Douglas Carswell is not just one of Ukip’s most unusual members – although that is quite a distinction in itself. He is also one of the most unusual MPs I have ever met.
The member for Clacton believes political parties are the enemy of democracy, yet has represented not one but two since entering parliament in 2005. Ukip signed up to the Leave.eu camp, but its sole MP campaigned for Vote Leave. I’ve got huge admiration and respect for Nigel [Farage], and I’m not going to say anything unkind at all, he tells me, but he says that, had his party leader had been in charge of the official leave campaign, the referendum would have been lost, and he likens him to an irrelevant comedian. The last time Carswell even spoke to Farage was before the referendum. The free-market, libertarian rightwinger is more interested in offering his counsel to sensible Labour MPs, if and when they are deselected by Corbynistas. Yet he reconciles all these contradictions with a philosophical clarity that, though highly maverick, is surprisingly coherent.
He is in excellent spirits when we meet in parliament this week. The froideur I once observed towards that other defector, George Galloway, is strikingly absent; fellow MPs, among them his former colleagues in the Conservative party, offer warm smiles and greetings as we queue in the Portcullis House coffee shop. On TV, Carswell tends to have a ramrod sergeant majorish air about him, but in person he is much more relaxed. Even as his party prepares for a leadership election this week that has laid bare its essential amateurism, the 45-year-old says he has never been happier than since 23 June. His cheerful verdict on this week’s Commons’ statement from David Davis, minister for Brexit, is: So far, so good.
Were Carswell in charge, I ask, what would his version of Brexit look like? Well, unless you want to become like North Korea, labour mobility is going to happen. He neither expects nor wants Brexit to reduce immigration, and thinks that within 40 years the current level of labour mobility in London will be UK-wide. But, in Carswell’s ideal Brexit model, the public would be content, because the people, through the ballot box, would have control. Parliament would vote each year on how many work visas to issue, just as it currently does on how much tax to levy, and the immigrants we decided we wanted – doctors, bright students, farmworkers – could all come. We’d have a system of migration that people would accept. By advocating an end to the unrestricted freedom of movement, you’re not advocating closing the borders.
A large number of people who voted to leave the EU, I suggest, did so precisely because they thought it did mean closing the borders. He shakes his head firmly. The prime reason why people voted to leave the EU was they wanted to take back control. It was not primarily immigration. The reason why there was such a fundamental strategic difference of opinion between the two campaign groups vying to run the leave side is precisely because one side believed, erroneously, that it was all about migration. And, frankly, if that side had been put in charge of running the referendum, we would have lost 60-40.
Many commentators thought it was only when Vote Leave began to scaremonger about immigration towards the latter stages of the campaign that it overtook remain. Carswell looks good humoured, but gives another shake of the head.
Since the referendum, some on the remain side have been very quick to say it was a nativist reaction against immigration. Not only is that not true, we knew that that couldn’t win a referendum beforehand. Which is precisely why Vote Leave’s campaign was optimistic, not angry, about immigration. It actually talked positively about immigration – I heard Boris Johnson and Michael Gove again and again and again emphasising the positives of migration. Let’s not rewrite history. It is grossly unfair to Vote Leave to characterise it as somehow anti-immigration. It wasn’t.
I’m not sure that is quite how I remember it, but to characterise the other side – Leave.eu – as anti-immigration would plainly not be unfair.
But they weren’t the campaign, points out Carswell, looking faintly bemused. They didn’t run the campaign. He starts to laugh. You know, Eddie Izzard campaigned for the remain side. You’re not suggesting to me that I should take what Eddie Izzard said as a reflection of what remain wanted. Let’s not look at our equivalent of the Eddie Izzards on our side and pretend that’s what Vote Leave was campaigning for. The reason why Vote Leave won was precisely because it was the antithesis of those anti-Syrian migrant posters we saw Nigel unveiling a few days before the referendum. If that way of campaigning had been allowed to define Euroscepticism, we would have lost catastrophically – and quite rightly and deservedly. I think we won only narrowly precisely because, during the campaign, posters like that did enormous damage.
This would be a perfectly unremarkable opinion if Carswell were still a Tory MP. But he is talking about his own party’s posters. What is he doing in a party that he thinks actively damaged the great political cause of his lifetime? His answer is simple. If I hadn’t triggered a byelection and joined Ukip, I don’t think we’d have got the promise of a referendum. Then isn’t the job done? For me personally, to a very large extent, it is. So why not now leave? He grins. I’m having far too much fun. I’m just going to carry on. I feel very cheerful, and I’m going to carry on.
I’m struggling to understand how he can have fun in a party that produced the Breaking Point poster. Oh, I thought it was truly awful. But such was the vitality of Vote Leave that even despite that repellent nativism we still managed to win. Before defecting to Ukip in 2014, Carswell explicitly said he would never join a party that was racist. Weren’t Ukip’s posters racist? The phrase I use is nativist.
