Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) yesterday won its first elected seat in parliament by a huge margin and came a close second in another vote, proving it poses a threat to the country’s two main parties in the national election next year.
UKIP, which wants a British EU withdrawal and strict curbs on immigration, was expected to do well in both votes. However, the unexpectedly wide margin of its victory in the seaside town of Clacton and its strong performance in an election in northern England came as a surprise.
In Clacton, it won 60 percent of the vote, after not contesting the area in 2010. In Heywood and Middleton, in northern England, a traditional stronghold for the opposition Labour party, it got almost 39 percent of the vote, up from less than 3 percent in 2010.
“There is nothing that we cannot achieve,” Douglas Carswell, Clacton’s new UKIP member of parliament, told supporters.
Quoting former US president Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and John Wycliffe, a 14th-century dissident translator of the Bible into English, Carswell said he backed “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
“The governing can no longer presume to know what is right for the governed,” he said immediately after he was declared the winner. “Crony corporatism is not the free market. Cozy cartel politics is not meaningful democracy. Change is coming.”
There is little prospect of UKIP winning more than a dozen of 650 seats in the national election in May next year. However, its growing success threatens to split the center-right vote and chip away at the traditional left-wing vote making it harder for any one party to win an outright majority.
That increases the likelihood of a hung parliament, another coalition government and potential political instability in the world’s sixth-largest economy.
UKIP’s success is also likely to increase pressure on British Prime Minister David Cameron to become more euroskeptic, three years before a referendum on EU membership, which he has promised to hold if re-elected.
Douglas Carswell, a euroskeptic, defected from Cameron’s Conservatives in August, triggering Thursday’s Clacton vote. He switched allegiance because he said he doubted the prime minister’s determination to reform the EU.
Cameron has promised to try to renegotiate Britain’s EU relationship before offering voters an in/out membership referendum in 2017. However, some of his own lawmakers are skeptical about his resolve to push for real change, viewing his promise as a tactical move to try to hold his divided party together.
With a population of 53,000, Clacton, once a thriving seaside resort, began to decline as Britons turned to cheap foreign package holidays in the 1980s. It now earns its keep from retirees and day trippers from London.
Retirement homes line the seafront, gaudy arcades filled with slot machines and bookmakers dominate the town center, and caravan parks luring low-income families with cheap deals sit on the outskirts along with Jaywick, an area officially rated as one of the most deprived in the country.
Reading newspapers in his souvenir shop at the end of Clacton’s 19th-century pier, David Ashton, 66, said on Thursday he had voted UKIP because he had lost faith in Cameron.
“Ever since I was old enough to vote I have always voted Conservative,” he told reporters. “But this time I voted UKIP. This place needs a shake-up. The Conservatives have promised stuff before and not delivered. I don’t trust them any more.”
He cited their failure to curb immigration and what he said was their desire to remain in the EU, something he opposed.
In terms of its demographics, Clacton is the most UKIP-friendly constituency in the country, according to pre-election analysis by academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford.
“It’s very white, very old, very working class, lots of economic deprivation and ... there is a heightened anxiety over migration and Europe,” Goodwin said.
UKIP also polled unexpectedly strongly in another special election held on Thursday in northern England after the death of the area’s Labour member of parliament.
UKIP said that result showed it was a threat to the established left as well as the right.
Tapping into a weariness with mainstream politics, UKIP won European elections in Britain in May and has poached two of Cameron’s lawmakers in the past six weeks.
Cameron’s strategy to stem UKIP’s rise has been to warn voters that “a vote for UKIP is a vote for Labour.”
Cameron, who once derided UKIP as a bunch of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists,” has also said his is the only party able to deliver a referendum on EU membership.
His party shrugged off the Clacton result, putting it down to Carswell’s defection.
The ballot was not representative of how people would vote in a national election when much more was at stake, Conservative lawmakers said.
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