Is Ukip racist? Or is it merely a party that is especially attractive to what David Cameron once called "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists"?
Or, perhaps, is it neither? Has it been unfairly smeared and demonised? On Sunday, Ukip leader Nigel Farage told the BBC's Andrew Marr he was "adamant that we're a non-racist party".
Guess what? Plenty of influential people on the liberal-left agree with him. Former Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith says she is "uneasy about the suggestions that they are racist and the implication that, therefore so are the likely Ukip voters". Liberal Conspiracy blogger Sunny Hundal attacks those on the left "offering up blanket accusations of racism" aimed at Ukip. "Do the majority of Ukip voters endorse racism and is Ukip an openly racist movement?" asks academic Matthew Goodwin, author of a new book on the anti-Europe party. "No."
In an attempt to shield Ukip from the charge of racism, these liberal-lefties have, wittingly or unwittingly, joined with both Farage and sections of the right-wing press to promulgate some pretty dodgy arguments, some pretty dangerous myths, that are worth tackling head on:
1) Only left-liberal, metropolitan-types in Hampstead think Ukip is racist
Not quite. A quarter of voters (27%), according to a recent YouGov poll, say Ukip is a party "with racist views" and "with many racist members".
Only a quarter (26%) of voters give Ukip a clean bill of health and say Ukip is "not racist at all". A pretty damning figure, I would argue. Meanwhile, a plurality of voters (35%) agreed Ukip wasn't "racist", in their view, but did "seem to attract some candidates or supporters with racist, extreme or odd views".
Also, Michael Heseltine - who, last time I checked, was a Conservative peer and former Conservative cabinet minister - has said he believes Ukip is a racist party. Jeremy Hunt, a serving Conservative cabinet minister, has attacked Ukip for "attracting" racist candidates.
Oh, and the founder and former leader of Ukip, Dr Alan Sked, told the Sunday Times in September 2013 that, under Nigel Farage's leadership, the party he created had become "anti-immigrant, anti-intellectual and racist".
2) It's unfair to blame Ukip as a whole for the racist comments of a tiny minority of candidates
First, is it really only a 'tiny minority'? A few 'rotten apples'? The last few weeks alone have revealed a bunch of Ukip candidates and activists who, among other things, told Lenny Henry to go and live in a 'black country'; said the UK has a "pro Islamic" media; called Islam an "organised crime under religious camouflage"; "liked" the BNP on Facebook; described EDL members as "honest, normal people"; implied the case of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence had received disproportionate amounts of media coverage; suggested Nigerians were criminals; declared Mo Farah to be African and not British. As a Spectator blogger noted: "[T]he scandals are so frequent you have to conclude that it is not the rotten apple that needs throwing out but the whole stinking barrel."
Second, it isn't just a bunch of fringe figures in Ukip saying awful, bigoted stuff. Racism, xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry seems to be tolerated at the top, and not just the bottom, of the party. Why, after all, did Ukip's leaders, and hundreds of members, "roar with laughter" and "clap" as comedian Paul Eastwood "took swipes at Indians, Muslims and Poles" at a gala dinner at the party's spring conference in February?
In fact, consider the following four individuals and their remarks:
(a) Gerard Batten, Ukip's chief whip and immigration spokesman, has demanded Britain's Muslims sign up to a special code of conduct and called for a ban on the building of new mosques - which is a policy backed by both the BNP and the EDL.
(b) Godfrey Bloom, the party's former economics spokesman, who served for almost a decade as a Ukip MEP and shared a flat with his friend and ally Farage, referred to the developing world as "bongo bongo land".
(c) Lord Pearson, the senior Ukip peer and former party leader, has said the UK faces a "growing threat of Islamism" because "the Muslims are breeding ten times faster than us". He added: "I don't know at what point they reach such a number we are no longer able to resist the rest of their demands."
(d) And, of course, then there is the party's current leader, cheeky-chappy, beer-drinking, 'regular guy' Nigel Farage. Asked in a recent Guardian interview whether or not people should be "wary" of Romanian families moving into their street, the Ukip leader replied: "Well, of course, yeah."
