ROCHESTER, United Kingdom (AFP) - Sitting on a bench on Rochester High Street, out-of-work British labourer Paul is considering voting for the anti-immigration UK Independence Party in a crucial by-election on Thursday.After breaking his spine in an accident four years ago, Paul, in his 50s, complains he “cannot get the jobs”. “I’m not a racist, but there are foreigners who will work for half the money,” he told Agence France-Presse.Paul used to support the opposition Labour Party. But he is one of many in this south-eastern English constituency that UKIP is hoping will deliver the party’s second seat in the House of Commons.Mr Keith Mye, another former Labour supporter, said he too has been frustrated at the number of migrants. “I think there are too many coming into this country,” the 67-year-old said.Once considered to be the refuge of voters on the right-wing of the Conservative Party, UKIP is now attracting working-class voters drawn by the party’s plans for strict controls on immigration.UKIP has promised to pull Britain out of the European Union, which would end the influx of migrants from other parts of Europe, and is calling for a points-based immigration system instead.The rise of UKIP has in turn encouraged Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-led government to step up the rhetoric and warn of the need to curb arrivals.“Immigration across the board, whether you are in the north or south, east or west, working class or middle class, it is an issue,” UKIP’s deputy leader Paul Nuttall said as he canvassed for votes.“People’s wages are not rising in the way they should. It amazes me that the trade unions don’t stand up and say something about it.”
The parliamentary constituency of Rochester and Strood in Kent, south-east of London, is made up of two main towns, separated by the River Medway.Rochester remains the archetype of romantic English quaintness, with rickety ancient buildings leading up to the town’s impressive Norman castle, and it was the long-time residence of author Charles Dickens.Across the river, Strood is more working-class and surrounded by mile upon mile of tough housing estates.UKIP candidate Mark Reckless, who has served as local MP for the past four years, triggered the by-election when he defected from the Conservatives in September.Knocking on doors on a Strood housing estate, Mr Reckless told AFP that UKIP is expected to score well “across the spectrum” and polls suggest a comfortable win on Thursday.UKIP already has its first MP after winning in nearby Clacton last month, but Mr Peter Kellner, president of polling group YouGov, said a victory here could be “historic” given the make-up of the voters.“The proportion of UKIP voters coming from the Labour party has trebled from 7 per cent to 23 per cent,” he said.“I’ve been getting a lot of feedback from the people who come in here, and immigration is a major issue,” said Mr Bob Peters, owner of second-hand bookshop City Books in Rochester.“The loss of identity is a big fear. Apparently you can have your Irish identity, you can have your Scottish identity, your Welsh identity, but if you say you’re English, you are called a little Englander or a racist.”
UKIP insists it is not racist, but some are unconvinced.“The people who say they want Britain back for Britain... These are the people that will vote UKIP,” said Lucie, a 56-year-old nanny.“Racism is the main driving force and a lot of them don’t know what their identity is.”
She spoke to AFP shortly after accosting two of the party’s supporters carrying a board reading: “It’s our country, vote UKIP to get it back.”
Lucie recalled how she was threatened at a march held in Rochester by right-wing group Britain First on Saturday.“One of things they were shouting at us was ‘you wait til UKIP get in’,” she said.