Nigel Farage arrived in the Labour-held seat of Rotherham yesterday, preparing to launch the most important campaign in his party’s 21-year history.
Ukip, which spent 20 years in the wilderness, is currently third in the national polls and widely expected to increase its tally of two MPs.
The party has neither the manpower nor money to match the established parties. But after two successful by-election campaigns in Clacton and Rochester & Strood it has learnt how to overcome first-past-the-post. Its success at the European elections last May has also inspired its plan for a short but loud general election campaign in about 30 seats, with a smaller number of “top targets” receiving much greater support.
And there are clear openings for Ukip. Immigration remains a central concern for voters. Last week they told YouGov that immigration is the most important issue facing Britain, while seven in ten Ukip supporters tell Ipsos-MORI that the issue will directly influence their choice in May (the next concern for Kippers, the NHS, is some 30 points behind). The established parties are now playing it down but Mr Farage is simply too visible to ignore what has become his raison d’être.
Some in Ukip have tried to push their leader away from the issue, pointing to the fact that very few voters know much about their other policies. Self-styled reformers identify issues such as energy, banking reform and the recall of MPs as ones that could connect with groups that remain hostile to the party and could propel it into the 20-30 per cent range: women, young people, the squeezed middle class and perhaps even recent generations of ethnic minorities who share their social conservatism.
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Dr Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham. He is also Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House.
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