GRIMSBY, England (Reuters) - Like many in the once thriving fishing town of Grimsby, Dave thinks an influx of east European migrants has made it harder to find work and he plans to register his anxiety by voting in an election for the first time in 18 years.
But the 36-year-old docker will not be voting for Britain’s main opposition Labour party, traditionally the dominant force in the area’s local politics. In the run-up to next month’s elections for the European Parliament, Dave says he intends to back Britain’s anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).
“They seem like the only ones who want to do something about immigration,” said Dave, who declined to give his surname, as he enjoyed a beer in a pub on Freeman Street, formerly a bustling shopping area and popular haunt of fishermen now dotted with boarded-up shops, pawnbrokers and at least two Polish grocers.
“When I first started there 17 years ago you could get a job on the docks when you wanted. We used to do 40 hours and after 40 hours it would be overtime. Now, foreigners will come in and do 60 hours at minimum wage. They have changed it.”
Such resentment has helped transform UKIP, which wants Britain to exit the EU and to sharply curb immigration, from a marginal protest party into one poised, say opinion polls, to come second after Labour or even first in the May elections.
Such an outcome would be humiliating for Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives and would fuel their alarm about a split in the center-right vote in next year’s national election which could deny them another five years in government.
UKIP currently has only nine seats in the European Parliament and no elected members in the British parliament. Yet it won almost one in four votes in local elections last year and has also pushed the Conservatives into third place in a string of one-off votes for national parliamentary seats.
UKIP, which also taps into public perceptions of a remote and privileged governing elite, has forced mainstream British parties, especially the Conservatives, to embrace tougher immigration policies and a more critical stance on Europe.
Despite their backing for continued EU membership, which they say is good for Britain’s economy and global clout, the three main parties - the Conservatives, Labour and Cameron’s junior coalition partner the Liberal Democrats - are all agreed that the EU needs reform.
Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s EU ties and to hold an in/out EU membership referendum if he is re-elected next year. Some in his party say they would vote to quit the EU.
Pollsters say UKIP has siphoned off much of its support from disgruntled right-wing Conservative voters. But they say it is also stealing traditional Labour supporters unhappy with the left-leaning party’s move away from its working class roots.
In Grimsby, where the imposing red-brick dock tower of what was once the world’s largest fishing port overlooks several derelict buildings with smashed windows and missing roof tiles, many blame the EU for the town’s decline.
The constant flow of ships into its docks used to give the town five pay days a week, said UKIP local councilor Stephen Harness, whose father was a trawler skipper. But the EU’s common fisheries policy has reduced the number of boats and the amount of time they can spend out at sea, he said.
Yet support for UKIP goes beyond its anti-EU stance. When asked about the three biggest issues facing Britain, almost two-thirds of UKIP voters don’t mention Europe in a list topped by immigration and the economy, according to pollster YouGov.
Data in February showed the number of EU nationals who came to Britain in the year to September 2013 rose by 40 percent to 209,000, many of them from much poorer eastern Europe. It was the highest figure since officials began collecting statistics.
UKIP says Britain’s EU membership means it is powerless to stop intra-EU migration since the bloc’s freedom of movement rules allow people to live and work in any member state.
The party’s outspoken position on immigration, including a set of campaign posters unveiled this week, have left UKIP fending off accusations of racism.
Attending a UKIP meeting in Grimsby’s Town Hall with his wife Beverley, ex-serviceman James Bullock is worried about the impact immigration is having and what kind of Britain will be left for his children, who are in their mid-20s.
“I am concerned about their future, our culture is dying,” he said. “I just feel that this is the only real party that will lead us into the future ... Labour opened the doors for immigration and the Conservatives took the doors off.”
UKIP, led by former commodities trader Nigel Farage, has been expanding its support beyond its southern English heartland and is focusing on threatening traditional Labour seats in the Midlands and northern England, where it has polled second to Labour in three votes for parliamentary seats in 18 months.
“Some of the areas of the country that are most receptive to Nigel Farage and UKIP are actually not in Conservative hands they are in the hands of the Labour Party,” said Matthew Goodwin, co-author of ‘Revolt on the Right’, a study of UKIP’s support which identifies Grimsby as one of the party’s best chances of winning its first parliamentary seat.
“UKIP are tapping in to who you might crudely term the ‘left behind’. Working class, low educated, financially struggling.”
Many backers of UKIP feel politicians do not represent their views, he said, with only 4 percent of lawmakers having had any experience in manual work, down from 16 percent in the 1980s.
“People are just absolutely disenfranchised with the whole thing, they won’t engage with politics ... They feel let down and they don’t have a voice,” said 54-year-old Grimsby tattoo parlor owner Chris Osborne, a life-long Labour supporter who has defected to run for UKIP in local council elections in May.
That sense of abandonment is one of the biggest things now attracting voters to UKIP, said Jane Collins, one of UKIP’s leading candidates for the European Parliament elections.
“I don’t think either Labour or the Conservatives should be too arrogant and complacent about their position. We are a danger to both parties. They live in the Westminster bubble,” she said, referring to the district where parliament is based.
“And they haven’t realized the bubble is about to burst.”
Editing by Andrew Osborn and Gareth Jones