Anti-EU party holds onto support despite sex scandals

Anti-EU party holds onto support despite sex scandals
A man walks past the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) campaign office for the by-election in Rochester, in southeastern England, November 11, 2014. The party has been buffeted by race and sex scandals five months before a national election, but the publicity hasn't dented its popularity.

LONDON - Britain's anti-EU UKIP party has been buffeted by race and sex scandals five months before a national election, but the publicity hasn't dented its popularity and the party's dream of being kingmaker in a coalition remains alive.

Prime Minister David Cameron called UKIP, which wants Britain to leave the European Union and for immigration to be sharply curbed, "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists" in 2006. But UKIP - the UK Independence Party - has thrived politically since, taking rivals by surprise.

It won European elections in Britain in May and then poached two of Cameron's Conservative lawmakers who won back their seats as UKIP candidates. It has also put immigration on the agenda, forcing rivals to talk about an issue they'd previously ignored.

With May's election likely to be one of the closest in modern British history and neither of the main parties looking likely to win outright, UKIP hopes to do well enough to hold the balance of power.

But the party, which was only founded in 1993 and prides itself on lively internal debate, has failed to maintain discipline as it selects 600 parliamentary candidates.

The past weeks have brought a squall of bad publicity.

First, Nigel Farage, UKIP's leader, came under pressure after saying hotels should have the right to ask breastfeeding mothers to sit in the corner. The party's general secretary was then suspended after being accused of sexual harassment by a woman who said UKIP was rife with racism and sexism.

And more recently, the battle to become UKIP's candidate for a seat in Essex, southern England, turned sour after one contender withdrew after his expenses were queried and the successful candidate, Kerry Smith, quit after being recorded making insulting remarks about gays and Chinese people.

In another embarrassing disclosure, David Soutter, the official charged with vetting UKIP candidates, was recorded complaining he spent half his time "weeding out the lunatics."

Yet UKIP's ratings remain resilient.

A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times this weekend put it at 16 per cent, behind the Conservatives and Labour on 32 per cent each. A poll just under three weeks ago by YouGov also gave UKIP 16 per cent.

"However disastrous we might think these cases to be it is clearly not having an impact on UKIP's overall level of support," Matthew Goodwin, an academic and co-author of "Revolt on the Right", a book about UKIP's rise, told Reuters.

"One reason is that irrespective of what candidates say there is a level of sympathy for UKIP within the electorate of about 20 and 30 per cent. It is so anxious about immigration, the EU and Westminster politics that it is willing to give UKIP a free pass."

Unless party discipline spirals out of control, Goodwin thinks it "highly unlikely" that UKIP's popularity will be seriously damaged before May.

UKIP says it is going through the normal growing pains of any party trying to establish itself and it is becoming more professional at dealing with scandals, of which it concedes there have been many.

"What we're seeing over the last ten days is that UKIP has grown up rather dramatically," Steven Woolfe, a UKIP member of the European Parliament, told BBC radio on Monday.

"The fact that we have someone who has made racist and homophobic language (and) has gone within 24 hours shows the strength of the team behind us," he said, referring to the case of Kerry Smith.

Several of the party's scandals have been the result of unidentified UKIP party members leaking embarrassing material to the media as the battle to become a candidate in the seats where it is most likely to win turns dirty.

As the election draws closer and UKIP's ratings remain high, Britain's robust press has also begun to subject it to closer scrutiny with some outlets sharing unflattering disclosures about UKIP with its readers on a regular basis.

The Times, owned by a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, has led the charge. Murdoch has met Farage, and even tweeted about him positively in the past but has not endorsed him.

UKIP makes a virtue of its scandals, saying they show it is selecting ordinary people rather than career politicians, even if a minority of them do let the party down.

One of its main arguments is that the more established parties are staffed by career politicians who have never had real jobs and lack real life experience.

"We've always taken great pride that we deal with ordinary people with ordinary views and we've not had a training programme," said UKIP's Woolfe.

"When you have ordinary people who've never had to be in front of the press or had to deal with that, you're going to have people who need to be guided and shown."

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