UKIP, a political party that never fails to be surrounded by controversy and media speculation, marked the beginning of their 2013 conference on the 20th September. The aforementioned controversy has had for UKIP the positive effect of attracting media attention to make the party a household name. This year’s party conference proved no exception, with headlines all over the world showing both leader Nigel Farage proposing that UKIP could hold the “balance of power” in the 2015 general election; as well as UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom’s contentious comments that the UKIP Conference was “full of sluts”.
Perhaps one of the first controversial things to note about the conference is that on the front of the 2013 UKIP Party Brochure, which is a page collated of a large number of different faces given to every attendee, does not actually feature any faces that are not people of white ethnicity. This fact is extremely surprising considering the party has strongly opposed smear campaigns and any portrayal of UKIP as being ‘racist’; allegations dating back to the last election where a string of candidates were exposed as expressing racist views on social networking sites. These accusations of racism have been coupled with great antagonism by both British politicians and the European Union for the party’s stiff anti-immigration policy and unwillingness to support European developments.
One of the key aims outlined by leader Nigel Farage in 2012 was to change this negative image in an aim to depict themselves as more ‘mainstream’; to appeal to a wider range of voters and to represent themselves as a key rival to the dominance of the UK’s three major parties. Farage suggested in last week’s conference that UKIP was on course to win “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of council seats in 2014 and that his party’s membership would overtake that of the Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing decreasing popularity of the Liberal Democrat party since losing the majority of the student vote that helped keep them afloat, this could be very plausible. A recently conducted YouGov survey suggests that support of the UK’s main anti-immigration party has risen to around 10%, a surprise to many considering at the 2010 election they managed a grand total of zero parliamentary seats.
Perhaps the most important statement to come from the 2013 conference stemmed from Farage who predicted that the party was on track to cause a “political earthquake” by coming first in the impending European elections. The fact that UKIP run in the European Union elections is ironic in itself; being a party that wants Britain to hold a referendum on EU membership and to withdraw ourselves from political and economic integration. Often the majority of UKIP supporters believe strongly in the party’s extreme anti-immigration policy which could be put into practice should Britain withdraw from the EU. Farage’s goal to withdraw Britain from EU membership, if successful, could ring-fence Britain away from Europe. This insular approach to the wider EU could have the effect of creating an independent Britain; disregarding liberal and democratic advances that have been made such as European Law and the smoking ban.
However, the policies of this year’s conference appeared to be overshadowed by a blasé outburst from a senior UKIP European Parliament member, Godfrey Bloom. The MEP previously hit headlines this summer when he claimed that taxpayers’ money was being wasted on foreign aid sent to “Bongo Bongo Land” – a reference to third world countries. During an event for women in politics at the annual conference, he also described a group of female UKIP members as being “sluts” and afterwards proceeded to hit a journalist over the head with a copy of the party brochure. These outbursts only provide support for David Cameron’s branding of party members as “loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists”. Bloom has now stated that he is leaving the UKIP group in Europe, but that he would stay in the European Parliament as an independent and remain a UKIP member. However, it is clear that this negative press from a UKIP MEP will only further the controversy about the party and whether or not the party supports, not only racist, but also sexist opinions.
The trend in support for the UKIP party is one that has been furthered at our very own University of the West of England. This year for the very first time we have a UKIP Society, and one that has appeared to be surprisingly successful, gathering around 27 signatures for membership at the 2013 Freshers’ Fair. It is clear that opinions about the UK Independence Party are very much ‘each to their own’, and that whether you regard them as “fruitcakes” or the “saviours of British Politics” their ever increasing support from the electorate does not look ready to halt any time soon.