In a bleak shopping center in Grays, a town on the north bank of the Thames estuary, an elderly couple are having their tea at a Wimpy’s café. This weekend Britain will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over Germany in the Second World War. Arnold and Marjory, who came of age during that war and recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, are part of what the British (and the Americans) call “the greatest generation.” They’re distressed at what they see around them in the rapidly changing town. On Thursday they will be voting for the Conservative Party, though they both come from working-class families that traditionally voted Labour.
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“We believe the Conservatives are the ones really standing up for hard-working people,” says Marjory. They are part of the aspirational shift of Britons who wanted to belong to the middle class and who brought Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979. Now they say many people they know are planning to leave the Conservatives and vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
“They are worried about immigrants,” says Arnold. “But that’s wrong. A lot of the immigrants work hard and there’s no reason to be worried about them.”
At the next table are two women in their 20s and the young son of one of them. Carlie, who has tattoos on her wrists and says after hesitation that she works “in retail,” is going to vote UKIP, as is her friend. “It’s those immigrants. They’re coming in, walking all over us, taking our jobs. I’m no racist but someone has got to stop that.”
At some stage in every conversation with a UKIP voter, the “I’m no racist” line comes up. Carlie can’t give any concrete example of an immigrant taking someone’s job, but she insists that’s the case. When asked whether she supports UKIP’s other main policy – Britain leaving the European Union – she stares blankly. “No, it’s the immigrants.”
The two couples exemplify the divide in many parts of England among the white working and middle classes: between those sticking with the two main political parties, Conservatives and Labour, and those planning to vote for one of the more radical parties, UKIP on the right and the Greens on the left. Grays is the biggest town in the Thurrock constituency, where a close three-way race between Conservatives, UKIP and Labour is inflaming tensions between whites and immigrant communities.
Handful of seats could have big impact
Thurrock is one of only three seats that UKIP is expected to have a good chance of winning today. But while the sizable vote the party is predicted to win in the polls will not yield more than a tiny handful of seats under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, it could have a major impact on the election’s outcome. Most UKIP voters previously voted for the Conservatives, and their move rightward could cost the party currently in power many dozens of seats, which would tilt parliament toward Labour. Much of the Conservatives’ strategy has been built on trying to bring a large chunk of these UKIPpers back home.
In the town of Harlow, in Essex, northeast of London, Alan Hope, owner of a small cleaning company, says he was planning to vote UKIP but he’s not certain now. “I’ve got twin daughters who are 16 and I want to make sure they will have jobs. I’ve seen how the Poles have come in recently, taking work away from small businesses like mine. I’m not racist but we have to take care of our children first.” But now he’s thinking, “I don’t want Labour to come into power, so I may have to go back voting Conservative.”
This is very much an election based on tribal loyalties and fear of other communities. UKIP in some polls received as much as 17 percent of the vote, playing on fear of immigrants. The Conservatives cannot promise serious limits on immigration since most of the newcomers are arriving from countries within the European Union, where Britain is committed to freedom of movement. Instead, the incumbents are offering a referendum in 2017 on Britain’s membership in the EU.
Scottish Nationalists offsetting UKIP
The split in the right-wing vote should have ensured victory for Labour, but they are about to be wiped out in their stronghold in Scotland, where a surge in the vote for the Scottish National Party (SNP) could cost them over 40 seats on Thursday. The rise of the SNP has all but made it certain that the Conservatives will have more seats in the next parliament; it has also given them a powerful propaganda tool with which they can warn English voters of the prospect of a minority Labour government supported by the Scottish Nationalists, who support breaking up the United Kingdom.
With the two main parties deadlocked in the polls at around 35 percent each and with almost no chance of gaining a majority, most talk in recent days has been of coalitions and legitimacy. As a result, this is Britain’s most divisive election in memory.
Heavily Jewish districts attracting attention
The divisiveness has touched the Jewish community as well. With just half a percent of the population, Jewish voters are rarely seen as a decisive electoral factor, but with every seat counting in a close election, two of the constituencies in northern London with large Jewish populations, Finchley and Hendon, have attracted attention and visits by senior politicians, including, on Tuesday, prime minister David Cameron.
Candidates have vied not only on their taxation and housing policies, but also over the levels of their support for Israel. This has been particularly poignant for Labour, whose Jewish leader Ed Miliband is seen by some Jewish voters as not pro-Israel enough.
The Jewish angle was dragged in again Tuesday morning when The Sun, the most widely-read newspaper in Britain, and pro-Conservative, ran on its front page a photograph of Miliband looking rather ridiculous while in a diner last year trying to eat a bacon sandwich. The headline “Save Our Bacon” was only one of the multiple references to pork. To many, not only Labour supporters, this was the height of bad taste. Some felt there was also a sly and nasty reference here to Miliband’s Jewishness.
There is of course no reason to believe this went through the minds of The Sun’s editor when preparing the front page, but other unflattering descriptions and slurs thrown at Miliband by the right-wing press, including “North London geek” and repeated mentions of his father’s Marxist politics, have been part of a subliminal campaign to somehow portray him as a foreigner, as not English enough. Miliband himself has not responded to this tone, denying there was any anti-Semitism in the criticism of him. It is a debate he prefers not to engage in. And there is another, more blatant though less-remarked upon personal smear campaign against him. British Islamists have been attacking Miliband as a “Zionist” on social media for months now.
If, as the polls predict, the Conservatives indeed emerge the largest party on Friday morning, Cameron is expected to announce victory even without a coalition yet formed. But then he will have to face a hostile parliament.
It may not even get that far. Whoever forms a government will need to survive both a vote on their Queen’s speech (the presentation in parliament by the monarch of their policy) and failing that, a vote of confidence. Losing both, another election would be called immediately. Such an outcome is unprecedented, but this is already the strangest election in British history, so anything can happen on the day after.