Nigel Farage is in a bullish mood. Buoyed by the coalition’s unpopularity, Labour’s listlessness and the success of the True Finns Party, he has declared that Ukip is "no longer a minority party". I interviewed him ahead of tomorrow’s local election, the first test of his second leadership stint and the new direction in which he is trying to take the party. You can read the full interview as a web exclusive here; and there are some highlights from the transcript below:
DB: Why are you supporting AV?
NF: Well, first past the post is finished, it doesn’t work.
NF: It doesn’t really have legitimacy. You know, it worked when we were a two party state. I completely lost faith in it in 2005 when Blair was returned with a 60 seat majority on 36 per cent of the vote, or 22 per cent if you factor in low turnout. I’d always argued that we needed FPTP because it gave us strong government and we mustn’t become like Italy. 2005 put a torpedo through that for me. It's bust.
DB: Are you doing it to engage younger voters, to an extent?
NF: Certainly, the new generation coming through have different attitudes to the system. They think, what’s the point? I would prefer AV Plus, which would retain the constituency link and then also the second ballot ensured there were no wasted votes. Why do we support AV? Basically if the no side wins, then I think that’s the end of reform.
DB: So AV is the thin end of the wedge?
NF: I see AV as being a crack in the damn. Once you’ve changed something once, you can change it again. I also think that from the Ukip perspective, which is of secondary importance, it kills the wasted vote argument in a second.
On banning the Burqa
DB: Your rhetoric on personal liberty seems to contradict your recorded position on the burqa…
NF: Well, let’s get the position on the burqa correct, should we?
NF: We are not suggesting, as Sarko has done, that we should stop people from wearing what they want to wear walking down Oxford Street. What we are saying is that laws and rules should be applied equally to make us feel part of one society, which means that if I can’t wear a crash helmet in a bank, then someone shouldn’t be able to go in covering their face. If I can’t wear a balaclava on the Circle Line, then neither should they. That’s what we’re asking for.
DB: Do you think the burqa is a symbol of misogyny?
NF: I think it’s remarkable that the very people who talk about equality the whole time are the same people who turn a complete blind eye to the fact that there are many who do not have an equal chance in life. I mean what chance have you of getting a job if you turn up with your face covered? I hear these arguments that the burqa is liberating, and I simply don’t believe it.
DB: So why not ban it?
NF: But, really, we’re not strong on this burqa issue. It’s not a frontline policy. What the burqa policy has always been to me is a door through which to have a broader debate about the kind of society we want to live in. When you have the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that sharia law will become a feature of British life in time. No! Absolutely not!
On Marine Le Pen:
DB: Are you heartened by Marine Le Pen’s progress?
NF: Well, that’s an interesting question, and I can’t give you a proper answer yet. I don’t know.
DB: Why not?
NF: Because I’ve sat there for 12 years, watching Le Front National in the European Parliament, and inevitably you meet them and talk to them. Normally, a Front National MEP, within a few minutes of the conversation having begun, will tell you that Auschwitz didn’t happen. I’m not exaggerating.
So that is where the Front National comes from and the old man (Jean-Marie Le Pen) is your proper chauvinist in every sense of the word. And he and his party have never been appealing to us in anyway.
DB: But as a grassroots movement against what is seen as an ineffectual centrist government?
NF: The trouble is there’s so much baggage with their grass roots as well. So, Marine Le Pen comes along and she says a lot of things that are different, she even said in the Telegraph over the New Year that wants to model her party on Ukip not the BNP. Her euroscepticism is genuine, more so than her father’s certainly: he used to do the hokey-cokey with us: one minute a friend, the next cast into outer dark.
It’s encouraging to hear her say the things she says on immigration and repatriating power. But do I actually think she’s going to turn the Front National around into a being a reasonable democratic party? The answer is she has a heck of job.
DB: She’s polling at 44 percent in some places, aren’t you talking about past perceptions?
NF: No, it’s deeper than that. The perception that Ukip was racist was inaccurate. The perception that the Front National is anti-Semitic is true.
DB: And will always remain so?
NF: I think so. And I think people will realise it.
DB: So her success is likely to be fleeting?
NF: I think she’s a very, very interesting figure, fascinating. She’s different. I just wonder, because French politics is different: parties come and go. They frequently ditch parties and start again. And I just wonder if, after the next election, if something new might not be coming on the centre right of French politics, which she might be part of. I get that sense because she’s ambitious and different and won’t be tied to a flawed party.