Its best-yet showing in a national race has, nevertheless, thrust into the national limelight a political movement that is part of a wave of anti-immigrant populism surging across Europe. The outcome of the Feb. 28 vote, coupled with national polls showing UKIP support at an all-time high, seemed to terrify Britain’s three traditional parties. In response, the Conservatives, the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats are suddenly tripping over each other in a race to see who can more closely echo the Independence Party’s hard-line pledge to get tougher on immigration.
UKIP’s ability to spark a policy stampede without even winning a seat in Parliament underscores the increasing capability of anti-immigrant forces to set the agenda amid Europe’s economic malaise. An issue at the core of the party’s platform is the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union to stem the tide of immigration — as an E.U. member, Britain is legally bound to allow the citizens of 24 other European countries to resettle here with few restrictions — which speaks to the concerns of a continent where a debt crisis and high employment are increasingly making foreigners the target of popular rage.
That fear is surging as countries including Britain, Germany and France prepare for new flows of migrants from two of Europe’s poorest countries — Bulgaria and Romania, whose citizens will win unlimited access to the E.U.’s labor market as of Jan. 1.
With concern growing that the Independence Party will poach more and more voters from the political right, Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, last week announced a plan to make it tougher for recently arrived immigrants to claim welfare benefits. The government additionally announced a dramatic makeover of the U.K. Border Agency to deal more expeditiously — and harshly — with illegal immigrants.
Not to be outdone, Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister from Cameron’s junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, announced his own plan to control illegal immigration. In a speech less than three weeks after the vote in Eastleigh, Clegg vowed to force visitors from countries with high numbers of visa violators to post a $1,500 bond — with the cash returnable only upon their departure from Britain.
At the same time, Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labor Party, has offered a mea culpa for lax immigration policies during his party’s rule from 1997 to 2010, a period when net migration to Britain soared. In an apparent reference to then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s campaign gaffe in 2010 — when the Labor leader was caught off camera describing an elderly white woman as “bigoted” for complaining about immigration — Miliband said: “It’s not prejudiced when people worry about immigration. It’s understandable. And we were wrong in the past when we dismissed people’s concerns.”