mark Chatburn and branch chairman Ted Strike, both of whom really have UKIP at heart.

JA with Ted Strike and Mark Chatburn

Stuart Agnew talked about the EU, whilst I covered UKIP’s other policies. The meeting heard from the Save Stockton South campaign, a group fighting against building on the greenbelt. I pointed out that uncontrolled mass immigration from the EU28 doesn’t help, and also that UKIP policy is to sort brownfield sites rather than build on greenbelt.

UKIP’s referendum policy would help groups like Save Stockton South by providing a mechanism by which they could force politicians to take notice of the views of the community.

I’m sure that there will be some new UKIP memberships after the meeting! Somewhat annoyingly, I won the raffle (always better for them to be won by someone from the voluntary party) – so I recycled the prize to help with the raffle for Redcar & Cleveland’s quiz night (30th November).

After that it was straight up to Tynemouth, where everyone seemed to want to talk.  Mental note: I really must get to bed before 5am next time.  At least I avoided drinking too much.

The Conference proper was very good indeed, despite a few last-week hurdles which the Conference team had easily managed to overcome.  The absences of Nigel Farage, Jane Collins, Captain Joe Eastwood and Rob Comley – all due to illness – could easily have caused a problem.  But Amjad Bashir, Patrick O’Flynn and Robin Hunter-Clarke answered the call at short notice.  Captain Joe Eastwood was replaced with a Major whose name slips my mind (but surely, substituting a Captain for a Major can’t ever be a bad thing!).

I would estimate 300-350 people were in attendance, for what must be a contender for the title of ‘best-ever regional Conference in the North of England’.

My own involvement was limited to a speech as lead candidate for the NE region for 2014 – which seems to have gone down very well, and taking part in the panel Q&A session.  During my speech I spoke about the coming campaign, the challenges facing us and how we’re going to put together the right campaign team.  There is a plausible scenario which would lead to UKIP taking two seats, on less than 28% of the vote.  For example, a result like this would achieve it (percentage changes on last time):

UKIP 27.4% (+12)

Labour 27% (+2)

Con 12.8% (-7)

Lib Dem 10.6% (-7)

In practice, I think we’d probably need a shade more than that – perhaps 30-32% would put us in with a realistic chance of taking two seats.  I have a sneaky feeling that Labour will score more than 27%.  In my speech I used the quote “Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars” to explain what we need to do with our campaign.  We can’t rest on our laurels, blindly assuming that we’ll get one MEP whatever happens.  To do that, would be to tempt fate and deny us the possibility of getting two.

Our hopes, since my speech, have been buoyed by the return of Paul Sykes.  He is determined to get Britain out of the EU, and the front page of today’s Telegraph will report his intention to put millions into the UKIP campaign for next year’s European elections.  At those elections you have the choice to vote for more of the same failed pro-EU parties (Con/LD/Lab/Green) – or to vote for the fastest-growing political party in the UK (you know what that one is).

We have to have 121 Council candidates for the 121 Council wards up for grabs in the North East in 2014, and I’m confident that we’re on course to achieve that.  Gordon Parkin as Regional Organiser will take charge of ensuring that this target is met.

Back to the Conference.  The backdrop and banners gave a really professional UKIP feel to the venue.  I would of course name the donor who printed everything for the Conference free of charge, but I mentioned his name in my speech and he told me very nicely afterwards that he’d prefer to remain anonymous.  Oh well.  A very nice guy, very much in keeping with the wonderful friendliness of people across the North East region.

As ever with a Conference, I missed far too many of the speeches – being General Secretary and the no.1 Euro elections candidate means that lots of people always want to talk.  But everyone that I actually heard (Paul Nuttall, Roger Helmer, Amjad Bashir, John Tennant) was excellent.

The last section of the Conference (before Richard Elvin’s closing speech) was the Q&A session.  The idea of ‘no deals’ with Conservative eurosceptics was incredibly popular.  My response to the question about stepping down for Conservative eurosceptics was this:

Do they also agree with us on immigration?

Do they also agree with us on flat tax?

Do they also agree with us on grammar schools?

Do they also agree with us on the environment?

Do they also agree with us on taking tough action on crime?

Do they also agree with us about protecting our armed forces?

If the answers are No, then we can’t step down for them for the single issue of the European Union.

If the answers are Yes, then they have UKIP beliefs but stand for a Party which they disagree with.  In that case, they are hypocrites and should join UKIP.  We must stand against them.

A good day was had by all, and we await the final figures to find out whether the Conference has merely broken even or actually raised money for the region.

We followed the end of the Conference with a European elections candidates’ meeting, before the 20 or so who had bravely stayed around until after 8pm all went out for a curry.

Nissan won’t leave UK over EU

I really need to update this site more often!  The Nissan story is one which causes real concern in the North East.  This is yet another example of scaremongering from the pro-EU lobby.  Firstly, Ghosn didn’t actually say that Nissan would leave the UK if we weren’t in the EU.  He didn’t even imply that they would, but it certainly reads that way from the BBC article.  Secondly, outside the EU Britain would be more competitive not less.

My thoughts on this issue can be seen on the national UKIP website here.

Gibraltar and the Falklands

I sat staring at my computer screen wondering how to begin this article for quite a while.  In politics, in writing and in teaching, I usually take difficult concepts and explain them in ways that the average person on the street can understand.  I can’t write that kind of article today, because the concept is remarkably simple.

They’re British.  Why are they British?  Because they want to be British.

