Our branch can be proud that we organised the UKIP leadership hustings event for the Eastern Region which took place on 23rd July and was a great success. It might well have not happened at all. Having been sent a list of the hustings events by national organiser Toby Micklethwait in mid-June, only the Eastern Region was missing as our chair had resigned earlier and noone had set about the task. After enquiries and encouragement by former MEP Stuart Agnew, I agreed to organise a hustings and set about finding a venue.
Finding a venue central to the six counties of the region was key to reduce travel distance for members - a big issue in deciding to attend. Having booked the Ellesmere Centre in Stetchworth village near Newmarket, I was phoned by the chair of the Trustees to say that our booking had been cancelled because they objected to our 'right-wing ideology'. This was outrageous, and having checked the charity's objects which are 'To promote the benefit of the inhabitants... without distinction of sex or of political religious or other opinions', I reported them to the Charity Commission.
Free speech, that vital ingredient of any democracy, was being openly prevented by a clearly-politicised set of trustees. If other branches experience this, I would recommend that they take the same action. We cannot let this become the 'norm'.
Undeterred, I found the Fulbourn Centre in Fulbourn village, SE of Cambridge. They were so helpful and the venue was highly appropriate with a social club and suitable meeting room. The big concern for me was that too few people would turn up so it was important to energise fellow county chairs and branches by email and social media.
Over 60 members turned up and the event itself went very well. Our new Regional Chair, Darren Hughes - who had just been voted in by the Regional Committee, ran the meeting helped by newly-appointed Secretary Norma Huxter and her husband David, who provided a microphone and speaker.
Thankfully all four candidates in the UKIP leadership race turned up. The four - Mike Hookem, Ben Walker, Richard Braine, and Freddy Vaccha - acquitted themselves well. Darren gave them five minutes each to make their opening 'pitch' and then asked questions which had been pre-submitted by attendees on arrival in the room. Once these were exhausted, the meeting was opened to the floor and attendees were able to ask all candidates questions, with one minute being allotted to each candidate to answer.
We got through a lot of questions and it was well past 9.15pm when the four were invited to make their closing two minute statement before Darren wound up the meeting.
I cannot say that I have made my mind up yet as to who to vote for. Ironically, I think the decision for members will be influenced by the tenure of Interim leader Gerard Batten and the direction that he took the party. It would be fair to say that Mike and Ben do not agree with Gerard taking the party down such an openly anti-Islam route, and the close association with Tommy Robinson and certain social media warriors. But Richard and Freddy were not critical of this. In fact, Freddy stated that he is a long-time friend of Gerard and Richard has said on record that he will make Gerard his deputy.
My take is that the four candidates more or less agreed with each other on other issues raised, and a policy of 'Islamo-scepticism'. It is the strategy for the latter which divided them. So the apparent choice for members is, to me at least, over whether they agree with Gerard's strategy. So ironically, in a virtual way, he is running in this election.
As branch chair and membership secretary, I'd had a few messages from branch and other members saying they would not attend because Gerard was not on the ballot paper. It's clear that UKIP is at some sort of cross-roads.
My thanks to all those who helped out on the night, especially David Huxter, and also to Toby Micklethwait for his tremendous efforts in publicising the hustings nationally.Richard Fullerton, Branch ChairLeadership candidates
Members should receive a copy of Independence magazine imminently which includes each candidate's pitch and a ballot paper. The deadline for receipt of completed ballot papers is Thursday 8th August. The count will start on the morning of 10th August.