In southeastern England, Euroskeptic UKIP finds fertile soil

Amid immigration debate, native Britons and some foreign-born voters have boosted right-wing party

United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage unveils his party’s manifesto in Aveley, England, April 15, 2015.
Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

DOVER, England — Terry Sutton looks out over the cliffs near Dover as ferries from the French city of Calais approach the harbor to deliver their cargo of travelers and goods. Sea trade — along with its medieval castle and famous white cliffs — is what makes this town on England’s southeastern coast famous. Beneath Sutton’s vantage point, a never-ending procession of trucks is making its way into Britain.

“Over 2 million trucks come here each year, but they don’t stay. We see the trade the EU brings, but we don’t benefit from it,” said Sutton, a lifelong Dover resident whose only stints away were during army service in Libya in the 1950s.

Sutton has, however, experienced the benefits of EU integration on a more personal level, having been married for many years to a Frenchwoman. But recently, he says, his wife has been saying that there are too many immigrants in Dover, a town of some 28,000 residents in the county of Kent.

Britain’s fast-growing immigrant population — in 2013 (the latest year available), the country saw net migration of 209,000 people, up from near zero in 1993, according to the Office for National Statistics — has become a main theme for the right-wing Euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) in the campaign leading up to parliamentary elections on May 7.

And the UKIP, after its success in the European Parliament elections, in which it placed first in Britain, is sensing victory in several districts in its Kent stronghold. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is running for Parliament in South Thanet, which includes Dover’s neighbors Ramsgate and Broadstairs. 

In focusing on immigration, the UKIP — founded 22 years ago with a British exit from the EU as its objective — has hit upon a promising source of votes. With Britain’s working-class population in particular struggling to find its place in a globalized economy, it is blaming Eastern European immigrants for taking jobs from Britons. “Poles move to, say, Peterborough [a former industrial town two hours north of London] because there are jobs there,” says Weyman Bennett, an anti-racism activist of Jamaican origin. “Unemployed Londoners don’t move to Peterborough because there are jobs in the supermarket there. Yet the UKIP is gaining support by scapegoating Eastern Europeans. They’re a racist populist party that’s exploiting people’s disenchantment with established parties.”

‘Over 2 million trucks come here each year, but they don’t stay. We see the trade the EU brings, but we don’t benefit from it.’

Terry Sutton

Dover resident

Though he’s not concerned about it, Dover resident Peter Wallace, too, has noticed the increasing number of foreign nationals here. “Where you have low property values, you get a social mix, and that can include many immigrants,” he notes. The local car wash is staffed mostly by Latvians. At the Subway store on Dover’s High Street, which features empty shop windows alongside several betting shops and a few national retail outlets, a Polish woman named Izolda smilingly makes sandwiches. One wonders how many native-born Dover residents would apply for the job if Izolda left. At the bank on Dover’s central square, two other Poles are opening a bank account. 

Izolda may smile, but Dover has seen better days. “People have historically felt that Dover is being left behind,” said Wallace. “The town center has been decaying for many years. So if someone comes along and offers change, people might listen to him.” Whereas Britain’s successful towns boast an upmarket Waitrose supermarket, Dover has even lost its midmarket Sainsbury’s. Yet the deprivation may be as much perception as a reality. According to Kent County Council statistics, a mere 2.8 percent of the county’s adult residents are officially unemployed (though, since Britain pays benefits to those who work only a few hours, some 10.2 percent receive unemployment benefits).

Crucially, however, only 15.9 percent of Kent residents work in the knowledge economy. The county’s problem is not the availability of jobs but the quality of them. “Along the Kent coast, the main issue is the disappearance of industry, which has been replaced by McJobs,” observes Professor Richard Whitman, head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

In truth, Dover doesn’t have that many immigrants — according to the Kent County Council, 93 percent of the city’s residents were born in the U.K. — but that sense of hopelessness appears to be translating into fear of mass immigration from Britain’s fellow EU member states. “We see more indigenous Brits than immigrants on the streets,” reports Wallace, who volunteers helping inebriated Saturday night revelers outside Dover’s pubs, giving them blankets and flip-flops. “Eastern Europeans come here because they have an objective.”

