Britain’s UKIP takes on Tories, Labour as elections loom

Britain’s UKIP takes on Tories, Labour as elections loom
UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

DONCASTER, United Kingdom - Britain's eurosceptic UK Independence Party began its annual conference at a horseracing track on Friday, giddying up for two key votes next month ahead of a 2015 general election.

The party has kept a relatively low profile since European Parliament elections in May when it won a 27.5 per cent share of the vote - the highest of any British political group.

It has been working on proposals that it hopes will take it beyond its southeast England heartland and into other parts where the Conservatives and Labour are far stronger and give it a foothold in the British parliament for the first time.

UKIP is billing its annual conference as its "most important" yet and more than 2,000 delegates are expected to turn up to hear leader Nigel Farage in this Yorkshire town which was badly impacted by coal mine closures in the 1970s and 1980s.

The conference is likely to be overshadowed, however, by a critical debate in the British parliament on whether to join US-led air strikes against Islamic Group militants in Iraq.

"I think there is an element, perhaps, in the government's planning, that said today suited them. It certainly doesn't suit UKIP," Farage told Britain's ITV news channel.

The timing is also a reminder that the party still does not have a single lawmaker in Westminster despite its success in the European elections and its growing prominence.

"That will change," said Farage, who is aiming for a significant number of seats in 2015 elections and is initially targeting two constituency elections on October 9.

The first will be in Clacton, a seaside town in southeast England where local lawmaker Douglas Carswell triggered an election by switching from the Conservative party for being too weak on Europe and putting himself forward for UKIP.

The polls predict a triumph for the popular Carswell.

The other election in Heywood and Middleton near Manchester - a Labour heartland and UKIP is holding a special workshop at its party conference on winning over Labour voters.

UKIP's candidate in that vote, John Bickley, faces a tougher challenge than in Clacton but is planning to rely on growing popular discontent following two high-profile abuse scandals in the region in Rochdale and Rotherham.

"Farage could have assembled his army of the left-behind in one of his east coast strongholds, but these days he is more ambitious," Matthew Goodwin, a political science professor at the University of Nottingham and a UKIP specialist.

Blue collar vote

Farage is planning to fire up the rank and file with his formidable oratorial and campaigning skills and his speech later on Friday is likely to go over familiar territory for UKIP with opposition to immigration and the European Union.

But he is also expected to talk more about the economy, seeking to show how the party has matured and is looking to take votes away on the left as well as the right.

Among the proposals expected are a tax break for people on the minimum wage, an end to the "bedroom tax" which affects people in public housing and the protection of the national health service.

"Doncaster will be used to set out this broader pitch to struggling voters who, arguably, Labour should be winning over," Goodwin said.

Tim Aker, head of UKIP's policy unity and a member of the European Parliament charged with drawing up the manifesto said in this month's issue of Prospect Magazine: "We're beyond left-right, authoritarian-libertarian.

"Our people want to know how we're going to make their lives easier, simpler. It's a blue-collar platform, but for people that want to aspire to achieve absolutely anything."

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