Fishing for Kippers in Clacton
As Paul Nuttall and the Ukip battle bus roll out of Clacton after a high-profile, ice-cream-fuelled visit, candidate Paul Oakley is left to get his bearings and fight for votes alone.
It's the London-based barrister’s fourth time in the constituency after he was parachuted in to replace a candidate dropped in another Ukip dodgy-comments storm. A lot weighs on Oakley’s shoulders. He’s been selected to defend the only seat Ukip retained in the 2015 election, after Douglas Carswell (the famous defector whose name is officially mud in the party) stood down and backed the Tories. And as Oakley says himself, the voters here are “solid leavers” - with a whopping 70% backing Brexit at the EU referendum.
Clacton should be the battlefront for Ukip at this election, but Oakley dampens expectations, insisting it isn’t a bellwether seat for the party. Amid plummeting poll numbers and after dire local election results (Ukip lost every defending councillor earlier this month and gained just one,) Oakley plays the realist when it comes to his chances. “I think we can pull it off; it’s an uphill struggle,” he says.
In Oakley’s view the campaign consists chiefly of waking Clacton up to the pup they are being sold by the Tories on Brexit. He is convinced Theresa May wants a soft withdrawal from the EU with all the trimmings - keeping the free movement of people, handing over control of fisheries and writing out a cheque for the expected £50bn divorce bill. Oakley wants to ensure the hardest Brexit possible, and he thinks Clacton wants the same. “People are being conned a little bit by Theresa May’s Conservatives,” he says. “But when you explain they are pulling the wool over the British public’s eyes, I think people are going to come back to Ukip." He adds: “She’s only called this election to stuff the House of Commons with pro-EU Tory MPs so she can ignore the Eurosceptic right within her own party.”
Oakley says the local election results will be a boost to his campaign because they were “a bit of a shock” to many in the party, and therefore “lots of hard Ukippers will come back for the general election”. Another ball he sees as being in his court are the Tory manifesto plans on social care, which he says amount to “bashing pensioners” and won’t go down well in the area pumped with over-65s. And he derides the Tories for selecting Giles Watling as their candidate - who backed Remain at the EU referendum - in the overwhelmingly Leave area.
Oakley has big shoes to fill in Clacton if he hopes to replace Carswell - regardless of how much he might mock the four-time election winner. “It was ostensibly a Ukip seat although Douglas Carswell was really always a Tory boy,” he says. “What I’m trying to do is get a real Ukip MP elected here for the first time.” But with their constant barbs at Carswell, many in Ukip appear to willfully ignore the strength of local support he enjoyed.
Out campaigning in a leafy residential street, Oakley is handed a mobile phone by a local party bigwig and asked to justify himself to the angry member on the line about the time he was “rude to Douglas”. He trots out the claim that Carswell blocked Nigel Farage from a knighthood, and recounts the so-called ‘Tate plot’ tale - about the time Carswell apparently hatched a plan to neutralise Ukip in the EU referendum. The voice on the other end squeaks back - clearly unconvinced. Oakley ends the call: “Nice to speak to you anyway - you take care.” A concerned John Rees-Evans (who non-Kippers will remember as the ‘gay donkey raped my horse’ guy from the last leadership election) leans in. “How did she respond to those two very important pieces of information?” he asks, gravely. Oakley says the voter countered his claims with another that Carswell “had been offered a lot of money by Ukip” to lose the seat if he were to stand as an independent. “I’ve never heard anything about that,” he adds, perplexed. Either way, the caller’s mind was not to be changed. She voted Ukip for Douglas Carswell, and without Douglas Carswell she would no longer be voting for Ukip. “Hey ho.”
'UKIP IS A SPENT FORCE'
Hey ho indeed. But the caller is no outlier. Much has been made of Carswell’s ‘personal brand’ on the ground in Clacton, and it appears the lack of that brand could damage the party on 8 June. Forklift truck driver Chris says he will ditch Ukip next month because “Carswell has done a runner”. “He was the only reason they won this seat anyway,” he explains. “Most people didn’t vote for Ukip, they voted for him. He’s left them in the lurch.” Chris is yet to meet Oakley, but doesn’t expect him to get “even half the votes that Carswell did - and I can’t even see that happening”. He adds: “I think they are going to get absolutely trounced.” The 45-year-old voted for Brexit because the UK shouldn’t be “run by a load of bastards sitting round a table in Brussels”. But despite previously backing Ukip he now thinks the Conservatives will do the best job of pulling Britain out of the EU - although he insists he could never vote Tory.
