Ukip: Why The Incredible Gaffes Of Nigel Farage's Party Do Nothing To Dent Support

The Teflon Party

When Godfrey Bloom, the Ukip MEP who derided Britain's aid to 'Bongo Bongo' land, called a roomful of female supporters 'sluts' at the party conference, and then hit Channel 4's Michael Crick on the head with a rolled up brochure, columnists wondered if it had destroyed not just the party's conference, but its chance of being taken seriously.

But support did not budge, not even 0.1%, according to polling experts.

"I am not an electoral liability, I never was for UKIP, I am a vote-getter," Bloom told the BBC in October. He, and his ilk, have not been proved wrong.

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Last weekend, Oxfordshire councillor David Silvester blamed the recent flooding on the government's decision to legalise gay marriage. Furious columns and tweets were dashed off, and spoof articles mocked 'Ukip weather' suggested gay couples head to drought-ridden areas.

What followed was one of the worst weeks for the party, including leader Nigel Farage pondering why women didn't get top jobs in the city, and disowning the party's 2010 manifesto as 'drivel'.

But support for Ukip has remained between 12 and 13%, according to YouGov.

Since 1993, Ukip has had a spat of poor publicity or gaffes roughly once every six months, ranging from allegations of far-right infiltration, sexist comments, to high-profile defections and in-fighting (remember Robert Kilroy-Silk?).

As entertaining as the gaffes may be for the media, the party's opponents, trawling Facebook posts for who-said-what, appear to be wasting their time, if the underlying aim is to damage Nigel Farage.

The polls are clear, support goes up or stays static.

It has not diminished the ambitions of those on the right, or the left, who would like to see the back of Ukip.

Conservative spin-doctor Lynton Crosby was said to have told a private meeting in August he wanted to launch a “below-the-radar” operation to catch Ukippers making embarrassing comments, monitoring council meetings, and using friendly third parties to brief the press. Crosby said reports of such a campaign were "mischievous".

Since David Cameron called Ukip a party of "loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists" in 2006, the Tory leadership has rarely even mentioned the party by name to attack it, but that strategy could be set to change, senior Conservative sources have told the Daily Telegraph.

Dr Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, has studied the media coverage of Ukip and its support base since 1993.

"Conventional wisdom in the Westminster village is that party gaffes like Godfrey Bloom's 'Bongo Bongo' land and Silvester blaming changes in the weather on homosexuality, should equate to a drop in support for a new, untested party," he said.

"But Ukip's support in the opinion polls actually paints a very different picture. The support for the party holds static. It is significantly higher than at this time before the 2009 and 2004 European elections. So based on that, it suggests support for Ukip is actually very resilient to the day-to-day scandals and events that captivate the Westminster village. The question is, why is that?"

"I don't think Ukip have anyone who's worse that the Tories or Labour. It doesn't bother me too much," said one Devon-based Ukip voter, when asked about Ukip's gaffes by The Huffington Post UK.

He has voted both Conservative and Labour in the past, but not voted in the last two general elections. "I do want us out of the EU, I do think immigration is damaging this country when British people don't have jobs to go to, who have worked and lived their whole life here."

Could the mainstream parties offer him anything to change his mind? "Nothing. I'm done with them for good, they are all the same." Could Ukip do anything to put him off voting for them? "Not unless they completely change their ideas, no."

Delegate Gloria Martin arrives for the UKIP annual conference, the scene of Godfrey Bloom's infamous demise

Goodwin said that levels of political dissatisfaction among Ukip voters are "extremely high" meaning they are happy to turn a blind eye to the "amateur mistakes of a new party to send a message to the political establishment on issues they care deeply about".

"That is not just Europe," he added, "but about immigration, the financial crisis, and the performance of mainstream parties on those issues."

"There's a sense of novelty about Ukip, still," says Professor Paul Webb, of the University of Sussex. "Ukip have never really been tested in a position of real responsibility. They don't have to be held accountable for anything tangible, and it's always easier to be in opposition.

"I would argue that what Ukip has encountered so far are not true scandals. They are non-PC comments that actually probably attract some of their voters. When John Prescott had a pop at that man who threw an egg during the 2001 elections, support for him shot up. He acted on instinct, he went up in some people's estimations."

Hope Not Hate's Nick Lowles told HuffPost UK he believes that Ukip support is just "a mood".

But it is a mood which could seriously affect the political landscape in the country, even if Ukip fail to win any seats in parliament next year. "What we fear is with Ukip success in the European elections, and Farage is going to win hundreds of seats in the council elections, then regardless of what happens in the general election, will make all the mainstream parties lurch to the right," Lowles said.

So is the support Ukip's to lose, or the other parties to win? The Conservatives, in particular, have some offerings which, on the face of it, should be attracting Ukip voters who might actually like some of their ideas implemented by a real government. Like the European referendum promise for 2017.

But polling has showed no support shifting from Ukip to another major party on the basis of a new political promise. If the last year, and the meteoric rise of Farage's party, has taught Westminster anything, it is that Ukip voters are not responsive to tangible policy offers.

This is a major challenge for the mainstream parties, but a major benefit to Ukip. "What appears to be the case is that, among this particular group of British voters, simply offering them policy is not going to bring them back into fold," Goodwin said.

"The Ukip high command have attracted an electorate which is not wooed by conventional offers to voters that guide British politics."

"The only thing that could have an effect is if Ukip do gain any power," Webb believes. "That might be by taking a local council, and then suffering a policy disaster. Or by becoming junior coalition partners. History shows that junior coalition partners always tend to suffer when a government loses popularity.

"The only other possibility is if there is a genuine scandal, a financial scandal perhaps, involving a major spokesman for the party. These gaffes, at present, only affect the view of people who would have been unlikely to vote Ukip anyway, confirming their opinion about the 'fruitcakes'."

Goodwin believes nothing is likely to diminish support for Ukip between now and the European elections. "Support for Ukip before a European election is only likely to increase. Before 2004 and 2009 their support jumped considerably, and they were starting from a much lower point, between 2 and 4%. Now they are averaging about 12.1% in the polls. They are at a much higher starting point."

Ukip always surges in the run-up to European elections, according to YouGov's Peter Kellner, because the poll is not regarded as meaningful, more a chance for a protest vote.

"If you‘re an unhappy government supporter, you don‘t want to actually throw them out of power. You can vote for an insurgent protest party without waking up the next day and discovering that someone you hate has become the next prime minister," he told reporters this week.

Godfrey Bloom - not toxic

General election prospects are gloomy however, experts predict. In 2009, Ukip polled 16.5% of the vote in the European elections only to crash to 3.1% the following year in the general election.

"Our research shows that Ukip are not attracting some of the key demographics they would need to attract for success in a general election," says Goodwin, who has co-authored a book on the subject called Revolt on the Right, to be published in March.

"Ukip support is not drawn from across society, it is not a catch-all political party. One of the key challenges is that they are not connecting with the groups they need to, to deliver a much wider victory at a general election."

"There is a critical mass of support. Only so many people will ever consider voting Ukip," Lowles said. "That's similar to the BNP, though obviously there's far, far more people who are attracted to Ukip.

"But many will feel, even though they are disillusioned with the political establishment, that they are uncomfortable with some of Ukip's views on immigrants etc. And these gaffes only confirm that fear they have about Ukip.

"But then the challenge is, do these people then just not vote? We have to make the case they should use the vote elsewhere. Political parties, and groups like ourselves, have to offer a clear, positive vision of the future, that is different to everything we've heard before. That's quite a challenge."

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