Ukip is failing to attract support from the next generation of aspiring political leaders which has an optimistic and international outlook, say students from Cambridge university.
At a Cambridge Union Society debate on Thursday night proposing “Ukip has been good for British politics”, Tim Squirrell, the president, struggled to control an audience that cheered the opposition but met Ukip speeches with a stony silence.
The members-only debating club, which charges £185 for life membership, has turned out Conservative politicians including Andrew Mitchell and Bernard Jenkin.
Peter Bone, the Tory MP who proposed the motion, said: “It’s wonderful to be here before such a neutral audience.”
The MP, who is on the right of the party and supports the anti-EU Better Off Out campaign, opened by addressing media speculation he would use the debate to announce he would become the third Tory defector to Ukip.
Mr Squirrell said: “The debate was arranged six months ago, before Mark Reckless or Douglas Carswell defected. It was good of Peter not to pull out just because it coincided with the Rochester vote.”
Mr Bone later told the Financial Times that by proposing the motion he was speaking for a democratic system, not endorsing Ukip.
The Conservatives provide the best answer to Ukip’s questions, he said, suggesting the prime minister would announce a tough stance on EU migrants that should entice Ukip voters back to their “real home”.
After the debate, in which the motion was defeated, it was impossible to find a student who supported Ukip.
“I could say Ukip don’t represent me because I’m here, at Cambridge, but I actually identify more as someone from a working class background and poor family, and they don’t represent me there either,” said Ben, a second-year maths student at Trinity college. “I don’t think the things they talk about – immigration, Europe – cause the problems in the UK”.
Asia Lambert, a second-year politics student, said young people found it difficult to identify with Ukip because they were used to being among people from around the world, and their Britain had always been part of the EU.
Tai Anwar, studying French and German, said: “The EU is all we’ve known.” He observed that Ukip’s anti-immigration stance worked best in areas that are predominantly white.
Outside the union, students took a tougher line: “Ukip imports bigotry into conversations about immigration and Europe,” said a PhD student studying cell biology. “Have you seen their homophobic posters about gay marriage laws in Europe? They don’t speak about the vulnerable without speaking against the vulnerable, and I’m not interested in conversations on those terms.”
Patrick O’Flynn, Ukip’s communications director and economics spokesman, said the party still had work to do to shake off the impression that controlling immigration is racist.
“To be frank, at the European elections in which Ukip came first across the country, Cambridge City showed the lowest support in the east of England,” he said.
Last month, a lecture to be given in Cambridge by Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, was cancelled because of threats of a student protest and a lack of support among the faculty, a union member said.
Mr O’Flynn said Ukip was not that concerned about the youth response: “I wouldn’t necessarily say we have an obsession with converting young voters because we do disproportionately well in the over 40s who, as everyone knows, have a higher tendency to turn out and vote,” he said.
In the 2010 general election, 52 per cent of people between 18 and 24 voted, compared with 75 per cent of the over-65s, according to the British Election Study.
A politics student said: “It’s dangerous to ignore young people because we grow old soon enough. Elite as they might be, the [Cambridge] Union produces lots of successful politicians, and it doesn’t look like any of them will be joining Ukip.”
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