Clacton by-election: Defector Douglas Carswell garners some love - but embarrassing questions still persist

UKIP candidate learning it may be as hard to escape assumptions about his new party as his old one

“Are you the racist?” shouts out 14-year-old Ryan, loudly enough that pretty much all of the shoppers in the small outdoor mall can hear him.

For a moment Douglas Carswell looks slightly panicked. To engage or to ignore? With journalists in tow, neither option is ideal.

He chooses to walk over and talk to Ryan and the gaggle of other children in their school uniforms. “No, I’m not a racist,” he tells Ryan a little sharply. “But are you the one that doesn’t want the Muslims?” chimes in Ryan’s friend. No, insists Mr Carswell. He likes Muslims. “But don’t they behead people?” she asks him. “Well, I certainly hope that’s not what they’re teaching you at school,” he replies, a little testily.

A few minutes later Carswell is on safer territory inside the Frinton Community Association, which is holding its Wednesday Dance Club.

But although the demographics are different, the issue is basically the same. A group of women, sitting out the quick-step, say they like Carswell; think he has been a good MP, but will not vote for him today. “He should have stayed where he was,” says one. “I like Douglas but I can’t vote for that party. It’s not just Europe; it’s the rest of it.”

Despite this, it is almost certain that Carswell will win this by-election, which he himself called after his defection to Ukip in August.

But what is interesting is that his motives for leaving the Conservatives are not necessarily the reasons why people will or will not vote for him today.

For Carswell, his defection was not really about immigration, only partly about Europe and is less about swapping one political party for another and more about a philosophical view about what an MP should be and the relationship they should have with their constituents.

He uses the analogy of the internet taxi firm Uber, which is now threatening London’s black cab monopoly. “The reason why I am part of Ukip is because I see Ukip as part of Uber Politics,” he says.

“It takes on vested interests and make sure the customer gets a better deal. We need that in politics. We need an Uber party that takes on vested interests and gives the punter a better deal. Like Uber, Ukip is disruptive. Like Uber, the vested interests are trying to criticise Ukip for being things that it isn’t.”

Video: Carswell discusses his bid after defecting in August

But to the voters of Clacton it is all a bit more binary.

Driving his weather-protected mobility scooter along the seafront of Jaywick, one of poorest areas of Clacton and indeed the country, Paul Lambourne has no doubt why he will be voting for Carswell.

The 62-year-old former refuse collector is fed up with what he sees as unfettered immigration. “In London every shop is run by immigrants,” he says. “Even down here it’s bad. There are millions of them and loads of them shouldn’t be in this country. What have the Tories, Labour or Lib Dems ever done about it? I’m voting Ukip this time.”

At a local lunch club, Wendy Gower is of a similar view about immigration. Her 40-year-old son has not had a job for several years, since being laid off by a factory that “got rid of the locals and kept the immigrants”.

The other key issues in this campaign are local ones – a decision by Tendring Council to switch off street lighting between midnight and 5am, a chronic shortage of GPs to look after a predominantly elderly population and high local unemployment. On both issues Carswell is perceived to have a strong campaigning record, despite the fact that both the district and county council are Tory-run and he himself has been the town’s MP for 10 years.

So how can he really claim to be the insurgent new broom? “I managed to get the country council to see the light on street lights on 12 occasions,” he says.

“In all the other causes I took up I was ignored by a remote, unaccountable Tory fiefdom. I had to tread quite carefully before. I had to walk on eggshells. I don’t have to do that any more. I don’t have one hand tied behind my back.

pg-22-carswell-2-getty.jpg“If I am re-elected on Friday the gloves are off. I can be on their case and I don’t have to worry about carping from self-serving councillors who sit in safe fiefdoms in South Essex and think it’s their duty to explain to the voters what the officials want to do.”

But it is hard to see how he will have more effect outside the tent than he will within.

He is also slightly unconvincing when asked whether he is worried about being wrongly perceived as anti-immigrant and possibly slightly racist because of his decision to join Ukip.

“I went to a multi-racial school in central Africa. A third of the pupils were of African heritage, a third European and a third were Asian,” he says. “Those values are incredibly important to me. I would never join an organisation that didn’t share those values. We have all got to get along.”

But what about the boy who asked if he was racist – does it worry him that he is now perceived in a way that he would never have been seen if he had still be a Tory?

“He would have said whatever it was that was likely to get a reaction,” he argues.

“Thankfully 14-year-olds have an anarchic streak that they tend to grow out of.”

Maybe. But it is hard not to conclude that Carswell himself is a bit of an anarchist, whose reason for leaving the Tories and joining Ukip was more about his inability to fit into the restricted and regimented world of traditional party politics and less about believing in Ukip’s policy platform. But that’s not how the voters of Clacton perceive it. And that’s not why Ukip has signed him up. He and it may find that this new political alliance is as uncomfortable as the old one.