By Jamie McKay
The Welsh Assembly elections two weeks saw an unprecedented showing from UKIP. The last elections to the Welsh Assembly in 2011 saw the party gain just 4.6% of the vote, failing to win any representation in the Senedd. This year the party saw a massive swing, gaining around 13% of the Regional vote and 8.5% of the Constituency vote, gaining their first representatives to the Welsh Assembly. This marks the largest swing towards any party with representation at Cardiff Bay, but the party’s rise has not been without controversy.
Not long before the polls opened new Assembly member for the South Wales Central region, Gareth Bennett, was condemned by leading Welsh politicians, and his own party, after blaming Cardiff’s multicultural character for on-going rubbish issues and admitting he did not enjoy canvassing Welsh voters. Though he was successful in his bid for the Assembly, several party figures criticised him after his remarks claiming he had undermined the party’s “fair and ethical” policies on immigration and “degraded” the party’s connection with voters. The campaign group Hope not Hate deemed Bennett “the Donald Trump of Wales” after his statements on the issues facing Cardiff, though he was far from the only candidate targeted.
Leaflets distributed throughout Wales in the lead up to the elections also made mention of former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton. From the early ‘80s Hamilton had been the member of Parliament for Tatton, which had been one of the safest seats for the Conservative party by the 90’s, but was unceremoniously removed from power in the Labour landslide of 1997. In the run up to that General Election Hamilton had been embroiled in a scandal alleging that he had accepted bribes in order to put forward questions during Parliamentary sessions on behalf of Harrods owner, Mohammed al-Fayed. Amid these allegations the independent candidate, and former BBC reporter, Martin Bell, ousted him. As his past continued to hang over him, Hamilton left the Conservatives for UKIP, becoming a member of the party’s National Executive Committee in 2011.
Back at the beginning of the year, as parties were making their plans for the elections, stories emerged of discontent in the Welsh arm of the party. Those members who had campaigned with the Welsh party for years were angered by what they saw as a decision forced on them by the national party to make Hamilton and his fellow Conservative defector Mark Reckless (now AM for South Wales East) candidates for the Assembly. As election day approached, Welsh UKIP leader Nathan Gill admitted to a BBC audience that, given the choice, he would not have allowed certain candidates over the “hard working Welsh membership” though suggested his powers were limited and argued that Hamilton and Reckless were assets to the party who offered great experience.
Though party leader Nigel Farage is alleged to have pressured the Welsh arm to appoint Hamilton and Reckless, relations were soured soon after the elections. To Farage’s anger, Hamilton seized control of the seven-strong UKIP group in the Assembly, unseating Gill. Just six weeks before the decisive referendum on Britain’s EU membership, UKIP’s descent into civil war may come as a boon to Eurosceptic campaigners.