When John Rees-Evans declared his intention to stand as leader of the UK Independence Party on October 24th, it would be fair to say that not only did few people know him within political circles, but many within UKIP itself had not heard of him. In fact, it is something Rees-Evans admits to me when when we spoke in regard to setting-up this interview. But he’s not bitter, and nor should he be. In the intervening time since entering the race, he gained support that took him to within 198 votes of being runner-up. I asked him if he was proud of gaining such a percentage from what was, in effect, a standing-start.
“Since many of our members do not have access to the internet, and I was on television only a couple of times, I suppose that even today probably not more than 1 in 3 UKIP members have still ever heard of me. So on reflection, I was very pleased with the result. And since I stood on a clear platform of Direct Democracy within UKIP, I think this result demonstrates that there is a very strong appetite for greater democratic representation of the membership throughout the party. I hope the leadership will recognise this and respond, and that my campaign will transpire to have been something that has contributed constructively towards growing the party and increasing both our appeal and the extent to which members engage with one another and are motivated to contribute towards achieving tangible results at local and national elections.”
Whilst Rees-Evans was very much an outsider throughout the campaign, he gained publicity and popularity amongst many UKIP members on November 3rd when he walked out of the second of four hustings events, citing his displeasure at what he felt was the party’s wish for a “decorous coronation” of eventual winner Paul Nuttall. He also told the assembled members in Newport, Wales, that he had been cautioned by a party official for criticising the campaign of former party spokeswoman (and now the party’s new co-Deputy Chair and Health Spokeswoman) Suzanne Evans. The passionate speech followed by his swift exit from the venue drew ovations and applause from several chunks of those assembled. Rees-Evans did not participate in any of the following hustings, and instead undertook a tour across Britain to meet members. I asked him if he felt this move gave him more support.
“Yes, definitely. I feel I would probably have struggled to achieve as much as 10% of the vote had I not done this.”
After the exit from the hustings, he gained support from Raheem Kassam, Nigel Farage’s former advisor and leadership contender, who dropped out with similar concerns regarding the election process.
Another fruitful tactic on Rees-Evans’s part was utilising large numbers of support through social media. Whilst many ordinary party members complained of being blocked on Twitter by Nuttall and Evans, Rees-Evans’s follower numbers went up, and he interacted freely with many members regardless of whether he had their support. Coincidentally, one of Kassam’s key policies in his manifesto before withdrawing was his plan to take UKIP into “the digital-age”. Rees-Evans agrees.
“Yes, absolutely. Every year the extent to which social media and the internet will influence political outcomes will necessarily increase, while the relative effect of mainstream media broadcasts will decrease. UKIP needs to identify this fact and capitalise on the potential for massive gains to be achieved through the use of modern technological tools without delay, if we are to have any hope of breaking through our 13% vote share ceiling.”
Rees-Evans’s key policy at the centre of his manifesto was the concept of direct democracy. When he spoke to New Media Central UK before the result, Rees-Evans told me that the concept of direct democracy was “a demonstrably far more honest expression of genuine democracy than the unsatisfactory approximation of feigned democracy that we have now”. Shortly before this particular interview took place, Rees-Evans was barred from participating in a debate involving Nuttall and Evans on BBC’s Sunday Politics. In a livestream on his Facebook page, Rees-Evans accused the corporation of misleading him when they had originally asked him to appear on its sister show Daily Politics. He told me that he was “convinced that the cooperation between Paul and Suzanne and the BBC in shutting me out of the debate has served to damage both of them substantially, and added: “Conversely, these actions have proven beyond doubt that I am the only genuine anti-establishment candidate in this race and the fact of this has attracted a surprisingly substantial amount of support to me today.”
His support spread to this very website. After endorsing Kassam’s campaign, NMC UK decided to endorse Rees-Evans’s. UK Editor Sebastian Cheek met Rees-Evans during a march in support of Brexit in the week leading-up to the result. Sebastian commented at the time: “John is a man of courage and despite the tremendous odds stacked against him he’s kept going. Countless times the other two candidates have refused to debate him or even appear alongside him because he “rocks the boat”….what is this if not a coronation? He stands defiant, as a real leader would.”
With the outcome official, Rees-Evans has turned his attention to creating a direct democracy think-tank within the party. He is currently asking members to aid him with this process and vote on its name. I asked him to expand on his plan.
“It’s a pioneering exercise in implementing Direct Democracy within a political party. The group will propose, develop and debate policy and campaign initiatives and will feed the results of its deliberation to the leadership and the NEC for their consideration. If the group produces valuable results, it is my hope that the party will come to recognise the value of such a policy-creation system and will increase the extent to which policy is formulated in direct consultation with the members. Ultimately, I would hope that Direct Democracy will eventually become the means by which policy is formulated within the party. With the now obvious ease with which a technologically-driven party that harnesses revolutionary communication tools and techniques may so quickly be established and grow, it is only a matter of time – perhaps months – before a major new party based on the Direct Democracy model is created. This is undoubtedly the future of British politics. UKIP should think very carefully about whether they want to continue to be the pioneers in British politics, or whether they are now content to sit on their laurels and wait for a more visionary party that we may otherwise expect to emerge, to soon take the lead in building a mass membership political movement.”
Since the election of Nuttall as leader, many have become wary of his decisions to appoint people who have previously criticised Farage’s leadership. Suzanne Evans, as previously mentioned, is Health Spokeswoman and co-Deputy Chair, and Patrick O’Flynn, who described Farage as “thin-skinned, snarling and aggressive” after the 2015 General Election, is Sport & Media Spokesman and Nuttall’s “Senior Political Advisor”.
It remains to be seen what the future for UKIP is under Nuttall’s leadership, but I can speak for my Editor and I in saying that we sincerely hope that the future for John Rees-Evans within the party is very bright indeed. Whilst many within UKIP are more interested in cosying to the mainstream media and listing their achievements in Debrett’s, Rees-Evans has only one interest – the people.