But in a striking paradox in this year’s highly competitive electionsa, some long-established immigrant Britons are supporting the UKIP. “I think we have the most ethnically diverse slate of candidates of any political party in this country, says Przemek Skwirczynski, the Polish-born author of the new book “Great British Eurosceptic Immigrant” and a UKIP candidate for Parliament in South London. Other UKIP parliamentary candidates hail from abroad: Ace Nnorom was born in Cameroon, Bruce Machan was born in Zimbabwe, Rathy Alagaratnam comes from Sri Lanka, and Winston McKenzie is from Jamaica.

Skwirczynski, like many other UKIP figures, argues that not all immigrants moving to Britain are motivated to work hard. But he is an immigrant himself, having arrived from Poland as a teenager 16 years ago to go to school, then university. Today he’s a successful banker in London and the chairman of the new group Friends of Poland in UKIP. “At the moment, Britain’s immigration policy isn’t fair,” he says. “It lets everyone in from the EU but puts up barriers for everyone else. We want to do what Australia does and have skills-based immigration. There has always been immigration to the U.K., and I don’t have a problem with it being regulated.”

The UKIP’s parliamentary candidates in Kent are all white Britons, but in Bromley, a southeastern London suburb, the party’s contender is Idham Ramadi, who was born in Britain to Indonesian parents. “My parents were immigrants, but they worked and contributed to the economy,” he said. “For the past decade or so, immigration has been uncontrolled. Immigration is great, but we need to look at the caliber of the people coming here.” Ramadi estimates that one-quarter of Bromley residents consider immigration an issue.

At his church in Dover, the Rev. Andy Bawtree hears similar opinions. “We have people who came from the old colonies and know what Britain stands for,” he said. “Many of them feel that the new immigrants don’t know what Britain stands for.”

Like Skwirczynski, Ramadi sees no contradiction in supporting tighter immigration rules. “I and other UKIP candidates from immigrant backgrounds consider ourselves British,” he reasons. “What we’re saying is that Britain needs people who have qualifications and speak British and who’ve secured a job and accommodation before coming here.” Such notions find fertile ground in Dover, where the ferry traffic to continental Europe provides one of very few stable employment opportunities.

Near Dover, Canterbury professor Whitman is paying close attention to this year’s energetic election campaign. “A perfect storm has allowed UKIP to emerge as a political force,” he observes. “That includes discontent with the political establishment and long-term issues that the major parties have failed to address.”

Though they’re not sure what the remedy is, some Dover residents seem to find answers in the UKIP’s policies. “People want something different,” says Bawtree. “UKIP is different from the other parties because it offers change, just like [Barack] Obama and Tony Blair did. People say, ‘Well, maybe this time we’ll get change.’ And UKIP works hard locally, which is paying dividends.” In a recent survey by The Dover Express newspaper, residents named regeneration of the city as their No. 1 priority, closely followed by immigration.

Despite the sentiments working in its favor, the UKIP is slumping in the polls. A string of candidates have been suspended for infractions, from harassment of colleagues to financial improprieties. Last month a UKIP member of the European Parliament likened a Scottish minister to convicted terrorist Abu Hamza. That prompted one party candidate to resign, saying the party had barred him from speaking favorably about Islam. Another resigned citing racism and bullying within the party.

Anti-racism groups such as Stand Up to Racism and the new Stand Up to UKIP alliance are concerned, saying minority Britons have to do more to protect new immigrants from the UKIP’s proposed policies. “Farage starts off by attacking new immigrants while defending old ones,” says Bennett, who’s a member of Stand Up to Racism. “But UKIP is bringing the whole issue of racism into politics. It’s just more acceptable to attack white immigrants than to attack blacks.” He adds that if keeping Eastern European immigrants out fails to produce the desired improvement for ordinary Britons, the UKIP will go after long-established immigrants.

“Are you lonely? We’ll get you drunk,” promises a sign outside a pub just off Dover’s High Street. Depressing though the sign may be, the pub is doing good business. And things may event start to look up in Dover: The new high-speed train stops there, and a new shopping center is being built. Perhaps in a few years, the pub will have to come up with a more cheerful slogan.

And the UKIP? As Britain prepares to go to the polls May 7, one question will be whether the party can muster a solid performance or is just an already fading flash-in-the-pan protest vote. “They’re trying to get people involved who aren’t usually involved in politics,” says Whitman. “And their message is a patchwork rather than an ideology. Bringing people to the ballot box is their challenge now. They have to build party loyalty, not just enthusiasm.”

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