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Elections

Britain's euroskeptics keep gaining ground

Results from local elections in England show a surge in support for UKIP - the United Kingdom Independence Party - which wants Britain to withdraw from the European Union. But why is the party doing so well right now?

"This is a real sea change in British politics," UKIP leader Nigel Farage announced on Friday, as it emerged that his party, a relative newcomer to the political scene, could no longer be dismissed as a protest movement, after winning on average a quarter of the vote in local council elections.

This was an "unprecedented performance," said Dr. Robert Ford, an elections expert at the University of Manchester.

"It's the first time in England that a new party has scored such a big share of the vote," Ford told DW. Though he added it was "too soon to tell" whether this represented the kind of "sea change" Farage had described.

Sobering results for main parties

British Prime Minister David Cameron JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Cameron's conservatives appear hardest-hit

Local elections were held on Thursday in 35 local authorities in England and Wales. The ruling Conservative Party and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners both suffered losses.

British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged the results, saying his party would "work hard to win back" voters. This mid-term vote is often used to hammer the ruling parties.

The opposition Labour Party saw its share of the vote rise slightly, but it was UKIP that stole all the headlines with its share of the vote up by some 13 percentage points.

UKIP still does not have a single member of parliament at national level. The test will now be whether it can translate its local election success into an equally good performance in the 2015 general elections.

‘A collection of clowns'?

The results are certainly a boost to a party that was dismissed a few days ago by veteran Conservative politician Ken Clarke as "just a protest party" and "a collection of clowns."

UKIP party leader Nigel Farage (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage's eurosceptics no longer to be dismissed

UKIP was originally formed in the 1990s to campaign against Britain's membership in the European Union. In recent years, as the economic crisis took hold in Europe, the party gained ground and its leader, Nigel Farage - a charismatic, vehemently anti-European and unorthodox politician - has become a familiar face in the British media.

Farage and his party appeal to "older, less educated, working class, white voters, who no longer have a voice in politics," said elections expert Robert Ford. With the main parties trying to gain votes from the center and the middle classes, this older, poorer segment of the electorate has been left behind, he explained. Many of them are now defecting to UKIP.

Chris Howarth, senior policy analyst at Open Europe, an influential London think-tank, agreed, saying the results are a reflection of the "general disillusionment with the political class as a whole."

The Europe question

Howarth said the vote revealed "underlying issues" about the level of unease with the European Union. He explained that many voters are frustrated with certain aspects of the EU, including "excessive regulation and the cost of the EU budget."

In addition to that, there is a more general concern among UKIP voters about the failure of mainstream parties to control immigration. "They fear that the country has gone to the dogs," explained Ford.

Immigrants (photo: Patrick Pleul)

UKIP voters are concerned about immigration

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of media coverage about the forthcoming easing of EU work restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians. UKIP has been accused of exploiting fears about a wave of mass immigration from those countries. Nigel Farage himself recently visited Bulgaria and Romania - along with a TV crew - to "find out" how many people were planning to come to Britain.

"[People] are concerned because we have a million youngsters unemployed, we have wages being driven down and I'm afraid a crime wave in London being caused by Romanians already," Farage said in a TV interview earlier this week.

The rise of UKIP leaves all the main parties with a lot of thinking to do. David Cameron, who was already under considerable pressure to act on the Europe issue, will have to find new ways of appealing to voters on the right of the political spectrum. And the opposition Labour party, which traditionally appealed to the working classes, will also be thinking of ways to win back older, poorer voters.

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