Fed up with the UK Conservatives, some voters turn to the anti-immigration Reform party for answers

CLACTON-ON-SEA, England (AP) — Dorothy Carr is fed up with how things are run in her hometown. It’s impossible to get a doctor’s appointment through Britain’s state-run health care system. Local buses have been canceled. There isn’t enough public housing.

Like many others in Clacton-on-Sea — a town on England’s southeast coast where many older, white voters used to staunchly support the governing Conservatives — the retiree feels a deep sense of disillusionment with the party. Instead, Carr says she is probably voting for the populist Reform UK party in next week’s national election because she agrees with its core message: Record immigration has damaged Britain.

“This country’s getting to be a joke, a complete joke,” Carr said as she looked out to the sea from Clacton beach. “Nothing’s like it used to be. There’s just too many people. We can’t handle it.”

Britain is going to the polls to elect a new House of Commons at a time when public dissatisfaction is running high over a host of issues, from the high cost of living and a stagnating economy to a dysfunctional state health care system and crumbling infrastructure. That disillusionment has given the opposition Labour Party a significant lead in the polls — but it has also given oxygen to Reform and its leader Nigel Farage, who is drawing growing numbers of Conservative voters with his pledge to “take our country back.”

Opponents have long accused Farage of fanning racist attitudes toward migrants and condemned what they call his scapegoat rhetoric. They argue that chronic underfunding of schools, hospitals and housing under successive governments on both left and right — particularly in poorer areas like Clacton — is the real problem, not migrants.

But many share Carr’s views in Clacton, which recorded one of England’s highest votes to leave the European Union during the 2016 Brexit referendum, when a key promise of the campaign to exit the bloc was that it would give the U.K. more control over its borders. But immigration figures have gone up, not down, post-Brexit.

That makes Clacton fertile ground for Farage, Britain’s most divisive politician and one of the chief architects of Brexit, who is running to represent the town in Parliament. Polls show Farage, who has run for Parliament seven times but never won, has a comfortable lead in the constituency.

“We’re getting poorer. Our productivity is going down. Our public services are failing. Britain is broken and the population explosion is the main reason why,” Farage told the The Associated Press in an interview at his campaign office in Clacton on Friday.

He has dubbed this “the immigration election.”

The latest official figures show that net migration — the number of people moving to the U.K. minus the number of those moving abroad — was 685,000 in 2023, slightly down from a record set in 2022. That’s compared to levels of around 200,000 to 300,000 a year pre-pandemic.

The figures have been on an upward trend since the 1990s and climbed sharply in recent years, with a large influx of international workers, students and their dependents making up most of the numbers.

Still, the Migration Observatory at Oxford University says the U.K.’s foreign-born population stood at about 14% in 2022 — on a par with other high-income countries such as the United States and France, and much lower than, say, Australia or Canada.

“Nigel Farage is trying to weaponize the issue of immigration in quite a simple way,” said Anand Menon, director of the U.K. In a Changing Europe think tank at King’s College London.

Menon said while there is no doubt that high levels of immigration add extra pressure to housing, Farage’s supporters ignore the economic benefits that migrants bring to key sectors including academia, technology and health and social care.

“Migration is really important to U.K. economic growth,” he said. “In areas like social care, in particular, we are massively reliant on an immigrant workforce to do jobs that British people aren’t willing to do. And of course our universities benefit hugely both intellectually and financially from having foreign students who pay a higher fee than domestic students.”

But the immigration debate in Britain often focuses on the emotive issue of the much smaller number of people who cross the English Channel in small boats, many fleeing war, famine and human rights abuses to seek asylum. They numbered about 30,000 last year.

Reform wants the U.K. to leave the European Convention on Human Rights so that asylum-seekers can be deported without interventions from rights courts. The party says it wants to freeze all “nonessential immigration” and bar international students from bringing their families with them, in order, it says, to boost wages and protect “British culture and values.”

While the party does not have widespread support and is competitive in only a handful of constituencies, its message clearly resonates strongly with some voters. Retired couple Sean and Janet Clancy, who say they had voted Conservative all their lives, won’t do so this time because neither the Tories nor Labour are “concentrating on England and Great Britain anymore.”

“I think it was a good move for Nigel Farage to come along. It’s really shocked the other two parties, hasn’t it? We’re all for it, really,” Janet Clancy said.

Polls suggest immigration is an important issue for about two in five British voters — but it is the No. 1 topic typically for older, male Conservative voters who backed Brexit, according to Keiran Pedley, director of politics at the pollster Ipsos U.K.

“They no longer trust the Conservatives on this. They don’t support their record, so they’re switching to Reform,” Pedley said. “People could dispute the exact scale of Reform support, but (immigration) is definitely dividing the right in this election.”

Wary of Farage’s growing influence, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made cutting immigration and stopping asylum-seekers arriving in small boats a key pledge. Authorities have tightened rules for international students and workers, but Sunak’s controversial solution to “stop the boats” — to send some migrants on a one-way trip to Rwanda as a deterrent — has been tied up in a series of legal challenges.

And while the Conservatives have urged voters to reject Farage’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigration, critics point out that the Tories, too, have hardened their language and shifted their policies to the right in response to Reform.

During an election TV debate earlier this month, Scottish National Party leader Stephen Flynn drew applause from the audience when he said both the Conservatives — and Labour, to a lesser degree — were chasing Farage in a “race to the bottom on migration.”

Natasha Osben, the Green Party candidate in Clacton, disputed the narrative that migrants are the reason local schools, hospitals and public housing are overstretched — noting the town does not have many migrants.

“People here are particularly angry because we’ve been left behind by the mainstream parties,” she said. “Rather than putting their hands up and say, ‘OK, we failed,’ they’ve been happy to allow migration to become a scapegoat for all of those issues.”

“I completely see how Nigel Farage has been able to opportunistically prey on people’s valid frustration at Westminster establishments,” she added. “He’s come to a place where people are disillusioned, really disenfranchised, and they see him as the answer. But he’s not the answer.”

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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