Boston is a typical English town – ancient church, traditional shops, Polish supermarkets, Baltic bakeries. Amid the bargain-hunting crowds on market day, eastern European languages are almost as common as the local east-England accent.
Immigration has transformed Boston in the last decade. At least one in eight residents comes from eastern Europe, and the population is growing at double the national rate.
The change Boston is seeing is not unique – and unhappiness about Britain’s transformation is reshaping the political landscape as voters prepare to choose a new government, fueling support for outsider politicians focused on immigration. With no party firmly in the lead, the race for the May 7 election, which officially began Monday, looks set to produce a fragmented Parliament for a fractured nation.
“I think there are a few too many of the foreign brigade here at the moment,” said butcher Nigel Lote. His customers come almost exclusively from the long-settled English population of Boston, a town of about 65,000 that gave its name and its Pilgrim heritage to the Massachusetts city.
“It’s getting to the stage where there’s them and us,” he said. “We don’t mingle.”
A short walk away is West Street, a once-declining commercial strip now lined with grocery stores, delis and information centres for the eastern European community. Shelves are packed with pickled vegetables and canned fish. Notices advertise rooms to rent, used cars and agricultural jobs in the fields around Boston.
Karolina Mediancevaite, serving customers in a Lithuanian bakery, paused when asked if the locals are friendly.
“Some,” she said. “It would be better if they talked to you and not look at you like ‘You are not from this country.”’
Robin Hunter-Clarke, local candidate for the U.K. Independence Party, said Boston has “huge social problems.”
“There are some streets that local people won’t walk down because they feel uncomfortable,” he said. “And I think that’s sad. And that’s because of the sheer number of people that have entered one small market town.”
UKIP, which has risen rapidly from ragtag band of right-wing dissidents to serious political force, is the main beneficiary of Britain’s unease about immigration.
The party wants Britain to leave the European Union – closing the door to EU citizens, who currently can work freely in the U.K. – and create a more restrictive immigration system geared to Britain’s labour needs.
The party says it’s giving voice to long-stifled concerns; opponents claim UKIP is fueling social divisions. Either way, it’s working. Nationally, UKIP is running third in the polls and hopes to win a clutch of seats along the eastern fringe of England, in towns like Boston where many voters feel neglected by what they see as London-centric politicians and metropolitan elites.
Bookmakers have shortened the odds to 50-50 that Hunter-Clarke, a 22-year-old county councillor, might overturn the constituency’s large Conservative majority.
“People are angry. People are looking for somebody to vote for, and they are choosing UKIP,” Hunter-Clarke said.
Britain has long been a land of immigrants, absorbing waves of Huguenots, Jews, Irish, West Indians, Pakistanis and more. But in the 21st century, seismic political and economic shifts – globalization, economic crisis and the lowering of European borders – have brought a level of immigration unseen in more than a century.
Since the end of the Cold War, the number of countries in the European Union has more than doubled, to 28. The biggest expansion came when a group of former Eastern Bloc countries, including Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states, joined in 2004.
Britain was one of the few EU countries not to impose temporary employment restrictions on people from these new – and much poorer – members.
The U.K. government predicted a modest influx of 13,000 people a year from those countries. That turned out to be a dramatic underestimate. The Office for National Statistics says more than half a million people from the 2004 EU entrants had moved to Britain by the end of 2013.
In Britain’s big cities, the eastern European plumbers, nannies, IT workers and baristas joined a complex economy and rich multicultural mosaic.
In Boston, set amid agriculturally rich flatlands 200 kilometres north of London, the immigrants came mostly to pick fruit, vegetables and flowers and work in food factories. Eastern European newcomers have gone on to open businesses, reviving a shabby shopping area.
While some residents claim migrants are taking jobs from local people, unemployment here is well below the national average.
But Boston’s growth – the population rose by more than 10,000 people in a decade – has stretched schools, hospitals and housing. Some locals accuse migrants of living on government handouts – a recurring theme in UKIP literature – and blame them for everything from litter to drunkenness.
“I notice that an awful lot of the social housing has got eastern Europeans in them now,” said Terry Hollick, a retired bricklayer who, like many others, is thinking of voting UKIP. “My daughter, she can’t get on the housing ladder.”
UKIP’s critics say it offers simplistic solutions to complex social problems and doesn’t understand how intertwined modern economies work.
“Ever since we’ve had work on the land we’ve had migrants – from the Midlands, from Ireland, from Portugal, now from eastern Europe,” said Conservative candidate Matt Warman, who is battling to hold the seat for his party. “People here understand that migration is a complex issue.
“We need an immigration policy that doesn’t encourage people to think the streets of Boston are paved with gold,” he said. But “we’ve got to make sure that we don’t decimate the local economy.”
He sounds confident, but UKIP’s surge has put the much larger Conservative and Labour parties on the defensive. Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose party ran Britain between 1997 and 2010, has said Labour “got it wrong” on immigration. Prime Minister David Cameron admits he has failed to deliver on a promise to cut net migration – the number of immigrants minus emigrants – below 100,000 people a year.
Nottingham University political scientist Matthew Goodwin, who has tracked the rise of UKIP, says that Labour and the Conservatives have failed to grapple with “social and cultural issues” such as immigration and national identity. As a result, “UKIP is now owning the immigration issue.”
“The problem is, the competency of the (mainstream) political parties on this issue has been reduced because of free movement from the European Union,” Goodwin said. “Political parties do not want to draw attention to an issue that plays to their weaknesses rather than their strengths.”
While UKIP may well win in Boston, it is not going to win the national election. Britain’s first-past-the-post system means the party will probably take a handful of seats at most. But it has already altered the political landscape. Under pressure from the anti-EU politicians, Cameron has promised to hold a binding referendum on leaving the European Union if he is re-elected.
In his butcher’s shop, Lote is worried about the future – and grateful to UKIP for blowing open the political debate.
“I don’t think I’d let them run the country,” he said. “But they’ve woken people up.”