LONDON (Reuters) - UK Independence Party (UKIP) rejected allegations of racism on Wednesday as it prepared to contest European and local elections that an opinion poll said it was on course to win.
The party, stung by the resignation of a prominent member of Asian origin accusing it of “racist populism” and wrongfooted by data showing no proof of a sudden influx of foreign workers it had decried, argued its appeal was elsewhere.
“People are joining us because of the positive message that we want to get back control of our borders,” Tim Aker, the head of the party’s policy unit, told BBC TV. “There’s no discussion about race in that.”
UKIP, which advocates controlled immigration and a British exit from the European Union, has come under mounting pressure from other parties and local media which have criticised outspoken comments by some of its candidates.
Despite that, its ratings before next week’s European Parliament elections have stayed high. Some polls predict it will push Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives into third and the opposition Labour party into second.
A poll by Opinium on Wednesday showed UKIP would come first with 30 percent of the vote, ahead of Labour on 28 percent and the Conservatives on 22 percent.
The European elections are not seen as a dress rehearsal for next year’s national election, in which the voting system will favour the larger more established parties. But a strong UKIP showing could spook Cameron’s Conservatives and push them to amend their policies on Europe and immigration.
On Tuesday, Sanya-Jeet Thandi, a prominent British Asian party member, resigned from UKIP and accused it of descending into a “form of racist populism” and of heading in a “terrifying” direction.”
Her resignation so close to the Europe vote and on an issue which is so central to the party’s identity was embarrassing for UKIP, which noted she had been defending its policies in a TV interview very recently.
Its discomfort was compounded on Wednesday when data from Britain’s Office for National Statistics showed there had not, as UKIP predicted, been a sudden influx of Romanian and Bulgarian workers into Britain after EU restrictions on them were lifted in January.
The data showed that their number had in fact dropped to 140,000 in the first quarter of this year from 144,000 in the last quarter of 2013.
UKIP had repeatedly predicted there would be a large influx of workers from those two countries, which are considerably poorer than Britain, and cited the expected increase as an example of how Britain’s EU membership meant it had no control over intra-EU migration.
Danny Alexander, the government’s deputy finance minister, said the figures gave “the lie to UKIP’s scaremongering.”
“The very modest numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians coming to work in Britain this year is in stark contrast to the inflammatory rhetoric,” he said.
But UKIP noted the same data also showed there had been an increase of 29,000, or 25 percent, in the number of Romanian and Bulgarian workers year-on-year, and said the data didn’t include dependants or nationals from those two countries out of work.
Overall, the data showed there had been an increase of 292,000 foreign workers in the last year, 168,000 of them from the EU, UKIP said.
Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, said the data showed Cameron’s policy of getting net migration down below 100,000 by May next year had been “an abject failure.”
He was speaking as an opinion poll published on Wednesday showed that immigration had risen to the top of voter concerns for the first time in four years and was now ranked alongside the economy as the most important issue facing Britain.
Anna Soubry, junior defence minister from Cameron’s Conservatives, told the BBC her party did not appear to be on course to meet its own targets for cutting net migration, the first such admission by a senior Conservative.
Editing by Tom Heneghan