Immigration issue key to electoral success for Ukip

Local elections in early May may tell much about the UK Independence Party’s future fortunes


Raffle tickets sold briskly from the desk in the foyer of Exeter University’s Great Hall on Saturday at the UK Independence Party’s spring conference, attended by 900 people. However, the busiest desk was at the back of the hall – one where eager members signed up for vetting to run in local elections throughout England in little more than five weeks’ time.

The May 2nd contest will offer insight into Ukip’s prospects, since councils have been the bridgeheads used by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens for subsequent assaults for Commons seats. So far, 1,700 have been chosen;300 are expected to be added in coming weeks – ambitious numbers, too ambitious in the eyes of some doubters in the party’s ranks.

However, doubters currently are a minority in Ukip, a party led by Nigel Farage, following last month’s second-place finish behind the Liberal Democrats in the Hampshire constituency of Eastleigh.

The Eastleigh performance was not a flash in the pan, since it comes in the wake of impressive, if not quite so dramatic, results in Corby, Rotherham and elsewhere. For Farage, a populist, quick-witted, articulate MEP, if prone to flashes of temper, Ukip’s rise is inevitable, as British opinion hardens against both EU membership and immigration.

In 2005, the Conservatives tapped into this vein with its “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” election pitch, but even voters who instinctively agreed with it shied away from voting for it. However, times have changed, somewhat, since. “The only way to stop Farage is to become Farage,” declared Ukip’s Winston McKenzie, who is black, when he delivered an evangelical, if rambling conference speech.

In the last fortnight, Labour’s Ed Miliband and the Liberal Democrats’ leader, Nick Clegg have both promised tougher immigration curbs. Prime minister David Cameron will do so today. “If Ukip had not taken on immigration the other parties would not be talking about it today,” Farage declared in his leader’s speech, one where he demanded once again the UK’s exit from the EU.

Under British first-past-the-post election rules, Ukip faces a major, perhaps impossible, challenge if it is to win House of Commons seats in the general election scheduled for May 2015. However, Farage and his followers believe that concerns once deemed fanatical, or just simply the odd ramblings of the bar-counter bore, are becoming mainstream.

“The EU is a visceral issue, but people are more concerned about the consequences of policies than the policies themselves. Fifteen years ago, people did not understand,” Farage told The Irish Times .

Essentially, the change is this: doubts about loss of sovereignty have morphed for some into concerns about immigration, leading to a situation where people can now talk about it without being accused – automatically, at least – of being racist. Pledges by Cameron, Miliband and Clegg as they seek to soothe public concerns will simply illustrate the lack of local powers now available, Farage argues.

Movements by EU citizens cannot be stopped, while the proposals for non-EU citizens are unworkable, he says, though one of Church of England bishop argues that politicians are themselves stoking the flames. Last week, Ukip, with 39 per cent of the vote, won its first council seat in Greater London when Lawrence Webb won a Havering Council by-election caused by the death of a Conservative.

His vote, he believes, did not come just from disgruntled Conservatives, but, rather, working-class communities who believe that their wages have been undercut by Eastern European immigration after 2004.

The phrase, “working class communities” is usually translated to mean white voters, but Ukip argues that immigration curbs are now wanted by long-established ethnic groups, particularly West Indians.

“Ten years ago if you spoke about immigration you received hate mail,” says Oxford academic and party member, Sebastian Fairweather, “but it has become more respectable”.

Denying the presence of racism within Ukip’s ranks, Farage, married to a German, as Ukip quickly tells one, insists the issue is not colour, or creed, but pressure on jobs, the National Health Service, and housing. For some, encouraged by the Daily Mail , immigration concerns now centre on large number of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens moving to the UK from January 1st.

Introduced by his country’s national anthem, Bulgarian MEP, Slavi Binev jokingly said that Farage had invited him only if he “had a return ticket and didn’t bring my wife, horse, or cart”. But they had grounds for worry: “You are right to be afraid of mass immigration from Bulgaria. The Bulgarian economy is a disaster zone caused by incompetence and corruption.”

Saying that he wanted Bulgarians “to stay at home and build Heaven”, Binev declared to applause: “Bulgaria must not be a useless relative sponging off everyone else.”

Up to now, the prevailing wisdom has been that the Conservatives have most to fear from Ukip – even if Ukip does no more than take enough votes from them to clear the way for Labour, or the Liberal Democrats. However, Labour has its own Ukip concerns, particularly “between the Thames and the Humber”– where the party has a swathe of European Parliament seats.

Success in three Strasbourg elections has not done much up to now for Ukip’s national ambitions– which brings us back to next month’s elections. Last year, it won just 7 out of 2,400 contests that took place, though some Conservatives have defected since. Significant numbers of seats must fall Ukip’s way if it is build foundations.

Too many candidates, particularly last-minute selections, could, however, overwhelm its organisation, or bring with them embarrassments. Farage argues that people have “to get used” to voting Ukip, but first, it must overcome “the wasted vote” challenge – that a Commons vote for them is useless because a Conservative, or Labour will win out anyway. Heartlands such as the east of England particularly offer it hope, especially if the Bulgarians and Romanians do come in numbers

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