When I interviewed the Ukip leader Nigel Farage he admitted he had made the mistake in the past of not putting enough effort into selecting the right people for “key positions”. In recent years, though, he has paid more attention to personnel issues. It has worked: in the European elections in May Ukip got 28 per cent of the vote and topped a nationwide poll.
A significant number of senior Ukip members are Catholic. Deputy leader Paul Nuttall is a Catholic from Bootle. MEP Steven Woolfe is a Catholic and his fellow MEP Jim Carver is currently undertaking instruction in the Catholic faith. And don’t forget Margot Parker, prospective parliamentary candidate for Corby and East Northamptonshire, who was elected as an MEP in May.
The first minute that I meet her at the Ukip headquarters, behind Claridges in Mayfair, it is clear she’s on fire with the Ukip mission and has a tribal Catholic allegiance. “I’m a very proud Catholic,” she tells me, “and I want to say to all my fellow Catholics that a vote for Ukip is a vote for you!”
Parker is in her early 70s but has the vitality of a woman half her age. She is glossy and stylishly dressed, with green eyes that are underscored by a perfectly matching shade of teal-green eyeliner.
Parker is a cradle Catholic from Grantham, the Lincolnshire town famous as the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher. Her father and mother were both Scottish. When they had a brood of six kids, they came down from Scotland to look for work.
Having first laboured in a factory, her father went on to start his own business and own his own garage. Margot was their seventh child, born 17 years after their sixth. She got quite a lot of ribbing from her older siblings because she was the only child born in England.
Parker describes her father as an extremely devout Catholic. “My mother was a Scots Presbyterian, so they were a volatile mix,” she says. “But my mother agreed to bring us up as Catholics, and she kept her word. My mother never came to Sunday Mass with us, but she would make sure that we were well scrubbed and in our best duds. She would chase us out of the house on Sunday.”
Her father would give Margot talks on why Sunday Mass was so important. As a girl, she would pray the rosary privately and put up with quite a lot of hostility towards Catholics from a Scottish headmistress at her grammar school in Grantham. At 19, she became a teenage bride when she married a staunch Anglican farmer eight years her senior.
Having heard about her Catholic background, it comes as a shock when Parker says plainly: “Now, I’m a lapsed Catholic.” What turn of events caused the rosary-reciting Catholic to lapse?
She explains that she and her husband were unable to agree on the religious upbringing of their two boys, and ultimately separated. “I obtained an annulment that took seven years,” she says. “But before it came through I couldn’t receive Holy Communion. I spoke to a lot of priests and academics, and some said: ‘If you have a clear heart, you can receive Holy Communion.’ Others said: ‘You can’t receive Holy Communion.’ In the absence of being sure, I didn’t receive Holy Communion.”
How did this cause her to lapse? “I became a lapsed Catholic because of the uncertainty of whether I could receive Holy Communion or not,” she says. Nowadays, Parker goes to Mass at Christmas and Easter, and is adamant that she subscribes to the faith. “I’m still a Catholic,” she says. “I hold dear to the Catholic values that my father instilled in me growing up.” Parker describes her father as “a strong Tory”, but she did not follow in his political footsteps.
Although she joined Ukip in 2009, she had not always been against the European Union. “To start, I had been very open to the EU,” she concedes. But it was her stint working in Brussels as a lobbyist for small business that transformed her into a Eurosceptic. She says that the EU “strangles” small businesses with
A member of Ukip for five years, Parker has wholeheartedly embraced her role as a politician. Her greatest passion is the creation of jobs for young people. She says: “The saddest thing is when young people come to me and say they can’t get jobs.”
Parker thinks that high levels of immigration and youth unemployment are intrinsically linked. Immigration is a complex issue and it’s the subject of ferocious debate. Some argue that it is only low-skilled natives who are adversely affected by immigration because of greater competition for menial jobs. But Parker argues that it is these low-skilled workers, the ones who struggle to find a job as a cleaner or work in a factory, that are not being listened to and are being maligned as “racist” by the established political parties.
Much of the analysis from the European elections showed that former Labour voters are defecting in significant numbers to Ukip. Parker paints a worrying picture for Labour. She says that when she goes door to door in a Labour stronghold the first question is usually: “What will you do about immigration?” After explaining about Ukip’s plans to curb immigration, the former Labour voter, she says, is won over, takes a bunch of Ukip leaflets and gives them out to their neighbours.
I can see why Parker is rallying such large crowds of working-class people and why they warm to her. She is genuinely passionate about their job worries and money issues. There is a gleam in Parker’s eye when she talks about poaching disaffected Labour voters for “the People’s Army”. “I much prefer canvassing in Labour heartlands, to Tory ones,” she says with a big smile.
Is she seeing more Catholic voters opting for Ukip? “We have a lot of Catholic grandparents joining us,” she says. “The main reason they come to us is because they want jobs for their grandchildren.” She suggests that Ukip has made great gains in the Labour stronghold of Heywood. This, of course, is the former stomping ground of the hugely admired and sorely missed pro-life Labour MP Jim Dobbin. After his sudden death, there is a
by-election underway to elect his successor.
Parker claim she has faced aggression from Labour campaigners. She reports that her car has been damaged, she has been run off the road and that people have screamed insults at her.
But she says she doesn’t hold a grudge against them, and tries to engage then. “I always say to them: ‘Come back here and have a proper discussion. Let’s talk about why the young people in my constituency can’t find jobs.’” Instead, she says, they just shout “racist!” at her.
“It’s such a lazy, cowardly tactic to call people racist when they want their say on immigration,” she sighs. If immigration is maintained at the same level as the last 10 years, 10 million more people will be added to the population in the next 20 years. The voters realise it is irrefutably the case that until Britain changes its relationship with the EU no government can reduce immigration levels.
This raises the question of whether David Cameron will honour his commitment to hold a referendum in 2017. Parker chuckles and says: “That’s a laugh. Cameron is a consummate politician, and very charming. He has completely signed up to the EU
What about re-negotiating the terms of Britain’s membership with the EU? “No, he won’t be able to do anything meaningful. Cameron will never close open borders. The EU is about the freedom of movement.”
Ukip may be attracting Catholic voters, but are the Catholic bishops of England and Wales not alarmed by Ukip’s policies on immigration? “Well, the Catholic churches have grown because they are full of Catholic immigrants,” Parker says. “I don’t have a problem with this. It’s terrific for the Church. I have a problem with people arriving and having immediate access to all the services, and all the benefits that hard-working Brits pay their taxes to provide.”
Why does Parker think she is not winning the bishops’ support? “I think they are misinformed,” she replies. “I expect better from Catholic bishops. They need to understand that Ukip and the Catholic Church have so much in common. I cannot think of anyone who is a bishop or a priest who would not have the same values for people as we do. The bishops need to be less grand, and meet us and hear us out and see that we want opportunities for our wonderful young people.”
This interview appears in today's edition of The Catholic Herald.