In the recent past, Basildon, Essex, has proved a barometer: since 1983 the constituency has voted for the winning party in general elections. This week’s by-election in nearby Clacton may prove a taster for the main event next year. In 2010 Labour trailed the Tories by 12,000 votes. Now Douglas Carswell may win Ukip’s first elected seat. Essex itself had been a target for ridicule in the lead-up to Thursday, and long before, aided by the cartoon characters — the fake tears and tans — of the risible The Only Way Is Essex. Previously, “Essex Man” was coined by enemies of Thatcherism to deride an aspirational working-class that dared to jettison council homes and city living for mortgages in the suburbs.
If Ukip prospers this Thursday, the caricature will morph into another form. Clacton will become shorthand for xenophobia, racism — is there another word in the English language so worn out? — by those who take to the streets claiming to highlight the plight of the huddled masses. Issues reputedly on the lips of locals include immigration and the EU referendum, alongside domestic concerns such as overcrowded surgeries in a coastal constituency with many retirees.
Even before votes have been cast, the by-election has kick-started a contempt for the residents of Clacton. Writing in The Times recently, Matthew Parris suggested the Tories shouldn’t bother with this tribe of tattooed benefit scroungers. Last week, in a political gesture as simplistic and infantile as his art, Banksy made a wall in Clacton his canvas: five grey pigeons carrying placards bearing the slogans “Go back to Africa” and “Migrants not welcome”, as a distant bird with rainbow plumage looks on. Subtle.
The sin of the people of Clacton, it seems, is they are not part of the mythical, multicultural carnival that is the nation’s capital, nor the sepia-tinted generic working class of The North. And yet all human life is there. This coastal peninsula within the Clacton constituency includes a cross-class demographic that’s representative of the wider population and its voting habits.
The deprived and isolated landscape of Jaywick Sands, where East Enders holidayed and eventually settled. The traditional middle class on the avenues of Frinton, where a strident residents’ association once kept pubs off the high street and jetskis off the beach, where sundown still delivers cocktail hour and whist drives. The territory houses both the original Essex Man and those native Londoners exiled from a capital they no longer recognise.
This coastal stretch lacks a Turner gallery that has given Margate a minor boost. It’s unlikely to be colonised by the creative and media classes in search of a coastal bolt hole as a second home, as happened in Whitstable. It may be unfashionable but for the moment, Clacton is in the spotlight and relevant.
Whatever the outcome this Thursday, it’s unlikely Labour will remain unscathed. A recent Fabian study, Revolt on the Left, highlights the impact a surge in Ukip support would have on Labour’s prospects in 59 seats at the general election. It identifies some groups that may consider switching allegiances: “struggling families; blue-collar strivers; ageing council estate households; deprived and disaffected voters”.