Of all of England’s counties, none is so regularly pilloried and parodied as poor old Essex. According to stereotype, we wear white stilettos, dance around our handbags and divide our time between waxing our Range Rovers, and waxing between our legs – adding an eye-watering array of diamante designs to create the perfect ‘vajazzle’.
Our local heroes are former Big Brother stars Chantelle Houghton and the late Jade Goody; Jodie Marsh and Daniella Westbrook, and, of course, the cast of The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE) – who devote their time on camera to endless arguments about who’s sleeping with who, which £2,000 Rolex to buy next and which parts of their bodies to pump with silicon.
Essex even has its very own language – we’ll be “well jel” if you look more “reem” than we do on a night out at clubs Funky Mojoe in South Woodford, or Sugar Hut in Brentwood. And don’t even think about “mugging us off”, or we’ll “sort you right out”.
This kind of typecasting is hardly representative of the majority of its residents, or the place itself. Essex is in fact one of the oldest - and arguably most historic - counties in England, and boasts not just spray tans and beauty parlours but green space, acres of forest and extensive agriculture.
But now we’re courting a very different kind of stereotype, and it’s far less amusing than Joey Essex. Ukip is celebrating its biggest gains in the local elections in Essex, with 11 new seats in Basildon, five in Castle Point and five in Southend-on Sea.
Councils have shifted from Tory control to no overall control, and the results indicate the possibility that the party - with its anti-EU, anti-immigration stance - may get a seat at the next general election. Supporters are branding it a victory brought about by the 'Essex man', a phenomenon Margaret Thatcher described as someone who may once have lived in London and voted Labour, but had moved out and defected to the Tories.
Ukip may represent what many regard as the “acceptable face” of nationalism, but it’s impossible to forget its darker side – the links to far-right groups in Europe, the mantra once used by the BNP – ‘Love Britain, Vote Ukip’.
Nigel Farage has succeeded with voters because he’s seen as “normal” - the kind of guy you could have a laugh with at the pub. But there are less amenable members of the party. Abhijit Pandya, Ukip’s former Leicester South candidate has spoken about “forced repatriation”; Ukip’s Newark by-election candidate, Roger Helmer has discussed “turning” homosexuals. Despite noted attempts to get rid of what Farage refers to as “bad apples” – including the resignation of Enfield council candidate William Henwood, who tweeted about Lenny Henny emigrating to a “black country” – they just keep coming.
Poster campaigns which appear designed to whip up fear and prejudice, with iron fists warning of an alleged 26 million immigrants “coming for British jobs”; Farage momentarily losing his cool and sputtering prejudice against Romanians, then admitting he feels “awkward” when he hears people talking in foreign languages ; Ukip's own youth leader Sanya-Jeet Thandi warning that the party has descended into “a terrifying form of racist populism”, before handing in her resignation. The problem is that all this scaremongering, sadly, works. And nowhere more so than in somewhere like Essex, the heartland of the working class man-made-good, where people feel that they have so much to lose.
Ukip has waged a campaign seemingly designed to promote fear and selfishness, and in Essex, to some degree, they’ve won. The county now threatens to become synonymous with insular thinking and the closed-minded suspicion of outsiders, a message that’s coming from many sides. The English Democrats, who include in their manifesto pledges to withdraw from the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees (3.15.8), who describe political correctness as an "evil" (3.19.2), and who are anti multiculturalism and want to bring an end to all immigration, are headquartered in Ongar in Essex; and the BNP once had seats in Grays, Epping Forest and nearby Barking.
If we keep going as we are, our historic home county will get a reputation for something far more insidious than boob jobs and Botox. Us 'Essex lads' and 'Essex girls' are in danger of becoming famous for intolerance - and that's something none of us can be proud of.