A row has erupted over the past week following the decision by Rotherham council to remove several children from the care of foster parents due to their membership of the UK Independence Party, which social workers described as "a racist party". First things first - I do not in any way endorse or support this decision. Political attachments should not bar people from fostering children unless there is very compelling evidence that they will somehow seriously affect the parents' ability to care for them. I have seen no evidence that this is the case here, and if the decision was taken based upon the parents' Ukip membership alone, it is indefensible and abhorrent.
The debate over the decision has, however, brought the beliefs of Ukip members and supporters into the spotlight. Ukip leader Nigel Farage has launched a robust defence of his party and its supporters, calling the decision "political prejudice", and "typical of the kind of bigotry we get from the Labour party and Labour controlled councils". Deciding on someone's parenting skills based on their political allegiance certainly looks bigoted, but is the claim that Ukip and its supporters often hold intolerant views entirely without foundation?
A study I co-authored last year with Matthew Goodwin and David Cutts took a look at the attitudes and preferences of a large sample of over 4,000 Ukip voters gathered just after the 2009 European Parliament elections - Ukip's biggest electoral triumph to date. We looked at British voters' attitudes towards immigrants, Muslims and ethnic minorities, and in each case we found the same thing: Ukip were less likely to hold intolerant views than the BNP, but more likely than the supporters of any of the three maintream parties. I'll take them in turn.
On immigration, we asked voters whether they felt immigrants jumped the queue for council housing, whether they were responsible for most crime and whether the government should repatriate migrants. Support for the first two certainly counts as intolerance, as the evidence available suggests migrants are less, not more, likely to claim for council housing or commit crime. Ukip support for all of these items was around 10 percentage points below BNP support, but around 15 percentage points above support among Conservative voters and 20-30 points above support among Labour and Lib Dem supporters. On immigration, hostile views were widespread, but Ukip voters were consistently the most intolerant group after the BNP.
Our survey featured just one item on Islam, but additional evidence is available from a survey of Ukip supporters conducted by Matthew Goodwin and Jocelyn Evans earlier this year. Our survey asked whether voters felt that Islam posed a threat to Western civilization - 64% of Ukip supporters agreed that it was. This is lower than the 79% of BNP supporters who felt this way, but much higher than agreement among mainstream party supporters, which ranged from 31% (Lib Dems) to 49% (Conservatives). Goodwin and Evans additionally asked their survey respondents whether they would feel uncomfortable if a mosque was built in their neighbourhood - 84% said they would be. Again, lower than the 94% figure for BNP supporters but much higher than the 54% figure for the general population. On Islam, as on immigration, Ukip supporters are more negative than supporters of any other party - except the BNP.
Finally, we looked at out and out racism, looking at support for views that are broadly regarded as illegitimate and unacceptable by mainstream voters and politicians. We found that such views were also shared by only a minority of Ukip voters -22% agreed that employers should favour white applicants over non-whites, 18% agreed that non-white people are not really British and 17% agreed that black Britons are less intelligent than white Britons. However, while a large majority of Ukip voters reject such explicit racism, we once again find more intolerance among the party's supporters than among supporters of any other party, except the BNP.
A common pattern emerges here. In each case, we find many Ukip supporters who reject such intolerance. But equally, in each case, we find that intolerance is more prevalent among Ukip supporters than among supporters of any other political party except the openly racist BNP. It is therefore pretty clear that while not all Ukip supporters are intolerant, intolerant voters clearly find Ukip attractive.
Intolerant voters are over-represented among Ukip's support base, but this does not prove that Ukip itself is an intolerant organisation. Ukip's euroscepticism and hostility to the political mainstream may be the main appeal to voters who also happen to be intolerant to immigrants and minorities, even if the party never actively seeks to mobilise intolerance. We can say three things against this idea.
Firstly, our analysis used a statistical method called regression to isolate the impact of different motivations on support for Ukip. We find, unsuprisingly, that euroscepticism is the strongest driver of Ukip support, but also that intolerance - in particular hostility to immigrant also attracts voters to the party.
Secondly, Ukip has at various points offered policy proposals with a clear appeal to intolerant voters, including proposals to end multiculturalism policies, ban the wearing of burqas, dramatically reduce immigration and restrict immigrant access to benefits. None of these policies is racist or discriminatory, but all are likely to appeal to voters with negative views of immigrants and minorities.
Finally, Ukip's political candidates and campaigns focus very strongly on their promises to drastically reduce immigration and as Mehdi Hasan notes has frequently strayed into criticism of immigrants and Muslims. The prominence given to immigration by a party which is ostensibly focussed on the European Union suggests Ukip are well aware that intolerance towards immigrants and minorities is a much more potent political force than opposition to the EU, and target their campaigns accordingly.
So, while not all Ukip supporters are intolerant towards immigrants and minorities, such intolerance is a lot more common among Ukip supporters than it is among supporters of other political parties, and this does not look like an accident. Ukip, like many European radical right parties, has recruited most strongly from voters with a wide range of anxieties about immigration, Islam and identity. It would be a mistake to dismiss such concerns as racism - they are widely held by many voters and need to be engaged with and addressed by mainstream politicians as well as by Ukip itself. Ukip's politicians are right to condemn the seizure of children due to their parents political views as the worst kind of political bigotry. But they must also acknowledge and respond to the darker motives attracting some voters to their party.