The Unhappy Birthday Present
Clacton by-election candidates from the Liberal Democrats, UK Independence Party, Labour, Conservatives and the Green Party (picture courtesy of BBC News website)
It’s been a blustery and sunny day in Clacton-on-Sea.
The small town, on the east coast of the UK, peers out from its promenade across a dirty grey sea towards dozens of wind turbines just off the coast, lined up as if ready to invade. And then it’s a straight, 150-mile (250-km) line southeast across the English Channel and the fields of Flanders – to Brussels.
This Thursday (9 October) a small and relatively deprived district of coastal Essex, with 69,000 people eligible to vote, is holding a parliamentary by-election. Advance copies of the local paper – the Gazette – are already predicting an historic day, one on which “British politics [will be changed] forever”.
The Eurosceptic UK Independence Party has been climbing the opinion polls for months. In May, in the European elections, they became the UK’s largest party in the European Parliament. Until now they have failed to break into Westminster, the seat of the UK’s national parliament. But in August a popular Conservative MP, Douglas Carswell (he won his last election with a majority of more than 12,000) defected to UKIP. Although not obliged to do so, he decided to call a by-election and fight to retain his constituency seat; but this time for UKIP. The constituency is Clacton in the north coastal region of the eastern English county of Essex. The constituency has the highest proportion of older people in East Anglia (1 in 3 people here is a pensioner); and some alarmingly high levels of poverty (1 in 7 people lives in a deprived area, and 1 in 5 children lives in poverty). And part of the constituency – Jaywick – has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Britain, at 50 percent.
In 2001 Mr Carswell tried to make his mark on British politics by standing against the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. On that occasion it wasn’t to be. But if on Friday (10 October) he is declared the winner in Clacton – which is looking highly likely – he will become the first UKIP member of the United Kingdom’s parliament.
His party will then claim to have crossed the Rubicon.
The party campaigners in town today – brought in from across the country to knock on doors and deliver leaflets – believe they are well on their way to their ultimate goal: a British exit (Brexit) from the European Union. There is much nostalgic talk of ‘how better things used to be in the past’ and of how UKIP will eventually oust the ‘elitist Westminster clique’.
Douglas Carswell’s picture and party posters are highly visible. The party has invested considerable funds in large adverts in the local press – often far more prominent than the adverts of the competing parties.
Local people tell me their main concerns are about the future of the National Health Service; about a lack of affordable homes; and about unemployment and a growing culture of benefit payments. When I ask about the EU, the answer is often that it’s an issue of secondary importance. But the ‘controlling-our-borders’ message features prominently on Mr Carswell’s posters and in his election pamphlets.
There are eight candidates standing in this by-election, including an actor, an award-winning sex worker (don’t ask!), and the usual colourful contender from the Monster Raving Loony Party.
But the only real question on everyone’s lips is by how much the UKIP candidate will win. Standing as a Conservative in 2010, Mr Carswell took 53% of the vote. There are those who believe he can do as well if not better in this week’s by-election.
The figures themselves seem like a sidebar to this story. With party workers all but celebrating their big break-through, the bigger questions now start to emerge:
- will this be the first of many victories for UKIP that will now follow in quick succession?
- what will this result mean for the UK’s general election next year and for the UK’s so-called main-stream parties?
- and crucially, how will this result inform the campaigns and impact on the outcome of the in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU that now seems an inevitability for 2017?
As Prime Minister Cameron struggles to convince his party – and perhaps even himself – that he can win reforms of the EU that will keep Britain in the European club, UKIP’s likely first member of the House of Commons seems almost a cruel present to hand him today – on this his 48th birthday.