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Anti-immigration sentiment puts UKIP on Britain’s electoral map

Monday, 27 April 2015

THURROCK, England — Prime Minister David Cameron is fighting Britain’s general election on the question of economic competence. His party’s efforts to erase the budget deficit are at the heart of his campaign for a Conservative majority on May 7.

But at an election husting in Thurrock, on the far southeast edge of London, voters had other matters on their minds.

Hustings — part debate, part town-hall meeting — are a long-established tradition in British elections. This event drew more than 150 people to the pretty 12th-century parish church in Grays, the largest town in this former industrial hub on the north side of the River Thames.

Won by the Conservatives with a majority of just 92 votes at the last election, Thurrock is one of the most hotly contested parliamentary seats this time around. The Labour Party had been confident of winning it. But that was before opinion polls showed unprecedented support for the right-of center United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. This is making Thurrock a dramatic three-horse race.

“It’s UKIP that’s driving the agenda,” declared the party’s local candidate, Tim Aker, in a combative opening statement in the church. “It’s UKIP that’s talking about the things the people in the pubs and clubs of Thurrock are talking about.”

What the audience in the pews wanted to talk about was growing pressure on local housing, transport links and health services due to rapid population growth. Fifteen percent of Thurrock’s citizens are foreign-born, higher than the national average. But it is the speed of growth in the immigrant population, up 10 percent in as many years, that disconcerts some locals.

“Thurrock’s a magnet,” said the Conservatives’ Jackie Doyle-Price, referring to its proximity to London where many residents work. Citing the increased demand for housing, she promised that if re-elected as a Member of Parliament, she will make sure the area gets the investment in homes and health facilities it needs. Her Labour opponent, Polly Billington, also promised more houses and added that her party would impose rent controls and give more rights to tenants in privately rented homes.

But an exasperated Mr. Aker told voters that the traditional political parties were ignoring the real problem. “We’ve heard a lot about supply of housing, but nothing about demand,” he said. And with that, he introduced the subject of immigration, which he described as “the biggest issue of this election campaign.”

In predominantly white, working-class Thurrock, home to London’s main port at Tilbury, Mr. Aker’s words strike a chord. “It’s immigrants that are the problem, plain as the nose on your face,” said John, who did not provide his last name, pausing for a cigarette on the main shopping street in Grays. The retired fruit-stall vendor added, “They don’t integrate,” describing a community that no longer felt familiar to him.

John said he had always voted Labour in the past. But not this time. He is switching to UKIP, thanks largely to its outspoken leader, Nigel Farage. “He’s the only one telling the truth, he tells it how it is.”

Despite his own private school education and career in London’s financial district, Mr. Farage has pitched himself as the anti-establishment insurgent in this campaign.

UKIP was once a single-issue group on the fringe of British politics, winning only low levels of support with its demand that Britain leave the European Union. But in recent elections it has put immigration center stage.

Since EU rules allow workers to move freely between member states, Mr. Farage says only by leaving the Union can Britain regain control of its borders and keep immigration down.

At the Europa Traditional Food and Drink store in the center of Grays, even the Romanian-born manager, Alina, who did not provide her last name, agreed that something should be done to slow immigration. “It’s a bit chaotic here,” she said. “Everyone can come in.”

But Conservative-voting Alina had no time for Mr. Farage who, citing reports of Romanian criminal gangs operating in the U.K., once said he would be “concerned” if a Romanian family moved into the house next door to his.

“He’s been using attacks on Romanians to win votes,” Alina said.

Those attacks appear to be working, along with claims that the taxpayer-funded National Health Service is being exploited by foreign-born “health tourists.” Opinion polls suggest UKIP is going to win around 14 percent of the vote nationally, well ahead of the Liberal Democrats who it will likely replace as the third party in British politics.

Because of the first-past-the-post electoral system, that is not expected to translate into many, if any seats at Westminster. But it is enough to shake up the main political parties and force them to take UKIP issues into account.

Labour has apologized for what it calls the “mistake” of agreeing, while it was in office, to let Eastern European workers move to Britain without any restrictions as soon as their nations joined the EU. Its platform promises to “control immigration with fair rules,” and to ban recruitment agencies from hiring only from abroad. The Conservative party meanwhile has promised a referendum on membership of the European Union if it gets back into power.

“Lets shake things up,” said UKIP’s Tim Aker at the Thurrock election husting. “Let’s smash the political class and bring wholesale change to Thurrock and to the U.K.!”

It may never come to smashing anything. But UKIP has certainly shaken up this general election.

Source: Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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