UKIP's rise panics the others

THERE is something akin to blind panic among the main political parties as a resurgent UKIP strikes a chord with the great Eurosceptic British public at the start of campaigning for the European Parliamentary elections.

THERE is something akin to blind panic among the main political parties as a resurgent UKIP strikes a chord with the great Eurosceptic British public at the start of campaigning for the European Parliamentary elections.

Although the Conservatives have most to lose both nationally and regionally from UKIP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats also recognise the threat.

An opinion poll undertaken by on-line polling organisation YouGov for the Daily Telegraph revealed support for the Conservatives and Labour in June 10's election is tied on 27%, the Lib Dems on 16%, UKIP 10%, Greens 3%, Respect (George Galloway) 1% and the British National Party 1%.

However, voting intentions in the Anglia TV area - the nearest equivalent to the East of England European constituency - showed Conservatives on 30%, Labour 21%, Liberal Democrat 14%, UKIP 12% Greens 4%, Respect (George Galloway) 1%, the BNP 0%, and others 1%.

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If this turns out to be right, the Tories will get three MEPs elected next month, Labour two, and the Lib Dems and UKIP one each.

However, there is an important caveat to this - Martin Bell, the Independent candidate for the East of England, was not on the list of the options compiled by YouGov.

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The Lib Dems yesterday took the unusual step of rubbishing the YouGov poll in The Daily Telegraph, and sent an e-mail to all and sundry claiming UKIP actually commissioned it - a disingenuous claim because the newspaper categorically stated on its front page that the survey was "for The Telegraph."

When the detailed polling figures are revealed, it's little wonder the Lib Dems are so worried. UKIP are ahead of Charles Kennedy's party among those who are "very likely" to vote.

According to this measure, which is more reliable when turnout is low, the Tories are on 31% nationally, Labour 23%, UKIP 18% and Lib Dems 15%.

A detailed breakdown of the YouGov polls has revealed that in the Anglia Television region, 58% of those questioned oppose the draft European Constitution with only 27% in favour.

Asked how they would vote if there was a referendum to quit the EU, 55% in the Anglia catchment area said they would `yes' only 29% wanted to stay in. On the single currency, 45% don't want anything to do with it, 27% not in the foreseeable future, 12% when the conditions are right, and 8% now.

It is this hostility to all things European that Tony Blair has signally failed to address in his seven years as Prime Minister. His refusal to engage in a dialogue with the British public on the advantages of British membership has allowed resentment to fester against the EU

The Conservatives' position is totally unsustainable. Michael Howard seems happy for the EU to develop an inner and outer membership core, and if Britain is the only one of the 25 nations not in the fast lane, then that's all right with him.

In the eyes of millions of voters, "Europe" is summed up by a Constitution portrayed as designed to consume the national state into servitude by the Brussels bureaucracy; centuries of independence and law-making will evaporate. With Mr Blair failing to proclaim loudly the other side of equation, that picture has gained the currency of truth.

In addition, the European Parliament is seen as a discredited institution whose members are all too willing to ride on a gravy train of unaccountable expense claims.

This is fertile ground for the UK Independence Party to make hay. Even three months ago I doubted if Jeffrey Titford would be re-elected in the East of England constituency - today you'll find few takers to bet against him retaining his seat.

The result will be totally dependent on turn-out. It ought to be higher than the 24% of the 1999 European elections because half the region is also voting in district council elections on the same day.

Voters may very well choose one party in the local elections and another for Europe. And if Labour voters decide to stay at home, Tories switch to UKIP in large numbers, and Martin Bell's "honesty in politics" campaign fails to take-off, the East of England may witness a major surprise on June 10.

DISILLUSIONED Labour voters among ethnic minorities are switching to the Liberal Democrats in record numbers, Charles Kennedy claimed yesterday today. He said the number of British Muslims intending to vote Lib Dem had more than tripled since the 2001 general election.

With thousands of Muslim voters in Luton, that's more bad news for Labour in the East of England.

COLCHESTER Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell was rebuffed in the Commons when he asked for extra Government grants to allow free bus travel for pensioners and people with disabilities.

Instead, he was treated to a catalogue of the Government's achievements over concessionary travel by junior transport minister Tony McNulty. "The current statutory minimum requirement introduced in 2001 ensures half fares for pensioners and disabled people on local bus journeys made after 9.30am.

"From April 2003, we extended concessionary travel schemes to men aged 60-64, bringing them in line with women of the same age. We provided funding to local authorities to cover the additional costs of implementing these initiatives." He said councils could make more generous provision, including free travel on buses and trains, depending on local financial priorities.

From May last year, half-fares became available "on many" scheduled long-distance coach services for the over 60s and for the disabled.

PEOPLE in Essex have the third longest waiting time for an appointment in a genito-urinary clinic. Simon Burns (Conservative, Chelmsford West) was told in a written answer that it took 2.25 weeks to get an appointment - in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire it is two weeks.

THE number of midwives employed by the NHS is 23,941 compared with 12,300 in 1974. Figures given to Alan Hurst (Labour, Braintree) show that the figure peaked in 1993 when there were 24,020 on the register.

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