Change the word 'Romanian' to 'Nigerian' or 'Indian' or even 'Jewish' and ask yourself whether or not you'd consider Farage's answer to be racist or not.
3) Romanian is a nationality not a race, so being rude about Romanians isn't racist
Yes, it is actually. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), in its guidance on "racist and religious crime", defines a "racial group" as "any group of people who are defined by reference to their race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origin". [Emphasis added.]
As it happens, even Farage agrees with this definition - when the Ukip leader was heckled and attacked by Scottish protesters on a visit to Edinburgh in May 2013, he described his opponents as "deeply racist with a total hatred for the English".
Hello, kettle? This is pot. You're black.
4) You can't call Ukip racist as they have black and ethnic minority (BME) candidates and activists
This is what I'd call the political party's equivalent of the 'My best friend is black/gay/Jewish' defence. And it is an equally hollow and absurd method of trying to deflect or rebut charges of racism.
(On a side note, the father of the Ukip candidate who denied his son was racist - despite the latter's tweets about "foreigners and weirdos" and rape by "Asian boys" - on the grounds that he came home "at 10.30pm with a curry " can't be topped in terms of originality - or bizarreness.)
5) Ukip has gone out of its way to reject overtures from the far-right in Europe
So far, maybe. In today's Telegraph, however, Geert Wilders, leader of Holland's far-right Party for Freedom, predicts that Ukip will join his party and France's National Front (FN) in a new 'European Freedom Alliance' in the wake of the Euro elections later this month. FN's Marine Le Pen has said she could happily work with UKIP, with "open arms", and declared Farage's ideas and views "very similar" to those of her (far-right) party.
Then there is the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group in the European Parliament, in which Ukip sits and of which Farage is co-chair. The EFD group includes representatives from a variety of unsavoury, immigrant-bashing, far-right parties, including the Danish People's Party, the True Finns Party and Italy's Lega Nord. Farage's fellow co-chair, Francesco Speroni of Lega Nord, has described far-right terrorist and mass murderer Anders Breivik as someone whose "ideas are in defence of western civilisation". Lega Nord leader Umberto Bossi has referred to non-white immigrants as "bingo bingos" and suggested the police should open fire on boats bringing African asylum-seekers to Italy. Does Farage have a view on Bossi? Or Speroni? Or his alliance with both?
6) To call Ukip the 'BNP in blazers' is unfair and unwarranted
Really? Then why has Farage called on BNP voters to "come and vote for us" and boasted of his pride in having "taken a third of the BNP vote directly from them". Since when did the attracting of voters from a far-right, racist party become a source of pride?
As academics Heinz Brandenburg and Anders Widfeldt, authors of a recent study on the overlap between the BNP and Ukip, have pointed out: "Nobody has a more positive view of the BNP than UKIP voters, and nobody has a more positive view of UKIP than BNP voters." They conclude: "[T]he BNP and UKIP fit rather neatly into separate subgroups of the same, extreme right, party family - the BNP into a more radical one and UKIP into a more moderate grouping."
Also: why did the BNP approach Ukip in 2008 and propose forming a pact between the two parties - a potential alliance which Farage, to his credit, rejected? What made Ukip so attractive to the BNP high command? And what made the BNP so attractive to the two members of Ukip's national executive committee who were in favour of the pact?
Is there any other mainstream party in the UK that the BNP has asked to do a deal with? And which has BNP sympathisers on its national executive committee?
In conclusion, whether or not Ukip is a racist party, rather than, say, a party containing racists, is a debate for the pedants and the literalists - the bigger questions are: what is it about Ukip that attracts so many racists and bigots in the first place? How do senior party figures justify their racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic comments? Why does Ukip sit in the European Parliament with race-baiting, Muslim-baiting parties? Why are BNP voters - and, previously, the BNP leadership - so keen on Ukip? Why did the EDL endorse Ukip? Why does Le Pen want to welcome Farage with "open arms" into her far-right, pan-European alliance?
To turn a blind eye to such questions is not just irresponsible but dangerous.