It is a rather cunningly convenient distinction – and even arguably accurate – but the next thing he says is uncharacteristically specious. Look at the Labour party: there are some people who’ve said some vile and antisemitic things. Are you suggesting that every Labour MP should leave their party? But Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t personally unveiled posters saying we can’t cope with any more Jews.
The only other time Carswell starts to sound more like a conventional politician comes when I bring up the dramas surrounding Ukip’s leadership election. The leading candidate, Suzanne Evans, was forced out of the race after Farage suspended her for mysterious reasons. The second-favourite, Steven Woolfe, isn’t on the ballot either, following an equally mysterious failure to apply before the deadline. Woolfe insists he did submit his paperwork on time, prompting speculation that opponents within the party deliberately stalled it on the Ukip computer system. Carswell takes care to confine his comments to bland platitudes – I admire all those who are putting their names forward.
When I ask about the party’s future direction, however, he becomes intently animated.
I hope that Ukip, having broken down the consensus on EU membership, now tries to break down other cartels, by which he means everything from housing associations to monetary policy. These cartels all need breaking open. This is rich territory for Ukip. We’re at a key juncture here. Either we become the British equivalent of the Northern League in Italy, we become angry, backward-looking, nativist and we’ll be a rump. Or we say look, there’s this huge opportunity here. The Tory party is weaker than they think they are. The Labour party is in meltdown because of Corbyn. The Lib Dems are on a holiday from history. This is our chance. We offer traditional Labour supporters a very compelling retail proposition.
It is starting to sound more like a manifesto than an answer to a question. There’s this assumption among pundits and politicians in Westminster that the only way you appeal to traditional Labour voters is to offer them Fabianism. Thatcher beautifully understood that is not so. She allowed those people to buy their council houses, which meant she created a huge electoral alliance beyond her traditional base.
The equivalent of allowing people to buy their council houses is this: most houses have access to Netflix; they can allow their kids to watch whatever their kids want to watch. But they have zero control over their child’s education. What if you gave mums and dads the legal right to request and receive control over their child’s share of local authority funding? What if you allowed people to control their health budgets? This is potentially a vast area which could have huge traction. People have Netflix; they’re used to the idea of self-commissioning.
Is he sure Ukip is fertile soil in which to propagate these ideas? Well, it would require a boldness and an originality of thought that I hope is there – but may not be. It’s precisely because we haven’t developed these ideas that we’re only on 11 or 12 points in the polls. If Ukip has a future, it is in embracing this agenda. And, if it does, it could hoover up a huge share of the market. There is a once-in-a-generational opportunity. You’ve got a huge segment of the electorate that is unrepresented by lazy party cartels that treat their views with contempt, don’t understand their aspirations and talk down to them. The single biggest cartel is the political parties.
It sounds as if Carswell would like to see parties disappear altogether. Parties are nine-tenths of the problem in our democracy, he agrees urgently. Parties are the problem.
Does he consider himself, I ask, more an independent than a Ukip MP? Well, what’s the difference between the Ukip parliamentary party and just me at the moment? I mean, not a great deal! he hoots. So yes, you could see it that way. But I’ve never really felt bound by any party. I didn’t always agree with the Conservative party. Look at some of the things I’ve written about George Osborne!
To some this looks disingenuous, if not cynical. Farage certainly thinks it is a bit rich to harness the support and machinery and funding of his party while disavowing so much of what it says. If Carswell thinks parties are the problem, why not quit and stand as an independent?
Because I’m enjoying myself. I’m having much too much fun. That makes him sound selfish and hypocritical, I point out. OK then. Because I’m too excited about the party conference on Saturday. He laughs teasingly. No really, he deadpans. Because I’m so looking forward to the party conference. Come off it, I say.
OK. He is suddenly serious. At some point, a party is going to come along, like the Labour party did in the 1890s, and it’s going to break the cartel. And I would hate to climb off Ukip just before Ukip became the vehicle that did that. Does the political party that breaks the cartel come from the libertarian right – Ukip? I hope it does. But if we’re not quick – and the window of opportunity is closing fast – I suspect it will come actually from a grassroots, non-Corbynista, Tristram Hunt-type left.
And if it does, he says, he will be only too happy to help. Carswell is genuinely happy to help whoever first challenges the current party system orthodoxy. He thinks Labour will split, when the Corbynistas get around to deselecting some of the decent MPs, and says he would happily share with those MPs his insights from Clacton about winning byelections. I mean this very seriously. The techniques I learned, I’d be very happy to share those with people on the left who wanted to escape from the tyranny of parties, too.
He wouldn’t join a new leftwing movement, he adds hastily. And they obviously wouldn’t want me front of shop. But I would do whatever they wanted to help back of shop.
The cartels are the problem. They need to be broken up. So the race is on.
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