NIGEL Farage today lit the blue touch paper on what promises to be the most bitter election race in Yorkshire as he put the Rotherham abuse scandal at the centre of the UK Independence Party’s attempts to unseat the town’s MP.
The centre of Rotherham saw protesters clash with UK Independence Party supporters as Mr Farage arrived in the town to open its campaign office today.
His visit came just days after the publication of a damning inspection report into Rotherham Council and in particular its failure to protect children from abuse.
Ukip sources insisted Mr Farage’s visit was long-planned but sitting MP Sarah Champion accused him of “rubber necking at victims” in a BBC interview.
The Ukip leader defended the party’s decision to make the abuse scandal a centrepiece of the party’s efforts to win in Rotherham.
He said: “There is an argument among some Labour supporting people that we should not apportion blame to anybody, we should brush it under the carpet and not blame anybody.
“Goodness me, if can’t be political about this what can we be political about?”
The Ukip leader was due to cut the ribbon on the campaign office of would-be MP Jane Collins, one of Ukip’s two Yorkshire MEPs, but the ceremony was scrapped in the face of the protests outside.
Speaking behind closed blinds in the office, Mr Farage insisted the protests were not by local people but part of a “monstrous” trade union-funded campaign to silence the party.
“If people don’t like us that’s fine, I would urge people in Rotherham who don’t like us, please don’t vote for us. That’s how a democracy is supposed to work.”
Mr Farage denied he was exploiting what had happened to stir up racial divisions.
“We’re the one party that’s warned consistently against division within society and multiculturalism and we’ve warned against it for years,” he said.
“We want interculturalism. We’ve got different religions and faiths but we have to mix together and we have to live under one law.
“So I think to accuse us of exploiting it is not fair. We have warned for years that things have been going wrong with increasing divisions within society.”
The Government is now sending commissioners in to run Rotherham Council and has ordered an ‘all out’ election for 2016.
A third of Rotherham Council seats will be up for election on May 7 on the same day voters go to the polls in the General Election. Ukip already has 10 seats on the authority.
Mr Farage said: “Rather than the imposition of commissioners and the delay of a full election until 2016, I would have thought people in a town like this would be ready to choose the entire council on May 7 and I will be urging that in the next few weeks.”
Ukip put the Rotherham abuse scandal at the centre of its South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner by-election campaign last year where it lost to Labour.
The Ukip leader said: “We learned within that South Yorkshire area there was one quite big lump in which we are not going to be challenging to win seats at the General Election but we’ll stand and give people a choice because in a democracy that’s what you should do.
“We also learned from that, and all the other data we have had from european elections and local elections, that there are a few areas that clearly are target areas.”
Ukip is focusing its efforts in Yorkshire on the Rotherham and neighbouring Rother Valley and Wentworth and Dearne seats.
The races for all three take place against a backdrop of the three sitting MPs taking legal action against Ms Collins and Coun Caven Vines, the Ukip group leader on Rotherham Council, for comments made in relation to the abuse scandal.
Mr Farage was later escorted out of the office by security and police under the shelter of an umbrella into a waiting car.