Clacton by-election: If a political revolution can begin on this quiet sea-front, nothing is impossible

Andy Mcsmith finds out who voted for Ukip and what lead the to it

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My memories of Clacton in the previous century are not all good, but it was the town that introduced me to the world of work, and I am sorry to see that it has gone to seed since foreign package deals supplanted the old-fashioned seaside family holiday. So it was nice to see the town in good spirits, after securing itself a place in political almanacs as the first town in Britain to elect a Ukip MP.

The Clacton Gazette marked the occasion with a special four-page wraparound supplement, the front of which consisted of a large poster-like colour photograph of the by-election winner, Douglas Carswell, dressed in a blue suit with red tie and plain white shirt and with a slightly embarrassed look on his face. The caption read "The History Maker".

The crowds out on Clacton’s streets reflected the same mood, cheering and chanting as Carswell and Nigel Farage went on walkabout. Some really seemed to believe that it would make a difference to their lives that the new-look Douglas Carswell of Ukip had replaced the worn out Conservative Douglas Carswell, which I found a little bit sad.

I knew Clacton in better times, when families came from all over the UK to enjoy its beach and its facilities. Between school and university, I signed on to work as a busboy at Butlins in Clacton, where I cleared tables, swept floors and performed other undemanding tasks. During the peak summer weeks, Butlins hired young people from wherever they could recruit them. There were local youths, teenagers from the big British cities who thought that a few weeks by the sea would be an adventure, and French, German and Austrian school leavers out to improve their English.


The holiday makers occupied chalets along Jaywick sands, where local trade boomed during the summer season. The chalets are still there, but they are not used by holiday makers any more; they are permanent homes for Jaywick families. A Government report in April 2013 rated Jaywick village the most deprived area of Britain. It is also, I have reason to believe, a temporary Ukip stronghold.

Douglas Carswell said that his biggest public meeting of the campaign was in Jaywick, where 900 people turned out to hear. I came upon four ex-Labour voters from the village, all of whom had cast their vote for Carswell. They all had similar stories about how austerity was undercutting their already impoverished lives. Dawn Crumplin had voted Ukip because her husband is ill but has not been able to claim disability benefit. Reggie Howarth told me: “Let’s give Ukip a chance, because the Conservatives want to lower the benefits even more and nothing was done under Labour.” Kim Crumplin-Watts voted Ukip because the Conservatives “help the rich before they help the poor”.

While holidaymakers were having fun in Jaywick, we were bussed back and forth to a hostel called Ambleside, guarded by a uniformed security, to sleep in bunks. Relations between the nationalities within that packed hostel were not always good. One evening, after Match of the Day, I saw a German named Horst being savagely beaten by four or five young Britons. The next day, there were scarlet and yellow bruises all over his face.

Douglas Carswell (left) and Ukip leader Nigel Farage celebrate their win in Clacton (AFP/Getty Images)

I had not been at Butlins long before word went around the local women who supervised us at work – who may all still be living in Clacton for all I know – that one of the busboys under their charge was due to go to Oxford University when the summer was over. At first they seemed to find this hard to believe, then it became a source of amusement. One morning, one of them gave me an instruction and as I stood up to comply, suddenly exclaimed: “Ooh, he’ll do anything I tell him to!. Andy, drop your trousers." As I was wondering how to react, one of the men standing by kindly came to my rescue by telling her: “You’ll run a bloody mile if he actually does it.”

Butlins Clacton closed in 1983. There is a housing estate where it used to be. The town still has some of the trappings of a seaside resort, including a pier and a slot machines – though to be blunt, you could find more at the sea end of Brighton Pier than in the whole of Clacton.

One notable dissenting voice followed Douglas Carswell through the streets during today’s walkabout. Philippe Palmer, a 51-year-old local man who said he spoke for a group called Stand Up to Ukip, was so agitated that the nervous Ukip would not let him speak to his MP, though when tempers calmed, they promised him he would have his chance later. He was brandishing a report issued last year by the Centre for Social Justice, which said that 54 per cent of 16 to 64-year-olds in one of Clacton’s electoral wards were without jobs and living on benefits, and that only 13 per cent of school leavers in Tendring district, which include Clacton, go to university.

“The young are leaving because there are no jobs,” he exclaimed. “There’ll be a time when there are just old people. We need our young people to stay in Clacton.”

The town still has some of the trappings of a seaside resort even though it is not much to see there now (Getty Images)

High unemployment and high crime rates often go hand in hand. In Tendring district, with a population of less than 140,000, there were 188 recorded knife crimes in the year to March 2014. This explains the shop front near the town centre which has a sign across the top saying Only Cowards Carry. It houses a charity set up by Caroline Shearer after her 17-year-old son, Jay Whiston, was stabbed to death at a party in September 2012. Though she believes that they are making headway against the knife culture, she still does not think that Clacton is necessarily a safe place to be a teenager.

Ukip holds out a deceptively simple solution to the problems of urban blight and unemployment, which are by no means unique to Clacton. Pull out of the EU, stop the flow immigrants, and there will be jobs for the jobless, they say.

Annie Murray, a 77-year-old former Tory voter, believes this so firmly that she travelled from her home in Dornoch, in the Scottish highlands, to spend two weeks helping the Carswell campaign. “I really believe the EU is an excuse to launder money, to get the British people’s money out of the country,” she said. “The borders should be completely closed. They should find out who’s in the country who shouldn’t be in the country, and sort our country out.” 

Clacton is not the whole of Douglas Carswell’s constituency, which includes some very prosperous villages. Parts of Clacton itself are visibly well off. Nonetheless, Carswell’s victory there – like the near-victory that Ukip pulled off in Heywood and Middleton - illustrates that Ukip’s appeal extends beyond the comfortable middle class to people and places that the political system seems to have forgotten.

Douglas Carswell is an assiduous MP. After his lonely return to Parliament, as he sits on the opposition benches across the way from his former colleagues, he will doubtless do his best for the people he represents. But Clacton is in decline. Its population has fallen. Its newly acquired reputation as the first town to go Ukip MP is not going to draw those people back.