LONDON (Reuters) - The anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) said on Friday it would target working class voters in the north of England who traditionally back the opposition Labour party as it seeks to broaden support ahead of next May’s national election.
UKIP, which wants Britain to quit the European Union and to sharply curb immigration, has in the past been seen as more of an electoral threat to Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservatives. Many Conservatives fear UKIP could split the centre-right vote and prevent them being re-elected.
But pollsters say UKIP, which won most seats in May’s European elections in Britain, is also poaching traditional Labour voters unhappy with the left-leaning party’s move away from its working class roots.
“We are now parking our tanks on the Labour party’s lawn,” UKIP leader Nigel Farage told the party’s annual conference, held at Doncaster race course on the border of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s constituency in northern England.
“Here in the north of England many of our target seats will be seats that are currently held by sitting Labour members of parliament ... We pose a threat not just to the Conservative party, we pose a threat to the entire British political class.”
Polls show UKIP is set to win its first elected seat in Britain’s parliament next month, in a vote triggered by the defection of a Conservative lawmaker to the anti-EU party.
But a second vote on the same day, caused by the death of a Labour lawmaker, could also see UKIP win a seat from Miliband’s opposition party.
Speaking for more than half an hour without notes, to repeated rapturous applause, Farage dismissed the idea that voting for UKIP was a protest vote and said in a close-run election his party could even hold the balance of power.
UKIP is third behind Labour and the Conservatives in opinion polls of voting intentions, regularly polling around 14 percent, double the level of support seen for Cameron’s current junior coalition partner, the centre-left, pro-EU Liberal Democrats.
“I’m sick to death with being told if you vote UKIP, you’ll split the vote, if you vote UKIP you’ll get Labour ... if you vote UKIP you’ll get Conservative,” Farage said. “The message that needs to come out of this conference is that actually ... if you vote UKIP, you will get UKIP.”
Farage attacked Labour policies and political correctness for failing to prevent the sexual exploitation of at least 1,400 children in the northern English town of Rotherham, where Labour have suspended four local councillors since the scale of the revelations emerged earlier this summer.
He also mocked Miliband for forgetting to mention the key electoral issue of Britain’s budget deficit in his Labour conference speech earlier this week.
The start of UKIP’s two-day conference included pledges to protect and improve Britain’s state-run health service and to make the tax system fairer, both key election priorities for Labour.
In another sign he was courting Labour voters, Farage said he would not back air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq, a move approved by a vote in the British parliament on Friday despite many Labour lawmakers being uncomfortable about the idea of military action and 24 of them voting against it.
Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Gareth Jones