In early November Peter Smith invited me to a committee meeting of the UKIP Thurrock Branch, of which he is the Chairman.
“Come along Bob”, he implored. “I’ll show you a meeting!”
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Although having gone along to umpteen hundred meetings in my life, both professionally and as UKIP Branch Secretary of the Rochford & Southend Branch, I was always up to learn something new. Preconceptions? Well, yes. As is my experience to date, I more than likely expected a bunch of us to sit round a table, talk shop, close the meeting and off. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but that was my realistic expectation.
A thumbs-up from Cllr Peter Smith, UKIP Thurrock Chairman
Well, having been to the meeting, I can categorically state it wasn’t like that. Firstly, the location. UKIP Thurrock has a brand new ‘shop’, located in the heart of Thurrock in the centre of Grays. And what a great frontage it has; the width of two retail units and professionally adorned with UKIP colours. In fact, the first thought that occurred to me was: this shop has been fitted out and decorated with care, from people who really do have UKIP’s – and the people’s – interest at heart.
When I arrived, ten minutes prior to the start of the meeting at 7:30pm (for a 7:45 start), I could see a few people inside mingling around. Now, there is always a sense of trepidation when you have to meet a bunch of strangers, but I can honestly say the shopfront looked so inviting I opened the door expecting a warm welcome from the off.
A warm welcome guaranteed!
At this point, having nodded to a few fellow Kippers, I took a look around. Immediately drawing my attention was a table of goodies run by Fred, who said I could have anything I wanted for a quid (well, except the bottles of wine!) I thought this looks good, and settled, for no particular reason on a DHL mug. All the gifts were donated by members, and here’s the best bit – there’s a raffle to try and win them back!
This turned out to be a masterstroke, in my opinion. Before the meeting, members are invited to buy tickets, £1 each or £5 a strip, and during the committee meeting there’s a draw with 10 chances to win. Given that there were around 20 members at the meeting all told, there was a very good chance of winning and this was a great idea to raise handy funds for the branch.
UKIP MEP Tim Aker purveying the goodies on display with UKIP member Fred
Anyway, back to the UKIP shop and I noted that it was well stocked with UKIP literature and leaflets as you might expect. However, it was the extra touches that made a difference; electoral voting forms were available, too, for the casual visitor who might not be registered yet. The shop was well lit, comfortable with plenty of chairs and sofas, and a relaxing ambience.
Plenty of great reading as you would expect
The Chairman, Peter Smith welcomed everyone and the meeting got under way. Peter gave a rightfully upbeat analysis of the branch as it stood: one of the most successful in the UK in terms of both membership acquisition and cohesion, a real sense of family and collective responsibility. He announced, with some pride, that, on average, two members were joining every week. There was no sense of arrogance in Peter’s assessment, he made it clear there was much more to do, but that solid foundations were in place.
The Branch Secretary then gave his report, announcing the progress of a UKIP call center that will provide all branches with facilities to contact members with a professional VOIP setup (this stands for ‘voice over internet protocol’, and basically offers an efficient, cheap way of phoning members and residents via computer).
I was impressed; this was news to me, and my brain was racing with the possibilities how my Branch might benefit from the facility…
The Treasurer’s report was next, an update on all financial activity since last month. Firstly, there was a firework display raising over £100, and then, oh, an anonymous donation of £1000….
That made me sit up quicker than if a firework had gone off right there and then! My mind raced for a moment; a grand… that would double my Branch’s finances overnight!
Then followed one of my highlights of the evening. The leader of UKIP Thurrock delivered a succinct precis of his last months’ committee meetings, focusing on policing issues, going on to outline UKIPs strategy at council, which, as a new entity, was to ‘listen and learn’, not to dive in, and also not be afraid to negotiate and, on the whole, to be entirely reasonable.
I was delighted to learn that UKIP’s mature approach to Council was impressing not only seasoned Council members from the established parties, but the Council officers themselves. So much so, that there is a real belief that UKIP will improve on its Local Election results next year, with the Council officers proactively talking to UKIP about the positive practicalities and possibilities that could arise.
It was also great to see other Councillors speak, too and a wide range of subjects discussed focusing on issues of real importance to the residents of Thurrock. This including the worrying increase of gang members now resident in Grays, and why this was happening; race crime issues that needed to be stamped out, and ideas to help tidy up Grays beach. All local issues that matter to local people.
Branch Secretary and Treasurer in thoughtful pose!
There were plenty of Councillors in attendance, along with our MEP, Tim Aker, who regularly attends these meetings. I sensed a real feeling of inclusivity, from grassroot members and invited guests all the way up to MEP. Everyone was welcome to ask questions from the floor and join in what sometimes were robust exchanges.
UKIP is fundamentally about getting a referendum and trying to win it, but UKIP is also about sticking up for, and supporting, local people where the ‘big’ parties have to cow-tow to the party to the detriment of local interests. UKIP has no whip; councillors are empowered to do the right thing.
The meeting then paused for a moment whilst the raffle took place; with 10 prizes amongst the 20 members present there were plenty of winners; but, most importantly, UKIP was the winner with a sizeable addition to branch funds raised.
How was the committee meeting going? Sofa so good…!
When the meeting restarted, our guest Peter Sceats, Shenfield by-election candidate, took to the floor. With many years’ experience in the industry, he talked about how the country’s policy regarding the privatization of the Gas and Electricity companies since the 1980s had been going. It quickly became apparent to me, as Peter showed a series of compelling diagrams illustrating the farce, that it was a complete shambles.
Peter also highlighted the power of members’ concerns; he himself had written to UKIP HQ and was impressed his concerns, and solutions, had been considered as part of UKIP policy; testament to the power of members of UKIP and how the leadership really does listen to the ‘troops’.