Analysis: What is the secret of UKIP's appeal?

By Chris Mason
Political correspondent


As UK Independence Party members gather in Exeter for the party's spring conference, how did it get started and what is the secret of its growing popularity?

"We are delighted. This is massive progress for us. And of course, you know, if the Conservatives hadn't split our vote we would have won, wouldn't we?!"

With his typically pugnacious sense of fun, the UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage offered his analysis of that second place finish in the Eastleigh by election in February.

Yes, it was the party's best by election performance ever, but it was also its fourth second place finish inside two years in a race for a Westminster seat.

Add to that its 11 members of the European Parliament and it is all rather a long way from an office at the London School of Economics where it all began two decades ago.

"This room was involved first of all in the establishment of the Anti Federalist League when the BBC filmed me here after I had written to the Times to say I was going to establish that body."

With tomes about the Maastricht Treaty on the shelves, Alan Sked is reminiscing.

Squabbles and defections

He is Professor of International History at the LSE and was UKIP's first leader, having set up its forerunner as a party, the Anti Federalist League.

"This was based on the Anti Corn Law League set up by Cobden and Bright in the 1840s which converted Sir Robert Peel, the Tory prime minister to free trade and then changed the history of Britain.

image captionUKIP's first leader Alan Sked is now among its biggest critics

"Unfortunately, British history is so badly taught now that nobody had any idea why we called it the Anti-Federalist League and nobody had ever heard of the Anti Corn Law League so we needed a new title and we thought the one that encapsulated what the party stood for was UK Independence Party."

Alongside UKIP's expansion since then has been an unrivalled pedigree for internal turbulence - squabbles, defections, two of its former MEPs jailed.

And even its founder is unflinching in his criticism of the party: "It's got nothing to say on mainstream issues, nothing sensible.

"It's never actually developed any body of thinking on mainstream British political problems, we have no idea what it would do in most areas. It's obsession now is on immigration, race and Islam, all of which I deplore."

Those at the top of the party now stridently disagree.

'Not against foreigners'

Roger Helmer, who defected from the Conservatives a year ago and is an MEP, says: "This idea that we are closet racists is frankly not only wrong but it is downright offensive.

"I don't want to fall into the trap of saying some of my best friends are from ethnic minorities, but certainly in my office in Brussels over the years, I have had several members of ethnic minorities working for me.

"Similarly, we are not anti-foreign. In my office at the moment I have got an American and an Italian working with me. Nigel Farage is married to a German.

"Of course we are not against foreigners. I spend a lot of my time in Europe, I love the cooking, the culture and the countryside.

"We want to be good neighbours, not bad tenants, that is the difference."

And, alongside that central desire to get out of the European Union, the party is now pushing a broader range of ideas, from being anti-gay marriage to pro-grammar school.

It's a platter of policies credited in the Telegraph recently for its "pint and a ploughman's simplicity which plays well with disillusioned voters across the spectrum".

Immigration concerns

But one issue more than any other seems to be helping the party's cause.

Plates are being cleared after lunch at the Light Bites Cafe at a Sure Start Centre in Ashford in Kent. I am here to meet a recent UKIP recruit.

Angharad Yeo's dad is originally from Saudi Arabia. For years she was a Labour activist. Her mum, Harriet, is the chairman of Labour's National Executive Committee.

For Ms Yeo, 34, immigration matters and the other parties don't get it.

image captionAngharad Yeo is a new recruit to the party

"We are the one county which gets affected the most. We are the first port of call, if you like, after the ports," she says.

It means, she says, the NHS is stretched and her six-year-old daughter isn't at the best local school.

"It just seems ridiculous that on my doorstep is a very good school and I can't get her in and I can't get her in a school nearer.

"My healthcare centre, you can't make an appointment for a couple of weeks. We are having to pay for interpreters.

"If you come here, speak English, it's just polite, it stops racism, it stops ghettos being formed, it stops barriers in society."

Brazen newcomers

Many opinion polls suggest her opinions are mainstream, at just the same time that UKIP's big beef, the EU, and it's take on it, getting out, has arguably never been more prominent or more fashionable.

"I think if you go back five years, people didn't like Europe very much but it was low down the priority list." says Ms Yeo.

"Since then we've had the Eurozone crisis which has been like a perverse soap opera on our TV screens almost every night. Each news story is a new disaster.

"And people are saying, hang on, we haven't paid too much attention to this, but it's important, it's nearby and it's damaging and we want a bit less of it."

And for supporters on the right, UKIP can claim to offer the real deal Conservative cordial, rather than what they see as the diluted squash of coalition.

But these colourful, brazen newcomers are getting attention from others too.

And every indication is they are here to stay.

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