The Head Porter at Oriel, Kenrick “Dickie” Bird, resigned last Friday in order to stand as a UKIP candidate for the North Oxfordshire seat of Banbury at the next General Election.
Mr Bird, who worked at Oriel for over three years, said he left the College to devote his time to politics. In May, Mr Bird ran as UKIP candidate for a position as councillor for Blackbird Leys Ward in the Oxford City Council elec- tions. He finished second with twenty per cent of the vote, forty seven points behind the Labour candidate.
Stuart O’Reilly, third year historian at Pembroke and Secretary of UKIP’s Oxford and Abingdon branch, was upbeat about Mr Bird’s campaign for a Commons seat, commenting, “Dickie is a top quality candidate who connects with and understands people and their concerns in the way the other parties can only dream of. He’d make an excellent MP for Banbury.”
The candidate himself was also buoyant. He pointed to polling suggesting UKIP could win a quarter of the national vote. He also highlighted the Heywood and Middleton by-election, in which Labour held off the UKIP candidate by just 617 votes. “It shows there is no safe seat in the UK,” he remarked.
But Banbury is no easy target. It sits next to Prime Minister David Cameron’s seat of Witney and is historically Conservative. Sir Tony Baldwin has represented the constituency since 1983 although he has recently announced that he will stand aside at the next General Election. He declined to comment on UKIP’s prospects there at the coming election.
At the 2010 General Election, UKIP’s Banbury candidate secured just five per cent of the vote. However UKIP’s support has risen recently, with the party gaining its first MP earlier this month.
Rupert Cunningham, fourth year classicist and President of the Oxford University Conservative Association, was confident that the Conservatives will see off any threat from Mr Bird and UKIP.
He commented, “It’s easy to get overly concerned about UKIP, particularly following the Clacton by-election. Banbury is a safe seat, however. Safer than Newark, which the Conservatives held even in a by-election against prominent UKIPer, Roger Helmer. The Conservatives will hold Banbury in 2015, though I imagine Mr. Bird will make some gains.”
UKIP, with its anti-immigration and anti-EU platform, is unpopular with large swathes of the Oxford student population.
Editor of Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill, told Cherwell, “Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me that Oxford students are shunning those who express support for UKIP. British students, including those at Oxbridge universities, have become very intolerant lately of any viewpoint that doesn’t chime with their own.”
According to O’Neill, who will later this term attend the Oxford Union to argue in favour of the proposition that “popular support is enough to justify a platform”, there is an irony in some of the more vehement condemnations of UKIP on campus. He said, “In the name of tackling bigotry, these intolerant student activists expose their own bigotry.”
Second year St John’s PPEist Jake Hurfurt said, “Mr Bird is fully entitled to stand as a UKIP candidate for Parliament in Banbury, as he has a right to free expression and to partake in politics. Nevertheless, I do hope the constituents in Banbury see UKIP for what they are: a party of thinly veiled xenophobia with no cohesive policy platform and wholeheartedly reject them in May 2015.”
Aidan Hocking, a Global and Imperial History M.St student at Hertford, told Cherwell, “given how many international students there are at Oxford, I think it’s a bit worrying if an ex-porter is running for UKIP, which has made a name for itself for its anti-immigration policies.”
In a public Facebook post picked up by The Tab, former OUSU President Tom Rutland accused UKIP of “racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism.”
When questioned about accusations of xenophobia, Mr Bird pointed to his family, remarking, “I’ve been called a racist, but I find it difficult to be a racist when I have black family.” Asked what part of his family is black, Mr Bird said “it’s not important”.
Responding to criticism of his party’s stance on homosexuality, Mr Bird again invoked his family, saying, “I’ve been called homophobic, but I find it difficult to be homophobic when my sister is homosexual, and I love her dearly.”
Mr Bird was equally bemused at having been labelled “ableist”. “I had to look it up,” he chuckled. “I find it difficult to be ‘ableist’ when my sister is disabled and my daughter is mentally disabled.”
Recalling adverse coverage he received in the Oxford student press at the time of his previous tilt at public office, Mr Bird described such criticism as “water off a duck’s back.”
“UKIP,” insisted Mr Bird, “is not the two-headed beast people claim it to be.” Referring to allegations of racism, sexism and homophobia, Mr Bird maintained that “there are no phobias or ‘-isms’ in UKIP.”
James Eaton, a first year organic chemistry D.Phil at Magdalen, commented, “I don’t think it is any more significant for a former Head Porter of Oriel College to run as a UKIP candidate than a former baker from Scunthorpe.”
In Mr Eaton’s opinion, media coverage of UKIP is excessive when compared with treatment of the other minor parties. He argued that this focus “shows the overall media bias toward UKIP, which I feel is related to sensationalist news reporting.”
“What I must condemn,” said Mr Eaton, “is the fact that this former Oriel porter is being publicised because he is running for UKIP, which is a political party that is not considered one of the big three in British politics.”
However the Oriel Porters’ Lodge alumnus and Royal Green Jackets veteran wants to change all that. “Recent polling puts us way ahead of the Lib Dems,” he said. Standing for UKIP, said Mr Bird, is “incredibly exciting”.