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LONDON - He holds news conferences in pubs, wants to pull Britain out of the European Union and his anti-big government stance has attracted comparisons to the Tea Party.
Charismatic lawmaker Nigel Farage's U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) says Britain is better off without Europe’s Brussels-based political projects and seeks tough curbs on immigration and an end to subsidies for green energy.
The party has long been considered part of the political fringe: before being elected prime minister, David Cameron once dismissed UKIP's supporters as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists."
But surfing on a tide of public resentment at the main political parties, Farage's controversial right-wing “patriotic party” appears to be days away from a historic victory at the ballot box that could reshape next year’s general election.
On Thursday, voters will choose local representatives and its members of the European Parliament in a poll that will take the political temperature of the nation in a way similar to the mid-term elections in the U.S.
Challenging traditional parties
A recent ITV News/ComRes opinion poll put Farage’s UKIP well ahead of the other parties in the European race, with 38 percent of voters saying they would cast their ballot for the party, compared to 27 percent for Labour, 18 percent for the Conservatives and 8 percent for the Liberal Democrats.
UKIP’s populist agenda has struck a chord in a country struggling through with the slowest post-recession recovery in modern history, where many blame unemployment on the immigration boom of the 2000s.
"He has to show that he is a legitimate actor, that he is not a bigot or a racist. He deals with that very well"
“Especially among older voters you hear that phrase ‘I don’t recognize my own country any more’ and that’s a sentiment captured by UKIP,” said John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
Britain next year will choose a new government in which Cameron’s Conservative party is seeking a majority after a term in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
The Conservatives' traditional main opponent is the Labour Party, which recently hired Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod as an adviser. But with dissatisfaction with all the main political parties at an all-time high, support for UKIP is surging.
“2015 is already shaping up to be the most unpredictable British general election in 40 years,” said Rob Ford, a politics lecturer at the University of Manchester and author of "Revolt on the Right" about right-wing politics in Britain.
But translating success from the proportional representation system of the European parliament into the constituency-based first-past-the-post voting system of Britain’s general election will be an enormous task for Farage, even with political momentum in his favor. His party already has 12 members of the European parliament – including Farage - and dozens of local councillors across England - but not a single representative in Britain’s parliament at Westminster.
“Winning the European election would be very symbolic – but no more than that,” said Ford. “On current predictions it would still probably get only one or two seats at the general election, most likely Farage himself if he stood for a constituency.”
Harnessing that momentum is a challenge relished by Farage, a former commodities trader who left a highly paid career in London’s financial district to become the ubiquitous public face of UKIP.
“Traditionally, mid-term protest votes have gone from the Conservatives and Labour to the Liberal Democrats,” Curtice said. ”But the Liberal Democrats have been in a power-sharing coalition with the Conservatives since 2010, so they are no longer the party of protest and that role has fallen to UKIP.”
The British Election Study – a joint academic research project on voting behavior – believes Farage may be able to retain his mid-term popularity, and predicts UKIP will attract 11 percent of the total vote in the general election, up from 3 percent in 2010.
“A good result for UKIP in the European Parliament elections is a blow for the three major parties, but the major parties traditionally take comfort in the likelihood that a UKIP European Parliament election swing will not be replicated come the next general election,” it said in a study published last week that suggests “such comforts may now be misplaced.”
Too far right?
The party’s grass-roots character, and its support base of members angry at issues such as immigration and gay marriage, may also prove to be its Achilles heel. Its increased media profile has shone a light into some dark corners, and Farage has been forced into repeated apologies for off-color or racist remarks and blunders by party co-workers.
Last year one of its European parliament members derided foreign aid to Africa as “money for Bongo Bongo land” and called a roomful of female supporters “sluts” at the party’s annual conference. In January, one of its councilors said winter storms were God’s wrath for the Conservative government's legalization of same-sex marriage and two weeks ago a major donor said women should only be allowed to wear skirts.
While such viewpoints alienate some voters, they only seem to consolidate the party’s core support - and Farage has been quick to distance the party from the most extremist views.
“Like many leaders on the radical right, Farage has to do a dance to campaign on visceral, emotive issues but stay on the right side of the line and not cross into open racism,” Ford said. “He has to show that he is a legitimate actor, that he is not a bigot or a racist. He deals with that very well.”
"There are a lot of older, blue-collar voters who feel that the way society is changing is pushing them to the margin"
Farage’s upbeat, affable nature - and his trademark ordinary-guy-in-a-bar persona – has saved UKIP from many sticky political situations. But its core mission – to free Britain from the yoke of European Union membership, which it claims costs the U.K. a net $100 million a day – may no longer be its most popular policy.
“This is what we call the Farage paradox,” said Mats Persson, director of think tank Open Europe. “While support for UKIP has risen in the polls, support for Britain remaining in the E.U. has actually risen.”
In Britain – as in Germany, among others - a clear plurality of voters feel that national parliaments should act as the ultimate check on European laws rather than the European parliament as at present. But most voters broadly support Cameron’s policy of negotiating a better deal in the current setup rather than complete E.U. withdrawal.
And, above all, constitutional reform is not a hot topic in national elections where jobs, health care and the economy are still the deciding issues. “People don’t riot in the streets about constitutional reform … except perhaps in parts of southern Europe,” said Persson.
Older supporters who vote
So what lies behind the popularity of UKIP, whose rise seems unstoppable in towns and cities away from London?
“UKIP has been compared to the Tea Party. It is right wing, anti-big government and its supporters feels alienated by the main parties," Ford said. "But that’s really where the similarities end – for example, there’s no major religious thread to British politics in the same way as there is in America.”
He added: “It’s not really about Farage’s personality or even about Europe, but there are a lot of older, blue-collar voters who feel that the way society is changing is pushing them to the margin. They feel that current politics does not speak to them and will not solve their problems. And unlike younger people, they tend to vote.”