How UKIP became a British political force

Nigel Farage, UKIP: "If we're part of the European Union, we cannot stop unrestricted, open-access to Britain from eastern Europe"

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Finishing a close second in the Eastleigh by-election was almost the Westminster breakthrough the UK Independence Party has been threatening to make. But how has the party gone from the fringes to a force in British politics.

The UK Independence Party has, as its name implies, one key policy - to leave the European Union.

It is a simple, understandable message, which has led to the party gaining bigger shares of the votes in European elections.

But it is also one which means people often dismiss it as a single issue party, unlikely to become a force in Westminster politics.

It has spent considerable effort on broadening its appeal. And judging from recent opinion polls its wider policies - grammar schools, curbing immigration and opposing gay marriage - seem to have struck a chord with disenchanted voters from the "big three".

In Eastleigh, it - rather than Labour - seems to have become the party of choice for the anti-government and anti-politics vote.

Put those together and UKIP came agonisingly close to making its Westminster breakthrough 20 years after it was formed - and 19 years after it got just 1.7% of the vote in the last Eastleigh by-election.

The party was founded on 3 September 1993 at the London School of Economics by members of the Anti-Federalist League, which had been founded by Dr Alan Sked in November 1991 with the aim of running candidates opposed to the Maastricht Treaty in the 1992 general election.

UKIP's growing share of the vote

  • 1999 Euros: 7%
  • 2001 Gen Election: 1.5% (saved deposit in one seat)
  • 2004 Euros: 16%
  • 2005 Gen Election: 2.3% (saved deposit in 38 seats)
  • 2009 Euros: 16.5%
  • 2010 Gen Election: 3.2% (saved deposit in 100 seats)

Candidates must get 5% of votes cast to save their deposit

UKIP's early days were overshadowed by the much higher profile and well-financed Referendum Party, led by Sir James Goldsmith, which was wound up soon after the 1997 election.

The new party's initial successes were all in the proportional representation elections for the European Parliament - winning its first three seats in 1999 with 7% of the vote.

It built on that in 2004, winning 12 seats and pushing the Lib Dems into fourth place. The 2009 poll saw its total grow to 13 seats, pushing Labour into third place with 16% of the vote.

General elections, however, with their first-past-the-post voting systems, have been a very different story and the party has failed to make the breakthrough it has been hoping for.

In 2001 it saved its deposit (that is, got at least 5% of votes) in just one seat. In 2005 it saved its deposit in 38 seats but lost its deposits in 451 others - costing about £225,500. Even its then leader, former Tory MP Roger Knapman, could only poll 7% of the votes in Totnes, Devon.

Chat show host Kilroy

In 2010 it was led into the general election by Lord Pearson of Rannoch but again lost out, with just 3% of the vote across the UK, although there were signs of progress as it saved its deposit in 100 seats.

The party had hoped to make headlines after Nigel Farage stood down as leader so he could take on Speaker John Bercow in Buckingham at the 2010 election - he did make the headlines but it turned out they were about a plane crash that almost cost Farage his life, rather than election success.

Farage recovered from his injuries and returned to head the party later in the year, in the latest instalment of the colourful story of UKIP's leadership.

Robert Kilroy Silk Robert Kilroy Silk: Was the public face of the party for the 2004 European elections success

Original leader and UKIP founder Alan Sked quit before the 1999 European elections, after arguing the party should refuse seats in the "gravy train" of the Strasbourg Parliament.

Shortly after that, the national executive lost a no confidence vote and leader Michael Holmes resigned, although he remained an MEP.

Mr Knapman took over the role of leader in 2002, but in 2004, a new pretender to the crown - former Labour MP and chat show host Robert Kilroy-Silk - arrived in a flurry of media publicity to shake things up once again.

Before long he was openly jockeying for the leadership and was the media face of the party for the 2004 European election success - but when Mr Knapman refused to stand aside for him, Mr Kilroy-Silk quit and formed his own short-lived rival party.

Some thought that without ex-TV host Kilroy's recognition factor the party might struggle.

Farage returns

In 2006, the lower-key Knapman retired, to be replaced by Nigel Farage, an eye-catching media performer who pledged to make UKIP a "truly representative party", ending its image as a single-issue pressure group.

He spearheaded its success at the 2009 European elections and raised UKIP's profile, but then surprised his own party conference in September 2009 by standing down as leader.

A UKIP billboard from the European elections in 2009 A UKIP billboard from the European elections in 2009

Mr Farage said he would instead run for a seat in the Commons - specifically the seat of Commons Speaker John Bercow, which, by convention, other major parties do not fight. Mr Farage said it was "very important that UKIP gets a voice in Westminster".

Eton-educated Lord Pearson was Mr Farage's choice to replace him - but the peer never seemed at home in the job - for instance, admitting at the 2010 general election manifesto launch that he was not quite across the party's policy detail.

Mr Farage continued to be the highest-profile UKIP member - making headlines, and a viral video success, after telling the in-coming President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy that he had "the charisma of a damp rag".

Following the 2010 election Lord Pearson announced in August 2010 he was stepping down, saying he did not enjoy party politics - five hopefuls entered the race to succeed him, with Farage triumphing.

'I'm a bit odd'

Since then the party has gradually seen its poll ratings rise, overtaking the Lib Dems on a number of occasions, and putting in strong showings in recent by-elections.

The gains for the party coincide with the higher profile given to the debate about Europe, which culminated in David Cameron pledging to hold and an in/out referendum on UK membership of the EU if the Conservatives won the next election.

UKIP membership figures

  • 2002 9,000
  • 2003 16,000
  • 2004 26,000
  • 2005 19,000
  • 2006 16,000
  • 2007 15,878
  • 2008 14,630
  • 2009 16,252
  • 2010 15,535
  • 2011 17,184

While Mr Farage criticised the decision to delay the vote by five years, he claimed the prime minister's promise showed "we have changed the political agenda in this country" calling it "our proudest achievement to date".

Immigration has also been an issue and UKIP, which rejects charges of being racist, sees the EU question being at the heart of it.

Speaking after the Eastleigh result, Mr Farage said:"If you want to have a managed migration policy, you cannot remain a member of the European Union.

"My prediction is, that over the next year or two, as the European debate gathers pace in this country, the issue of immigration and border controls will become the absolute key to the whole thing."

It is the sort of easily understood message that has increased Mr Farage's profile - as has his Boris Johnson-esque political maverick style, such as recently laughing off David Cameron's jibe that UKIP had some pretty odd people in it.

Asked about it on the Today programme in January he said: "Yes, I am a bit odd" for a politician.

"I'm odd in the sense that I'm a conviction politician, I'm not doing this for a career... I'm here as a campaigner. I want to free this country from the European Union and then I want us to have a much smaller level of state interference in our lives in this country."

Mr Farage said his party was making "huge progress" towards achieving that goal going in one year from 4.5% in the polls to a high of 16%.

UKIP has been seen as attracting Tories unhappy with the party's priorities under David Cameron and its coalition's record - something Farage sought to highlight in his post by-election claim that voters want an alternative to "the three social democratic parties".

In that Today interview he said UKIP did not have any MPs because "the first-past-the-post system is brutal to a party like us".

That may have been so at past general elections - but 28% of the vote and a close second place finish in Eastleigh have shown that, at the very least in Westminster by-elections as well as European elections, UKIP is now a force to be reckoned with.

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