UK Independence Party gains lustre from celebrity endorsements

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Indy Politics

While celebrities are increasingly turning their backs on Tony Blair's once popular Labour Government, another political party is gaining star appeal by the day.

While celebrities are increasingly turning their backs on Tony Blair's once popular Labour Government, another political party is gaining star appeal by the day.

The United Kingdom Independence Party could be dubbed the UK Celebrity Party, given the cast of familiar names offering their backing for June's elections. Frank Maloney, the outspoken former boxing promoter, is the party's candidate for London mayor. Robert Kilroy-Silk, the former talk-show host who was fired after branding Arabs "suicide bombers, limb-amputators (and) women repressors", is its Euro-Candidate in the West Midlands. And Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the intrepid explorer more accustomed to trekking to the poles than the ballot box, was this week revealed as a patron.

Its backers include Edward Fox, the actor, Sir Patrick Moore, the astronomer, and Sir Stirling Moss, the former racing driver, while its fundraising drives are held at the stately homes of a variety of dukes and duchesses, who want to remove Britain from the European Union.

UKIP, which is hoping for its best ever showing at the polls in June, is not shy about revealing its celebrity backers. No surprise when its publicity consultant is Max Clifford, the PR guru and peddler of tabloid tales.

Yesterday the party launched its campaign for the local elections in Manchester where it proposed replacing VAT and the council tax with a local sales tax.

Earlier this week the party launched its Euro election campaign at a high-profile event fronted by Mr Kilroy-Silk who reiterated the party's aim of withdrawing from the EU.

The party also screened its election broadcast which featured a thigh-slapping Austrian in lederhosen being whacked in the face with a fish by a man in a sou'wester. This, it said, was to illustrate that EU fishing policy is "codswallop". Yesterday the party said the broadcast, which features the Benny Hill theme tune, demonstrated that it had a sense of humour.

However, politicians would be foolish to treat UKIP as a joke. Backed by a £2m fighting fund provided by wealthy backers including Paul Sykes, the Eurosceptic millionaire, it has the potential to make substantial gains in the June elections. The party hopes to treble its current tally of three MEPs, gain many more councillors and even a seat on the London Assembly.

The party, which was founded in 1993, is fielding more candidates than ever before and has a full slate for both the Euro and the London elections. It is also fighting 600 council seats and promises, if elected, to hold referenda in local areas on any issue of importance, including major planning decisions.

Polls showthe party is gaining rapidly on its competitors and has a showing of around 12 per cent throughout Britain, compared to seven percent at last year's Euro elections.

Yesterday, Mark Croucher, a party spokesman, attributed its increase in support to "a significant increase in Euroscepticism".

The party is also trying to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional right-wing Eurosceptic base to Labour voters who may also have strong reservations about Europe. They want to capture the attention of trade unionists and other left-wingers who felt comfortable with Labour's policies in 1983, when the party campaigned on a manifesto of withdrawal from Europe.

"The only moderate democratic party which is genuinely Eurosceptic - as opposed to the Tories - is the UKIP," Mr Croucher said. "There is this view that we are somehow all recycled Tories but over 50 per cent of our membership is from the left," he said.

But the party, which also has a strong nationalist element to its appeal, and features the Union Jack heavily in its publicity material, will be fighting for votes with the extreme-right BNP.

It rejects the suggestion that it is fighting on a similar platform to the BNP. But UKIP has been playing up fears about immigration and, like the BNP, capitalising on a "protest vote" against the mainstream parties.

In recent months the party has capitalised on a number of domestic problems including concern among pensioners about the level of the council tax.

In the last Euro-elections the party gained three MEPs, in the South-west, South-east and Eastern region. It hopes to double its MEPs in the South-west and South-east - where there is a robust Eurosceptic vote - while making gains in other parts of the country.