Britain's UKIP still on the defensive over racism question
The anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party has continually rebuffed allegations of racism, following a series of gaffes, but still struggles to shake off a xenophobic tag.
The eurosceptic, populist party's annual conference was again confronted by the question this weekend, with a "Stand Up to UKIP" counter-rally drawing bus-loads of protesters to denounce the party as racist and homophobic.
Yet inside Doncaster racecourse, where 2,000 UKIP members have gathered, allegations of xenophobia were dismissed as unjustified.
"We're no racists. Not at all," one activist said with a frown, at the 'Last Chance Saloon' stand, denouncing plans to bring in plain packaging on cigarettes.
Sandra James, who will be standing as a candidate at the May general election, told AFP: "UKIP is a fabulous, commonsense party which goes where other parties are afraid to go. We believe in a multi-cultural society."
As it targets disaffected working-class voters with its platform of regaining control of Britain's borders by leaving the EU, UKIP held its annual gathering in Doncaster, northern England – where opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband is a local MP.
UKIP, which plans to contest a series of parliamentary seats held by both the Labour and Conservative parties, topped the European Parliament elections in May.
It was bolstered on Saturday by the defection to its ranks of Conservative lawmaker Mark Reckless, the second Tory party member to switch to UKIP within two months.
Reckless told cheering delegates: "We are not backward-looking or gloomy, still less xenophobic."
'Blue collar, white skin, grey hair'
Steven Woolfe, a member of the European Parliament and the party's migration spokesman, said: "We are the most diverse and modern nation of the world and UKIP embraces that," declaring himself "proud" to be mixed race.
Fellow MEP and communities spokesman Amjad Bashir, who for his part is "proud to be a Muslim", said: "Respect for others is the key to a healthy community. It starts in the family and must extend beyond into the community so we can live together regardless of ethnicity and religious beliefs."
The two MEPs' presence in the UKIP front rank could be seen as a foil to those who say the party only speaks to those with blue collars, white skin and grey hair.
A 2012 study by Manchester and Nottingham universities found that UKIP voters are mainly white older people.
But at the Doncaster conference, the message was clear: an Indian doctor is just as welcome as a German one.
Haunted by a series of gaffes – the latest last month, when UKIP MEP Janice Atkinson was forced to apologise for describing a party supporter originally from Thailand as a "ting tong" – delegates must avoid sending out the wrong message.
"At the conference, there is a very strong intention to make sure that there aren't any embarrassing incidents with delegates making racial comments because the media focus is on that far more than for other parties," said Jocelyn Evans, a professor of politics at Leeds University, who co-authored the study on UKIP.
'Bongo Bongo Land'
UKIP was founded in 1993 by members of the Anti-Federalist League, a small, cross-party organisation opposed to the European Union's Maastricht Treaty.
As it grew, it drew in disillusioned voters from the major parties but also "people with radical ideas, individuals who express ethnocentric ideas," said Evans, an expert on far-right movements.
The growth of the party has been accompanied by a series of scandals, so much so that leader Alan Sked, a founder who has since distanced himself from the party, said he had created "Frankenstein's monster".
Former UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom made headlines last year for bemoaning sending foreign aid to "Bongo Bongo Land", and overshadowed last year's conference by jokingly calling women who did not clean behind the fridge "sluts".
Bloom and UKIP parted ways, with the party, propelled into the spotlight, trying to tidy up its image under the drive and charisma of its leader Nigel Farage.
"UKIP doesn't want to be seen as the toxic choice," said Evans.
But sometimes UKIP still slips up.
Farage was blasted in the media after talking about Romanians taking "indigenous" jobs, and some British towns becoming "unrecognisable" through immigration.
In May, a prominent UKIP youth activist of Indian descent announced she was leaving the party as it had "descended into a form of racist populism".
Local councillor David Silvester drew national media attention in January when he said recent English floods were God's punishment for the introduction of gay marriage.
The party suspended Silvester the following day, but it has taken far longer for the party to live down the remarks.
Jacques Klopp / AFP / Expatica