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UKIP's rhetoric resonates in Tory heartland

In the Tory stronghold of Chingford, previously Conservative voters and even some immigrants say they are considering switching allegiance to UKIP in May's general election. Mike Power reports from London.

Karen, a middle-aged secretary, hovers on a pavement in a suburban street, looking uncertain. Barring her path on this blustery March afternoon is a beaming parliamentary candidate.

Freddy Vachha is the United Kingdom Independence Party's candidate for Chingford, a wealthy, conservative and mainly white suburb in north-east London. Today is the first day of the UK general election campaign. He begins a manic sales pitch.

"While we are in the EU we cannot stop uncontrolled immigration," he says with a slight Mumbai accent. "I was born in India myself, to expatriate parents, I'm not ethnically Indian. To think I am anti-immigrant would be ridiculous."

Vachha's allegiance to the party, known for endless race-related gaffes, is an odd match. Will she vote UKIP, he asks?

"I am considering it. My husband is self-employed," says Karen, who prefers not to give her surname. "He's a decorator and he's being undercut by cheaper labor. There's too many people. It's a sinking ship," she says.

Vachha nods in furious agreement. The only solution, he says, is to leave the EU, which he calls "a crazy, semi-communist Trotskyite idea, a political experiment that can only end badly."

Chingford is in many ways emblematic of the coming electoral struggle for the Conservatives, who have failed to win a majority since 1992. Even though it is a solidly Tory seat, many of its traditional and older supporters are uneasy with Britain's social and cultural evolution and blame EU-ordained immigration for increased pressure on local services and jobs.

Many voters in similar seats nationwide, and also in traditional Labour seats in working-class strongholds of the post-industrial north, voted for UKIP in 2014's European elections, giving the party an unprecedented 14 seats. Whether that vote was one of protest or a positive choice of UKIP's policies will soon be revealed.

Once a foreigner

Net migration into the UK stands at 298,000 for last year, a figure three times higher than the Conservatives' promised 100,000. A report last week by the Office for Budget Responsibility calculates that immigrants will add 0.6 percent to the potential output of the British economy and increase net tax receipts.

But on the streets of Chingford, UKIP's anti-immigrant stance is resonating with many voters. And although an electoral upset here is unlikely - Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative work and pensions secretary, has a 12,000 majority - Vachha is convinced he will win.

Another door, another UKIP voter answers. Walter Loebel, an 82-year-old Czech-born ex-medic, says he will vote for UKIP to spite the major parties for their abuse of the parliamentary expenses system.

Vachha congratulates him, leaves and bounds up another pathway and raps on a door. Romen Goswani, a middle-aged Indian man, answers. Again, the conversation quickly turns to immigration.

"I am an immigrant myself," says Goswani. "This is my adopted home, but in my opinion, some other immigrants have taken advantage of the liberal situation in this country. But I will tell you that if the Polish people hadn't come in that big number, the [2012] Olympics wouldn't have been built. They made it a success."

Vachha believes foreigners are attracted to the UK by its benefits system, which he sees as over-generous, while simultaneously claiming that immigrants are taking jobs from Britons.

UKIP proposes an "Australian-style, points-based system" permitting entry only to highly skilled and "desirable" immigrants - though it has yet to define a metric for that characteristic.

UKIP has repeatedly faced criticism over racist comments made by dozens of its members and candidates. In February, in a fly-on-the-wall documentary shown on the BBC, Rozanne Duncan, a UKIP councilor, told a press officer: "I really do have a problem with people with Negroid features." She was removed from the party.

Slim electoral chances

Latest polls suggest a repeat of 2010's election result, when no single party won an overall majority. Then, a coalition was formed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Today, UKIP, polling at around 10 percent, is unlikely to win more than a handful of seats.

UKIP's real success, in its own terms, has been to force immigration up the political agenda.

Professor Matthew Goodwin of the University of Nottingham, whose book "Revolt on the Right" examines the party's rise, says UKIP's appeal is equally rooted in economics.

"UKIP is winning over working-class and financially struggling Britons who feel left behind economically, cut adrift from Westminster and intensely anxious over immigration and its effects. During this election [UKIP leader] Nigel Farage is focusing heavily on immigration, which, given his base and goal of winning a handful of seats, is clearly geared toward mobilizing this core base of mainly older, white and working-class voters."

Shariah law in Britain

But in this wealthy London suburb, economics are clearly not the only issue attracting voters. The cold March wind has picked up and as I leave ahead of the candidate, half out of earshot, I hear Vaccha say to an undecided Tory voter: "… we'll have Shariah law."

Under what circumstances does Vachha believe that Britain could end up an Islamic theocracy, governed by Shariah law?

"Under the current, mathematically speaking, trends, it is a no-brainer," he says. "It is simply a no-brainer, due to fertility rates, that this will be," he says.

The higher-than-average fertility rates that might lead to this, he clarifies, are among Muslims.

"If there is a section of the population where the fertility rate is much higher, there will be a catch-up … In the UK, it's Islam. This is simply demographics. There is a possibility of [Shariah law] if the majority want it in the country. If Conservative policies continue, which is mass, uncontrolled immigration, this is the mathematical result," says Vachha.

It is an unconvincing argument on any factual grounds. But it is divisive doorstep soundbites such as these, and Britain's appetite for them, that will decide if UKIP deserve any place in British political life after May 7.

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