The United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) grew out of the all-party Anti-Federalist League in 1993. Its founding leader, academic Alan Sked, resigned from Ukip after the 1997 general election because, he claimed, others in the leadership were “racist and have been infected by the far-right.”
His successor Michael Holmes was the first in a succession of millionaire business figures who have kept the party afloat financially.
An influx of members from the Referendum Party, dissolved after the death of its millionaire patron James Goldsmith, also helped Ukip establish a viable organisation.
In the 1999 European Parliament elections, successful City speculator Nigel Farage became one of three Ukip MEPs.
One internal power struggle and two leaders later, the party won three European seats and two in the London Assembly.
At the 2004 and 2009 EU elections, Ukip gained 12 and then 13 seats with more than two million votes.
Ex-Labour MP and chat-show presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk launched an abortive leadership bid, but his position as a Ukip MEP – like his breakaway party Veritas – proved less permanent than his orange tan.
In the 2010 general election campaign, Ukip elevated its anti-immigration policies to more or less equal status with its anti-EU stance.
Its 572 candidates won 3 per cent of the popular vote, but no seats at Westminster.
Three more leaders and a few defecting ex-Tory millionaires had come and gone before Farage was elected Ukip leader for the second time, a few months after that election.
Then, on May 2, building on last year’s local election gains, the party secured 23 per cent of the popular vote, winning an extra 147 seats.
Why the continuing advance by Ukip? Key factors appear to be four-fold.
First, the party’s standpoint on its two main issues – the EU and immigration – is promoted day in, day out by three of the biggest-selling tabloid newspapers in Britain.
The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express may still reluctantly support the Tories, especially at general elections, but they and their columnists – notably the likes of Norman Tebbit and Kelvin Mackenzie – show considerable sympathy for Ukip.
Second, while Farage gives a passable impersonation of that loopy chump down the local pub with a glass in his hand, he is clearly a shrewd organiser behind the scenes.
He has used the third factor – EU funds and donations from multimillionaires such Paul Sykes and Stuart Wheeler – to employ regional and central organisers who devote much of their time to building Ukip organisation centrally and locally.
The fourth factor is leadership. Farage has stabilised the party at the top, promoting people with organisational and technical competence, usually from business or IT backgrounds.
While this process is not complete, not least because of the rush to electoral omnipresence, it has reduced a previous tendency to chaos and factionalism.
His own “blokey” and slightly non-PC image plays well with key target cohorts among the electorate – the skilled and non-unionised male working class, “self-made” and often self-employed business people and aspirational technical and professional men and their wives.
The party’s British nationalism and its eagerness to populate the electoral platform has attracted some fascists, ex-fascists and racists as candidates, resulting in a series of embarrassing episodes.
However, these should not divert the left and the labour movement from making a sober assessment of the class and political character of Ukip, so that the most effective response can be devised.
For instance, is it a racist or fascist party?
It plays the anti-immigration card more vigorously than the Tories. Farage is nowhere near as stupid as he looks. He couldn’t be. He knows that his dog-whistle anti-immigration billboards will attract racist votes.
The Tories under Michael Howard did likewise in 2005.
Ukip numbers racists in its ranks, but then so do all three major parties. The Tories and Labour uphold Britain’s immigration and nationality laws, including the “patriality” provisions of 1968 and 1971 which in effect differentiated between the largely white “Old Commonwealth” and the largely non-white “New Commonwealth.”
Yet the main target for Ukip are migrant workers and their families from eastern Europe. The party wants the votes of working-class people who fear increased competition for jobs, housing and public services.
It’s hardly proof of non-racism, but Ukip fielded a number of candidates of Afro-Caribbean and Asian ethnicity at the last general election.
Repatriation has not featured in its anti-immigration propaganda, at least not so far.
Nor is there any sign of anti-semitism, or sympathy with fascism, in Ukip manifestos or public pronouncements, apart from a few ex-BNP interlopers who have been ejected from the party sharpish.
However, some of the putative social and political ingredients of a fascist movement are there.
Its anti-foreigner British nationalism, or classic xenophobia, goes beyond that of the Tory “left” and centre.
It could acquire a more racist character if anti-immigration becomes the main basis for recruitment and fascist “entryism.”
It is also a militaristic nationalism. Ukip want to increase British military spending by 40 per cent and double the nuclear weapons arsenal.
But Ukip has no patriotic wish to see Britain cease its subservience to the US White House and Pentagon in Nato.
There is a whiff of fascist demagogy, too, about the party’s relentless excoriation of bourgeois parties, politicians and institutions.
This is fuelled, of course, by the big business corruption of British politics – although Ukip only wants to replace the Tories at the trough, not to abolish the trough altogether.
Nor does Ukip seek to expand democratic rights for people who want to think or act collectively.
Rather, it proclaims only those civil liberties that can be used by wealthy and privileged people to oppose, weaken or opt out of public services and welfare state contributions.
It wants many more prisons and the mass criminalisation of young people, relying wholly on long-term incarceration to reduce reoffending.
Like most right-wing parties, Ukip opposes strong trade unionism. In recent years, it has grown more shrill in its denunciations of protective employment and health and safety “red tape,” which supposedly stunts economic prosperity.
More akin to fascist paranoia, it also sees socialists and communists at work everywhere, wrecking the nation – not only in the trade unions and the Labour Party but even in the Lib Dems, the pro-Cameron section of the Tory Party, the BBC and the institutions of the EU.
All of this reflects the hybrid, unstable class basis of Ukip and its appeal.
Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto