UKIP's popularity has slumped since the 2016 Brexit referendum
Exeter (United Kingdom) (AFP) - The UK Independence Party, which came first in the 2014 European elections in Britain, has taken a turn to the far-right as it struggles to recover from a long slump in popularity.
It is five years since Nigel Farage spearheaded the party's first election victory, where it claimed more than a quarter of the vote and 24 MEP seats.
But UKIP is currently struggling while Farage's new Brexit Party is topping the opinion polls.
"It's now about time to ask the question of whether the UK Independence Party can actually survive," Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent, told AFP.
In the 2016 Brexit referendum, UKIP achieved its defining objective of persuading Britons to back leaving the EU. But it has been on a downward spiral ever since.
Farage resigned in the aftermath of that vote. And Gerard Batten is now the party's fourth leader since then and has been widely criticised for pushing policies perceived as anti-Islamic.
The party has also embraced far-right figures such as Tommy Robinson -- the founder of the anti-Islam English Defence League -- who has become an advisor.
"It's moved in a very different and, some would say, darker direction," said Goodwin.
"It's radical rightwing, possibly becoming extreme in its views relative to average public opinion."
- 'Heirs of Winston Churchill' -
For the European elections on May 23, UKIP selected Carl Benjamin, a controversial YouTuber who adopts the pseudonym Sargon of Akkad, as one of its candidates.
The 39-year-old, who has nearly a million followers on the online video platform, is standing for the party in southwest England.
He became prominent in the online world in the 2014 "Gamergate" incident, where women in the computer gaming world were systematically targeted with abusive threats.
In 2016, he tweeted that he "wouldn't even rape" opposition Labour MP Jess Philips and has attracted fresh controversy since by refusing to apologise for the remark. Police are now investigating the incident.
Some rival candidates are refusing to share pre-election debate stages with him, while campaign groups Hope Not Hate and Stand Up to Racism have warned about his comments.
At a campaign stop this week in the city of Exeter, Benjamin insisted he is a classical economic liberal in favour of limiting big government and immigration, and that UKIP's members are unfairly portrayed.
"They are the heirs of Winston Churchill," he told AFP at the sparsely-attended event, where several dozen supporters faced off with a similar number of demonstrators.
"We're for free markets, free people. We're nothing to do with any continental collectivist nonsense," he added.
- 'Marginalisation and ridicule' -
Benjamin has received a mixed reception in what is a mainly rural region, which predominantly backed Brexit in 2016 but tends to elect Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
He has drawn small crowds of typically young male supporters, while protesters have shown up at each stop, throwing a milkshake and raw fish at him on separate occasions.
"They're trying to mobilise people around a Brexit message when actually what they've got is something far darker," said Ghee Bowman, 58, an Exeter resident protesting Benjamin.
UKIP has however attracted at least one high-profile supporter: right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who became a party member and joined the candidate campaigning.
The US-based former Breitbart editor described the party's manifesto as "fairly respectable and reasonable" and put its post-Farage woes down to British snobbery after becoming "unashamedly working class".
"If you step out the bounds of what you're allowed to say, how you're allowed to behave... you can become quite quickly the object of marginalisation and ridicule," he told AFP.