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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 September 2006, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
UKIP needs to broaden appeal
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Nigel Farage, who has been elected leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), has one big task he may wish to address immediately.

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage was favourite to land the top job
To dispel the notion that, as David Cameron had it, the party is a bunch of "fruit cakes, loonies and closet racists mostly".

Mr Farage was happy to laugh off the fruit cake and loony tag, but the racist bit stung and he will know it is this line of attack that could do his party the most damage.

UKIP has spent much of its time since Mr Cameron's assault demanding an apology.

The problem is that, if the party is to make a real breakthrough into mainstream politics - something it has had dangled in front of it in recent local and Euro elections - it has to widen its appeal.

Its core policy, indeed its raison d'etre, is British withdrawal from the EU. It is a policy that has struck a real chord with large sections of the electorate and seen it notching up some significant election results which have spooked the big three parties.

Fourth place

In 2004 it won 16% of the vote in the European parliament elections, pushing the Liberal Democrats into fourth place.

David Cameron
Cameron accused party members of racism
There may not have been a follow through to the following general election, in which it lost its deposit in more than 450 seats as voters turned back to the big three.

But it has proved it has the power to hurt the other parties in by-elections, beating the Conservatives into fourth place in Hartlepool and doing the same to Labour in Bromley and Chislehurst, with Mr Farage as its candidate.

But an anti-EU policy, while capable of attracting disillusioned supporters of the mainstream parties - notably the Tories - is not enough to produce the breakthrough the party craves.

For a start, Europe is much less of an issue than it once was.

The planned EU constitution is dead, the widening rather than deepening of the Union has stopped moves to a federal state in their tracks as it struggles to accommodate the new members, and British entry into the single currency is off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

Next is the decision by both the Tories and Labour to keep the issue out of its election campaigns.

As long as the Europe issue is sleeping and no one wakes it up, it cannot re-ignite the divisions within both those parties which have caused them so much grief in the past, and which it still has the potential to do again.

Tax cuts

That said, the history of UKIP itself is littered with divisions and infighting. Its founder Alan Sked quit seven years ago and has attacked the party for moving too far to the right, particularly on immigration.

Robert Kilroy Silk
Kilroy Silk sparked party divisions
Then there was the unhappy episode over the membership and leadership ambitions of television personality Robert Kilroy-Silk, who finally quit after failing to takeover the party.

So as its new leader, Mr Farage needs to unite the party and avoid any future civil wars. But he also needs more than the single issue of Europe to write into his party's manifesto.

The party has already begun to address the problem, developing distinctive policies on an English parliament, tax cuts and selection in education - where it has again targeted ground it believes has been abandoned by the Tories under David Cameron.

And then there is immigration - the other big policy where UKIP scores well with voters.

Its call to fix strict limits on immigration may have helped attract accusations of racism, but UKIP's new leader will now be able to claim that both Labour and the Tories have started moving in its direction on this issue.

Finally, Mr Farage needs to be able to get his message across - to find ways of getting himself on to the nation's television screens without resorting to publicity stunts.

So, any fruit cake or loonies who might be lurking in the party should be warned - their days may be numbered.


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