From his vantage point on the chalk cliffs above the English Channel, Alan Bentley has a clear view of where his country is going wrong.
“They talk about controlling immigration and they haven’t,” said Bentley, 64, a retired pharmacist, as he finished a lunchtime sandwich overlooking the bay in Broadstairs, a resort town on England’s southeast coast. “At one time you had a vague idea of what the parties you voted for stood for. But today’s politicians don’t have any core values.”
Broadstairs, where in the 19th century Charles Dickens spent his summers and found the inspiration for his novel “Bleak House,” is the crest of a 21st-century wave of disaffection with established British politics that is being exploited by the U.K. Independence Party led by Nigel Farage.
Peddling an anti-European Union, anti-immigration message, UKIP is vying with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party to place first in next month’s elections to the European Parliament.
Nowhere do UKIP policies resonate more than in the thumb of England closest to continental Europe that has resisted enemy incursions for centuries.
South Thanet, the electoral district in Kent that includes Broadstairs, is typical of the areas where UKIP is picking up support, according to Anthony Wells, a YouGov Plc pollster who runs the U.K. Polling Report website. It appeals in “places on the periphery with lots of older people, places that are a bit rundown and disadvantaged and left behind,” he said by phone.
Just as Marine Le Pen taps into disillusionment with France’s two main parties and Geert Wilders exploits Dutch resentment against immigration and financing euro-zone rescues, Farage is appealing to English voters such as Bentley who see the established parties, Conservative and Labour, as failing to stand up for them during the biggest squeeze on living standards for a decade.
“I urge people to come and join the people’s army,” Farage said during a televised debate with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on April 2. “Let’s topple the establishment who led us to this mess.” Snap polls suggested Farage won the debate and a similar encounter the previous week.
With higher unemployment than the regional average, an older population and a poorer health record, Thanet is a rich recruiting ground for UKIP: the party already has seven county council members in the district.
A poll in November of 515 voters by Survation put UKIP on 30 percent in South Thanet, second to Labour on 35 percent and ahead of the Conservatives, who currently hold the parliamentary seat, on 28 percent. That compares with about 12 percent UKIP backing nationally in latest polls.
That tide of support is feeding speculation Farage will choose to contest South Thanet at next year’s general election in a bid to win UKIP’s first seat in the House of Commons. Laura Sandys, the Conservative lawmaker who has represented the district since 2010, announced in November that she will be stepping down, making the seat even more attractive to Farage.
While UKIP is appealing to disgruntled Conservative voters at Cameron’s expense, it is also seeking to attract supporters of the Labour Party, which held the seat between 1997 and 2010.
Many of UKIP’s backers voted Tory at the last election in 2010, yet “socially and economically these are voters who Labour should be picking up in a climate of austerity and declining real incomes,” said Robert Ford, who teaches politics at Manchester University and is co-author of Revolt on The Right, which charts the rise of UKIP. “These are the voters at the sharp end, and they are turning to UKIP instead.”
Sandwiched between two shuttered shops opposite a tattoo parlor, UKIP’s district office in the port town of Ramsgate is on an election footing. Decked with Union Jack flags, maps cover the wall and stacks of leaflets clutter the floor.
Bowen Fuller, 42, a former soldier and party volunteer, said he’d just dispatched a member to distribute leaflets after he was inspired by Farage’s televised debates to spread the word. UKIP differentiates itself from other parties by being a bottom-up organization that is “all about grassroots backing” -- and it’s not just about opposition to the EU, said Fuller.
While UKIP was formed to campaign for British withdrawal from the EU, it has won support through its opposition to uncontrolled immigration from the EU, to gay marriage, overseas aid and the wind turbines that dominate the sea offshore from Thanet.
“It’s not really about Europe,” said Fuller. “A lot of people just think that modern politicians aren’t living in our world.”
The easternmost slice of Kent has a history of independent thinking. Home to the Cinque Ports alliance of coastal towns formed by Royal Charter in 1155, less than a century after the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror, the inhabitants were required to maintain ships for the king in return for privileges including self-government and exemption from tolls.
All the same, Farage, 50, the privately educated son of a stockbroker, has an unlikely background for someone leading an anti-establishment insurgency. A former commodities trader who has been a member of the European Parliament since 1999, he has styled himself as a straight-talking, beer-swilling man of the people. His emphasis on individualism and off-the-cuff policy making has meanwhile made it hard to instill party discipline.
Not all Thanet is warming to Farage or his message. Amid fading port towns, resorts such as Broadstairs remain tourist magnets: language schools frequented by foreign students in the summer are clustered around Dickens’s former lodgings, where he completed the novel “David Copperfield” and which is now a museum and guest house.
Broadstairs has four out of seven of the least deprived electoral divisions, or wards, in Thanet, while Ramsgate has five of the eight most deprived, according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation compiled by central government in London.
The diversity means Thanet is a tale of two electoral districts, making it a key “marginal” seat fought over by UKIP, the Conservatives and Labour that pollsters see as an indicator of voting trends at the next election.
A poll of voting intentions for the European elections put UKIP in first place with 34 percent support. Backing for Labour was 27 percent and 20 percent for Cameron’s Tories, according to the YouGov Plc poll in the Sunday Times newspaper on April 6. A separate ComRes poll put UKIP and Labour neck-and-neck.
Farage has said he will publish a package of UKIP policies for 2015 after the European vote to counter claims from other parties that his platform is too narrowly focused on Europe and pledges in other areas are unclear.
He’s already won Bentley’s vote, who said he’s abandoned the Conservatives after more than 40 years of support.
“Whole tranches of the country have changed,” said Bentley, sipping from a bottle of apple juice above Viking Bay, so named after the Norse raiders who once ravaged the coast of Britain. “I hope Nigel Farage does well. He’s the Conservative Party that most of us used to support.”