Both have voted in recent referenda with overwhelming majorities to be British.  In the Falklands, 99.8% of people voted to remain British.  In Gibraltar, the figure was ‘only’ 98.5%.  Can you imagine – in England, Scotland or Wales – 98.5% of the population agreeing on anything?

I tweeted something about this earlier, and someone replied with the word ‘location’.  Is Gibraltar Spanish because it happens to be near to Spain?  Spain’s enclaves in Morocco – Ceuta and Melilla – are Spanish.  Although they’re on a different continent, they remain Spanish because that’s what the people of Ceuta and Melilla want.

Spain also has an enclave, Llívia, in France.  Llívia has no territorial integrity at all.  It’s entirely contained within France.  There’s a little bit of France that wants to be Spanish, is Spanish, and you don’t see French border guards deliberately making life as difficult as possible for those living there.

So to recap: Spain has bits of Spain which are in Morocco and another which is entirely contained within France.  Yet it believes that its territorial integrity is not maintained because the people of the Rock want to remain British.  This makes no sense.   In Spain, dissent from this view is treated harshly: motorists entering Gibraltar in the Mediterranean summer heat have been required to queue for hours for ‘border checks’ – but the Telegraph reports that a British man living in Madrid was arrested for describing Spanish police as ‘torturers’ over the blazing heat.  It’s not the language I’d use myself, but really?  Grounds for arrest?

Spain is now offering Argentina support over the Falklands islands, in a bizarre gesture of solidarity against democracy.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love Spain.  I speak the language, I love the culture and in general I love the people.  They cook some of the best food in the world, have beautiful weather and scenery.  But their government is wrong on Gibraltar, and now it’s wrong on the Falklands too.

But here I should declare an interest: my late grandmother was born in Gibraltar.

Quotas, women, chess and Stuart Wheeler

Stuart Wheeler is an absolutely first-rate chap.  He’s a great Treasurer and passionate believer in the UKIP cause.

He opposes quotas for women on boards, and his comments comparing the shortage of top women in chess, bridge and poker with the shortage of women in the boardroom have led to some serious criticism.  In this post, I’m talking about the issues raised not the comments themselves.

I’m a pretty decent poker player but I know absolutely nothing about bridge.  Chess, I do know something about.  I was an England Under-21 international and have represented the top British side in the ‘Champions League of Chess’ (the European Club Cup) on more than one occasion.

There’s a shortage of women at all levels in chess.  In the 4NCL (Four Nations Chess League) teams must not all be single-gender.  Seven men and one woman is acceptable, as is seven women and one man.    In one match a few years back, a team aiming to prove a point fielded a team of seven women and one man.  It was a pretty strong team.  This is the exception rather than the rule.

I’ve coached chess at all ages through my work with the Sheffield junior club, and more boys than girls turn up to learn to play.  When a new child joins the club, in my experience there’s a 95% chance that they’ll be a boy.   The opportunities for boys and girls are by and large the same, although a girl who is a strong player is more likely to get involved in the England set-up for her age group than a boy of similar strength.  Some extra specialist coaching then becomes available, so there’s an argument that girls have (slightly) better opportunities to develop their game.  Chess is not at all sexist.  I’ve competed in numerous countries, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any discrimination against anyone because of their gender (or colour of skin, sexuality, etc for that matter).  But the fact remains, for whatever reason, males are more likely to take a long-term interest in the game than females.

Under such circumstances, there are bound to be more men than women at the highest level in chess.  Even so, the top women can – on their day – beat the top men.  Judit Polgar might have shook the core of the chessplaying world when she beat [then world no.1] Garry Kasparov, but her chances over a 24-game match of doing the same would be minimal.  She peaked at no.8 in the world in 2005.  The top

Are men intrinsically better than women at chess?  Men and women are equal.  Is it possible though, that in general men and women have different talents and abilities?  Perhaps men are predisposed towards some strengths and women towards others?  These are questions which can be debated by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and any other ‘ists’ who wish to comment.

Whether men ‘in general’ are more likely to beat women ‘in general’ at chess is completely irrelevant.  When I’m playing a game of chess, I’m playing the opponent not the gender.  It would be patronising, insulting and plain wrong for me to treat an opponent differently if I happen to be playing a woman.  The battle takes place on the same 64 squares regardless.  Chess is the ultimate meritocracy: if I beat a woman at chess, it’s not the result of ‘discrimination’; if she beats me, I cannot claim that it was the result of ‘positive discrimination’.

In the boardroom, I want the situation to be exactly the same.  I don’t want anyone – man or woman – to get a job because of their gender.  I want it to be, like in chess, completely based upon their ability.  This is why quotas are fundamentally wrong.

Quotas put gender above ability.  How can we know, within any given industry, what the ‘correct’ percentage of men and women getting board-level jobs should be?  In some jobs, women are over-represented.  Is anyone really suggesting that we should have ‘quotas for men’ as a result?  My background is in teaching.  Suppose that I were working in primary schools, were men are under-represented.  I would feel enormously patronised if I were to form part of a ‘quota’ because neither I nor my colleagues would know whether I got the job on merit or on the basis of my gender.

Quotas open a can of worms.  They create resentment.  They focus on gender not merit.  They are divisive.  They are wrong.  So-called ‘positive discrimination’ is still discrimination, even if you add the word ‘positive’ to it.  UKIP are right to oppose quotas, and I hope that the point made in this article is the point that Stuart Wheeler was making!