Ukip capitalises on fears over immigration
The party will not lack funding to fight next year’s European elections
Eurosceptic multimillionaire Paul Sykes, a former Conservative Party backer, who is promising to bankroll Ukip’s European Parliament election campaign. Photograph: Johnny Green/PA
Paul Sykes is the quintessential Yorkshireman, blunt in speech, strong on opinions. Indeed, there are times when he can appear as a caricature.
An occasional figure on the British political stage, Sykes is back in the news in Britain with his pledge to fund the UK Independence Party’s European Parliament election campaign next year.
From a mining family, Sykes left school with no qualifications. By 18 he was dismantling old buses and shipping stripped-out engines to the Far East. Today, on the back of property investments, he is worth £650 million.
He has history. During William Hague’s time as Conservative leader, Sykes thought his fellow Yorkshireman was not Eurosceptic enough – a charge not often laid by others.
Eventually, Hague tired of him and Sykes was expelled. By 2004, he was funding Ukip. Its number of MEPs grew four-fold. Those facts are linked, he said.
For Sykes, there are two issues: a referendum that would, if passed, see the UK quit the European Union. Firstly, however, there is the matter of more EU immigration.
Barriers that have limited the free movement of Bulgarians and Romanians since they joined the EU – those not self-employed, at least – end on January 1st.
The imminent deadline is provoking apoplexy in some quarters in Britain, and not just from the usual Eurosceptic, anti-foreigner fraternity.
Immigration is now a mainstream issue. Indeed, it – not increased Euroscepticism among the British – explains Ukip’s rise. Recently, former Labour home secretary Jack Straw apologised to his Lancashire voters for not limiting eastern European migration after 2004.
Today, it matters little whether 5,000 Romanians or Bulgarians, 50,000, 500,00 or, frankly, five million come on January 1st, or in the days and months afterwards, since those who are opposed to inward migration will react in the same way.
Already, Sykes has taken out ads in the Yorkshire press showing David Cameron with an EU gag in his mouth, accusing him of staying quiet in the face of an invasion.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics indicate that the numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK rose by 19 per cent over the past year. Under the rules, they are allowed to work as sub-contractors. Indeed, the skills of some of their number as stonemasons have brought them favour with one Irish-owned construction firm. However, the UK’s statistics agency also found that more than nine in 10 of new jobs created in the year to September have gone to British nationals.
It was not always thus. Much of the widening public concern about immigration has centred on foreigners “taking” British jobs, or about them helping employers to cut wage rates.
Today, however, the economy is improving, even if its impact has yet to feed through to the parts of Britain most likely to heed Ukip’s opinions.
If concerns about unemployment or pay rates begin to dip then some of the wind may be taken from its sails, though such glad economic tidings are far from guaranteed.
For now, however, Ukip is expected in many Westminster circles to be the largest single British party in the European Parliament after next year’s elections.
Some Conservatives argue that this will not cause an earthquake within the party because “it is already priced into the market”.
The observation gives politicians too much credit for calm thinking in the face of impending execution. More likely, it will fuel Cameron’s internal critics in the run-up to the general election a year later.
Ukip could win seats in the Commons election, but this is a far tougher battle. The issue is basic organisation, or the lack of it. Last week, Ukip’s European election campaign in Scotland descended into disarray after six candidates quit. Favouritism by the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, is alleged. He had “invited a London friend to stand” – a London-based Scot, admittedly. Six MEP seats, elected by a list system, are up for grabs in Scotland. Even though Ukip has struggled to get more than 5 per cent in other elections there, it was confident that one would fall its way. It still might, since a lack of talent has proven no hindrance for dozens of untalented, sometimes dim Conservative and Labour MPs safe in secure seats.
However, the European elections are but the foothills of Ukip’s ambitions. Under the plan, a resounding victory would lead on to the House of Commons a year later.
Here, Ukip is so far unproven. Farage will run. The party will, he claims, contest every one of the 650 constituencies available. In truth, many of them will be “paper” candidates, since Ukip does not have the machinery to run a UK-wide campaign. Privately, many do not see the need to do so.
However, credible candidates will be required and Ukip has had a seemingly unerring ability to find ones who make racist or homophobic remarks. Most importantly, perhaps, it has to stop just being “the Nigel Farage party”. Too often, the ebullient leader gives the impression that he likes it that way.