The UK Independence Party (Ukip), once dismissed as a group of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" by British Prime Minister David Cameron, appears set to trounce the country's mainstream political parties in Britain’s elections for the European Parliament later this month.
According to the latest opinion poll, published in Britain's Sunday Times newspaper and conducted by UK statistics firm YouGov, far-right Ukip - a relative new kid on the block of British politics - would score 31 per cent of the vote among the respondents if the European elections were held when the poll was taken.
The poll showed Ukip would come in three points ahead of the Labour Party, while Cameron's Conservatives would trail in third place with 19 per cent of the vote.
The stakes are particularly high this year as it’s the first time in many countries that far-right, anti-EU parties are likely to pose a major challenge to traditional parties.
Given that trend, Ukip’s impressive result in the YouGov poll isn’t a shock. What is perhaps surprising, though, is that the party still managed to finish in first place after a slew of bad press in recent weeks.
‘Alarmist and xenophobic’
Ukip’s campaign for the European elections, which saw a dozens of billboards spring up across Britain with overtly anti-European Union and anti-immigration messaging, was widely criticized as alarmist and xenophobic.
The poster boy of the campaign, who appeared in a televised advertisement complaining about the presence of Eastern European labourers in the UK, was suspended for a series of racist tweets he posted over the past year.
In one of the tweets, uncovered by the British media, Andre Lampitt wrote: "Muslims are animals their faith is disgusting their prophet is (a) pedophile."
In another, Lampitt, who himself is an immigrant to the UK from Zimbabwe, wrote about Labour leader Ed Miliband, saying: "He is Polish and not British so how'd he know what's good for Britain?"
Lampitt also addressed his home continent in a tweet that read: "I was born and grew up in Africa please leave Africa for the Africans let them kill themselves off don't go there."
Just days later, William Henwood, a Ukip politician in London, refused to apologize after tweeting that a British comedian who called for more minority representation in the media should "move to a black country."
The ‘Farage Factor’
These aren't the first cases of controversy for Ukip, sometimes referred to as Britain's answer to the American Tea Party Movement. But rather than harm the party's electoral chances, analysts say the negative press might actually be helping.
"Ukip's leader Nigel Farage is kind of a martial artist in how he can turn what seems like a huge disadvantage to his advantage," said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University in London. "He plays on this idea that there is a conspiracy between mainstream politicians and the mainstream media to attack him.
“Negative stories actually make the people who would be interested in voting for the party even more sympathetic."
'He conforms to an age-old, adored stereotype in Britain of an old guy down at the pub who will tell it like it is — people like that. ' - Tim Bale, politics professor
Indeed Farage, often seen puffing on a cigarette and swigging a pint or heard attacking the political establishment, is personally credited with much of his party’s success for the way he appeals to everyday people.
In another recent survey done by YouGov, only 36 per cent of respondents correctly guessed that Farage, who already has a seat in the European Parliament, went to a private school, while 81 per cent said they thought Cameron was privately educated.
Farage’s appeal is so strong to some that he is able to come away relatively unscathed from scenarios that might have caused the leaders of the traditional parties to slip at least a few percentage points in the polls.
When asked which politician he most admires, Farage said Russian President Vladimir Putin for his handling of the crisis in Syria.
He has also made misogynistic comments in the past, speaking publicly about the fondness he once had for lap-dancing clubs and saying that women are worth less to their employers than men due to “biological reasons” because they have babies.
“The same rules that apply to other politicians aren’t applied to him by the public, so he can get away with it because all these comments help his kind of normal-guy appeal,” said Bale.
“He conforms to an age-old, adored stereotype in Britain of an old guy down at the pub who will tell it like it is — people like that.”
Appealing to ‘The Left Behind’
But Ukip’s allure does extend beyond its leader, said Matthew Goodwin, co-author of Revolt of the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, a book chronicling the rise of Ukip and the threat it poses to the other parties.
'Ukip is a symptom of quite deep social divisions that have been building in Britain over the past decades.' - Matthew Goodwin, author
“Ukip is a symptom of quite deep social divisions that have been building in Britain over the past decades,” said Goodwin.
“It’s clear they’re tearing off a section of the electorate who feel cut out of our political conversation."
According to Goodwin, the party’s popularity comes from its appeal to a group of voters he called “The Left Behind” - mainly white, British-born, working class citizens who feel increasingly disadvantaged by and angry at what they see as a lack of representation of their concerns among Britain’s political elite.
Farage’s party taps into the concerns of these voters by attacking Britain’s membership in the European Union, seen by many in this group as the source of the policies that they feel are hurting Britain and its economy — such as open immigration from the continent — and by lambasting the country’s current leaders as out of touch.
“There doesn’t need to be a complicated message or even a coherent ideology coming from Ukip,” said Goodwin. “Simply asking voters to say no to these three things — the European Union, mass immigration and the political establishment — is all it’s taken to make Ukip the most significant new party in British politics for a generation.”
Shifting to the Right
But despite Ukip’s growing draw, and the resounding victory it seems set to snatch in the upcoming European elections, it's unlikely it will ever amount to anything more than a protest party in a UK general election.
“The European elections are often seen by Britons as a chance to vote against the government in power in an election that they don’t really think means very much,” said Bale.
“If this guy or his party actually stood a serious chance of running central government in Britain, things would be different. I think we English would find him, and the views of some of his people, far more worrying if we thought he was viable.”
Still, Ukip is having a tangible impact as the other parties scramble to quell its popularity.
Cameron’s promise of a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU and the Labour Party recently adopting a harder stance on immigration are seen as clear examples of Ukip-inspired policy changes aimed at showing voters the mainstream parties understand them just as well as Farage does.
The result, Bale predicts, will be a general rightward shift of the UK political spectrum to better reflect the views of the currently disillusioned.
“One of the reasons Ukip has pulled through, despite the gaffes, is because some of what is says is true. There probably is a disconnect between politicians and the people,” Bale said.
“If you see politics like a market, it’s not a bad thing for a new entrant to come in and shake things up a little bit.”