Battle for UKIP is no minor affair

IT may not have any MPs at Westminster, but the United Kingdom Independence Party has had a major impact on centre right politics since it took over the anti-European Union mantle from the dying embers of Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party.

By Graham Dines

IT may not have any MPs at Westminster, but the United Kingdom Independence Party has had a major impact on centre right politics since it took over the anti-European Union mantle from the dying embers of Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party.

UKIP members are a bunch of eternal optimists, convinced that one day Europe - and Britain's membership of the EU - will become the overriding issue influencing how people decide to vote at a General Election.

With 12 Euro-MPs elected in 2004, the party hoped it had last made a breakthrough. But while voters might be prepared to stick two fingers up to the federalists of Europe by sending UKIP MEPs to Brussels and Strasbourg, when it comes to choosing a Government, the British look at the main parties' policies on health, education, inflation and taxes rather than membership of the EU.


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Such an outlook hardly does justice to UKIP, which insists it is not a single issue party. It put forward a raft of domestic policies before the electorate but, largely ignored by the media and television, voters were blind to UKIP's wider agenda.

Last year's General Election result was a disaster for UKIP. It lost its deposit in more than 450 seats - its vote actually fell in Harwich, which has the reputation of being Britain's most Eurosceptic constituency - but its candidates have put up stout performances in by-elections where electors are more likely to cast a protest vote than at General Elections.

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Although it claims to attract former Labour and Liberal Democrat voters fed up with Europe, the reality is that most people who support UKIP are ex-Conservatives who gave up on the Tories when John Major signed the Maastrict Treaty, which paved the way for the single European currency and advanced the cause of a federalist Europe.

UKIP's next big test is the 2009 European Parliament elections. If these coincide with the General Election and the titanic battle between Gordon Brown and David Cameron, the odds must be against UKIP retaining many of its 12 Euro seats. Ticket splitting is an alien concept to the British, who in multiple elections on the same day generally tend to vote for just one party.

Convincing Britons to give UKIP a chance will be the major task of whoever is elected leader next month in a contest triggered by the decision of MEP Roger Knapman to step down.

Critics of UKIP claim it is a one issue right wing cabal, a plaything for middle aged white men. The image is compounded by the candidates standing for leader - all are middle aged, white men.

The best known is the feisty former commodities dealer Nigel Farage, an MEP since 1999 who contested the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election in June, putting up a bravado performance which should propel him to the position of leader when the 16,000 votes of the membership are declared on September 12.

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