Migration has become a central tenet of the Leave campaign’s appeal to the British public. The message that outside of the EU, the UK will be able to control its borders, has resonated strongly with older voters
Wall’s ice cream flags flutter in the gentle wind outside the Sandbanks café by Chalkwell beach. Outside the nearby train station there is a poster advertising July’s Southendon-Sea festival, featuring Peter Andre. This quiet Essex suburb, a 15-minute bus ride to the centre of Southend, seems a strange place for Brexiteers to launch the seaside resort’s official campaign to leave the European Union.
As around 35 activists gather for this Saturday morning campaign rally and grab their free, bright green Grassroots Out T-shirts, it soon becomes apparent why Chalkwell is ripe territory for those who are leading the fight for the UK to vote leave in the EU In/Out referendum on June 23. The demographics are hugely in their favour here: the majority of those gathered are 60 or over and will form the rump of the area’s leafleters.
“Essex in general, south Essex in particular, is very, very strong anti-EU territory,” says Patrick O’Flynn, the Ukip MEP for the East of England who has turned up this chilly Saturday morning to rally the troops. “A lot of people here are former East End of London people who’ve moved out, and the age profile tends to be a bit older rather than younger, which leans towards voting out.”
O’Flynn cites their craving to regain lost sovereignty as a major motivation for this grandparents’ army. Perhaps more importantly, he points to their patriotism and the rise of immigration as reasons they want Brussels to butt out of British affairs.
Every politician and campaigner Raconteur spoke to for this article agreed that immigration would not have been discussed so bluntly even five or six years ago. But immigration and better protection of Great British borders are now the issues that could sway Brits to leave the EU. O’Flynn says that “even the political left and the establishment parties are now admitting, while there are benefits to immigration, there are also downsides”. It is generally accepted that Labour has lost working-class votes to Ukip for previously playing down the effects of a mass influx of Eastern European workers.
Until recently, many people feared being painted as racists and nationalists if they talked of curbs on immigration. No longer. With 40 days to go to polling day, Sky News found that the EU’s concept of free movement and its consequent impact on immigration numbers was the single biggest issue for the 29 per cent of the country who remained undecided over which way to vote. The Office for National Statistics recently found that the number of arrivals from the EU was 2.4 million between 2011 and 2015, 1.5 million more than previously estimated.
“Immigration is the biggest issue [on the doorstep] by a country mile,” says Peter Bone, the Conservative MP for Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, who co-founded Grassroots Out. “It’s numbers. I mean, they like the Polish neighbours in our area, but they just want to control the numbers. And the other thing is I’ve got a big Hindu population [in Wellingborough] and they say, ‘why does my family have to go through all of these hoops when I’ve been here 25 years and somebody from no connection can walk straight in from Romania?’ Well, that’s true. We don’t want no immigration, we want a fair immigration system.”
The number of Bulgarians and Romanians working in the UK topped 200,000 for the first time last year. Romanians and Bulgarians had been able to come to the UK without visas since their countries joined the EU in 2007, but there had been temporary work restrictions that ended in 2014. In 2004, then-prime minister Tony Blair had his critics for relaxing borders to EU states, notably Poland; by the end of his premiership in 2007 there were nearly five million foreign-born people in the UK.
Sir David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West, says: “We don’t have any housing… People turn around to me and say, ‘look, David, we don’t have much green space, where’s everyone going to live?’ To me, unless you leave the European Union – it’s ridiculous – you can’t do anything about controlling the number of people coming into this country.” The National Housing Federation said that 974,000 new homes were needed in England between 2011 and 2014, yet, according to a BBC investigation, only 457,490 were built. This growing gap came as net migration reached a record 336,000 a year ago.
Herbert Crossman is a 68-year-old from Harrow who hit the headlines in 2008 for hanging himself upside down from a crane for two hours in Trafalgar Square in protest at rising utility bills. He has travelled to Chalkwell in a white van emblazoned with a poster revealing the supposed evils of the EU and, for his latest stunt, his hands are shackled in chains. He has a pair of metal-cutters that would, he says, set him free like a leave vote for the nation. Crossman has designed two billboards, one of which mocks up hardleft Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as “The MARX Brothers: open borders to ALL”.
He says immigration is “not so much an issue”, but does stress the electorate’s fears over what is surely a related topic in an age of growing extremism and Islamophobia: security. “I think people are more concerned about how the world is coming to be very unstable and what we’re going to do about it. We can’t control terrorist movements, what can we do?”
Michael snaffles a gaudy, green T-shirt but keeps on his black top, on which is printed: ‘My wife says I never listen to her (or something like that)’. He has been won over largely by the Brexit campaign’s economic argument that the UK hands the bloc £350 million a week, which could be better spent on the creaking NHS. But Michael adds: “There are loads of things: what it’s costing us, the sort of open door policy for virtually anybody in Europe to come in and claim everything that we’ve worked for.”
Phil, a 36-year-old well-being manager at a nearby school is not one of the converted, yet. He heard the MPs talking through their megaphone from the balcony of his nearby house and decided to pop down to hear their arguments.
Undecided on how to vote, Phil is nevertheless dismayed that many Brexiteers have focused so heavily on “playing with people’s fears”. Phil’s mother-in-law, for example, is angered by the number of mosques in the area, while his 69-year-old father will vote to leave because of his anger over immigration.
“The NHS is in trouble regardless of immigration,” he says. “Immigration might not help - I don’t think we should let everyone through - but there is an element of fear-mongering.”
As Michael speaks, Ukip’s O’Flynn, who typically stresses the economic arguments for Brexit, mentions the prospect of a “tidal wave” of immigrants if the UK retains EU membership in his speech to the faithful. “William Shakespeare called us the precious stone set in a silver sea,” says O’Flynn. “We are Great Britain.”