UK Politics

UKIP conference: Smoking ban 'more harmful' than pit closures

Someone holding cigarette next to pint of beer

A UKIP MEP has told the party's conference the ban on smoking in public places in England has "damaged more communities than the pit closures did".

At a fringe meeting about which political party best spoke for the working class, Tim Aker said the 2005 ban had upped levels of hidden drinking by forcing people "to retreat inwards".

It was evidence of a "bankrupt" Labour telling people "what to do and think".

Senior UKIP figures have also targeted new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

UKIP made big inroads into traditional Labour heartlands in May's election - coming second to the party in a host of seats in the north of England - but it has been suggested that Mr Corbyn's election could halt this momentum.

But Mr Aker, who lost to Labour by 800 votes in Thurrock in May, said Labour had "ceased to exist" as a party of working people, choosing to "lecture rather than represent them".

Citing the smoking ban as an example of a policy that had hit C1 and C2 workers, he said: "They (Labour) say all the time, despite ignoring the facts, that it was the pit closures that destroyed all the communities.

"But I put it to you that the smoking ban has destroyed more communities than any any pit closure has done because when people don't have a place to meet, a place to socialise, they retreat in.

"What sort of outcome is it to say 'we don't want you drinking and smoking, take it out of the licensed area', and it goes all the way back to the homes where people are drinking and smoking more in front of their children."

In contrast to Labour, he said, UKIP would stand up for working people by giving them more power over their lives.

"We are the ones that embrace the one concept that has helped working class voters more than the minimum wage, more than anything else - the greatest thing for the working class is democracy."

Speaking to the BBC later, Mr Aker said the closure of pubs in many communities meant "there was no community left". He insisted he did not mean to "belittle the hardships of those who lost their jobs in the pits" but sought to "draw a parallel between their closures and the closure of pubs".

'Unreconstructed communist'

Speaking at the same meeting, former vice-chairman Suzanne Evans said Mr Corbyn was an "unreconstructed communist and like all communists it is the poorest who will suffer (under him)".

And speaking in the hall, deputy leader Paul Nuttall said Mr Corbyn was a "trendy lefty" rather than a working class hero and suggested that working people would not warm to a man "who says nice things about the IRA, wants to give the Falklands back to the Argentinians and, above all, won't sing the national anthem".

More than ever before, he suggested, UKIP was poised to become the alternative to Labour in the Midlands and the north of England and to the Tories in the south of England.

But it would only continue to make inroads in the traditional Labour vote if it was "bold and told it like it is".

He added: "We must not tone down our language. We must not change. If we change and sound like all the rest, we are finished."

'Tweed and corduroy'

Meanwhile, Matthew Goodwin - professor of politics at the University of Kent and the author of a book on UKIP's rise - has cast doubt on whether Mr Corbyn's election will stop the leaching of Labour votes to UKIP.

Mr Goodwin told the fringe meeting that past assumptions that UKIP voters were "exiled Tories who liked to wear tweed and corduroy and spend most of their time playing golf" had been scotched by its performance in May - when it attracted 29% of working class votes, compared with Labour's 27%.

"Labour is in real trouble among these groups and it is not a problem that is going to be fixed by Jeremy Corbyn," he said.

But he warned that UKIP, as well as other parties, risked losing working class voters to "political apathy".