GRAYS, UK - Feeling "surrounded" by ethnic minorities, retired factory worker Peter Harvey voted for Britain's anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) in last month's European and local polls and plans to do so again in next year's national election.

"I'm the only white British person in my area," the 66-year-old said, explaining his voting preference in Grays, a town in southeast England, where UKIP did particularly well amid spectacular gains across the country.

Ostensibly fuelled by antipathy to immigration and Europe, UKIP's rise has nonetheless helped bring the issue of race to the fore ahead of the May 2015 general election. At the same time, there is a growing realisation of the importance of the ethnic minority vote, as studies show the numbers of black and Asian Britons growing at a faster rate than whites.

Adding to anxiety among many British voters is the influx of immigrants from eastern Europe under European Union rules allowing the free movement of workers, reinforcing UKIP's anti-EU, anti-immigrant message.

Appealing to UKIP voters on immigration while harnessing the ethnic minority vote will be tricky for Britain's mainstream parties, especially in polarised Thurrock, a bellwether constituency that has tended to give winning parties only a slim majority. "I want a party that sees everyone as equal and wants everyone to live together in harmony," said 17-year-old Divine Carter, walking across the street from Harvey.

"I'm hearing the opposite from political parties, especially UKIP," said the college student, who described her ethnicity as Afro-Caribbean. The number of people from ethnic minority backgrounds settling in Thurrock has risen rapidly in the last decade according to census data, and the diversity is reflected among shoppers in the borough's main town Grays.

The town centre features pawn shops, pound shops, betting shops and charity stores, a reflection of the borough's above average unemployment rate, which has helped fuel resentment of more recent arrivals.

"We've had enough. As a British person and an English person, I've had enough of being a second-class citizen... Housing, schools, doctors -- people born here can't even get a place to live," said Anne Blumore, 65.

Blumore said she had always voted for the main opposition Labour party before switching to UKIP, a worrying trend for the left-leaning party which has only a slim lead in opinion polls ahead of the ruling Conservative Party.

The centre-right Conservatives have arguably the toughest challenge in appealing to ethnic minority voters, who have in the past tended to vote Labour.

Only 16 percent of ethnic minority voters picked the Conservatives in the last general election in 2010, compared to more than 66 percent for Labour. Analysts estimate that if the Conservatives had managed to gain just a third of the ethnic minority vote, the party would have won outright in 2010, and not have to rule in coalition.

Last month, Policy Exchange, seen as the most influential think tank on Conservative policy, set up a new Black and Ethnic Minority Research Unit and published a report saying Britain's ethnic minority communities were on course to go from eight million people, or 14 percent of the population, to almost a third by 2050.

"It was once thought of as nice to have -- it's good for inclusion if you appeal to ethnic minorities. Now some Conservatives are saying it's an existential issue," said Sunder Katwala, director of another think tank, British Future.

Complicating matters for parties wooing the ethnic minority vote is anecdotal evidence that even some minorities support UKIP, or at least stemming immigration, given that they often compete with the newest arrivals for jobs and resources.

A direct appeal to minorities also risks being seen as patronising, and experts warn of treating them as a voting bloc with identical views.

"Funnily enough, ethnic minority voters have reacted quite well to UKIP on the doorstep, depending how long they've been here. If it's second or third generation, very positive actually," said Thurrock UKIP councillor Robert Ray, who in the 1970s campaigned for the far-right whites-only National Front.

British attitudes towards race are also hardening, raising the question of how much parties can do in attracting minorities without alienating the majority of voters.

A British Social Attitudes survey published on Tuesday grabbed headlines for showing the number of Britons who admit to being racially prejudiced has risen since 2000.

Politicians who once labelled UKIP closet racists are now rowing back, and are trying to appropriate the party's tough talk on immigration and Europe. "Wait till the general election. You'll see who's racist then," predicted Harvey.