Ukip also faces the charge of having served its purpose since the Brexit vote was delivered - a charge thought to be the chief factor in the party’s dismal local elections performance. Then there’s the question of whether it was a one man band under Nigel Farage. The ex-leader dragged the party to mass electability, from 2.2% of the vote in 2005 to more than 12% in 2015. When he stood down he took with him the boundless energy that propelled them forward. Mark, a 58-year-old Clacton tattoo artist who runs his own parlour, says he won’t be voting Ukip anymore because they are a “spent force”. “They are not right at the moment to vote for,” he says. “I just feel they’ve got no direction now, since Nigel Farage has gone.” His verdict on Paul Nuttall is withering: “Too weak. Not outspoken enough.”
Barbara, however, is a gift for the Kippers. She voted Labour in 2015 but is at her wits end at the lack of help she gets as a registered disabled citizen who suffered three strokes. “It’s about time they started thinking of the disabled people; there’s nothing out there for us, they are just treating us like dirt,” she says. “I’ve always voted Labour. My dad was a Labour politician. I think I’d go Ukip now, if they can give us a better deal.” It probably doesn’t help that she “can’t stand that Jeremy whatever his name is… I can never see him going into No 10”.
JEREMY CORBYN 'IS A C*NT'
Barbara may be good news for Ukip but she’s a headache for Tasha Osben, the Labour candidate for the seat. The Clacton-born student says she’s been hammering the pavements every day to pull ex-Kippers back to the Labour fold, so the last thing she wants is a leak in the opposite direction. “Let’s be honest - Ukip are really out of the game,” she insists. “We had a Ukip MP here and he said himself when he stepped down, ‘job done’. Ukip really are not relevant anymore.”
Osben - who has been a Labour member for 10 years but has never stood for election until now - is convinced she has a chance of winning in the area that flirted with Labour only during the Blair years. It does have its share of Corbyn fans, but Osben thinks wider-ranging Labour support just needs to be tapped into. “If I had five months to win this campaign it would be in the bag,” she declares. “If I could go around and knock on every door in the constituency and have a half hour conversation with every constituent, I would win this election without a shadow of a doubt.”
She admits Jeremy Corbyn comes up as an issue on the doorstep from time to time, but argues the Tories’ “harrowing” manifesto has shaken the elderly population in the area. And despite backing the Corbyn platform to the hilt, Osben trots out the classic line peddled on the doorstep by Labour activists. “We need to stop thinking about this as a presidential election,” she says. “We had one Ukip MP here; it didn't mean we had a Ukip prime minister. If we have one Labour MP here it won’t mean we have a Labour prime minister.”
If only it were that simple. The struggle Osben faces to garner ex-Ukip support is laid bare by some of the loathing for Corbyn on the streets of Clacton. Chris - the forklift driver who could never vote Tory but did back Blair - doesn’t hold back in his assessment of the Labour leader. “He’s a c*nt,” he says. You see, Chris is miffed about the time Corbyn didn’t sing the national anthem during the Battle of Britain remembrance ceremony - although his memory of the event is slightly hazy. "He refused to stand [Corbyn did stand] for the national anthem and it was to do with soldiers and that. And I thought, why are you not standing? And he gave some bullshit reason. And I thought - you bastard." Chris is also sceptical about Corbyn’s chances of handling the Brexit negotiations. “I think if Corbyn was in charge and he was trying to do it they’d roll him over and do him up the arse for a minute, and he’ll say ‘yeah, give me more’,” he explains. “He would get shafted.”
Tattoo artist Mark, meanwhile, fits the concerns about the Labour leader into a nutshell: “I do not like people who do deals with terrorists, which is what he does with the IRA,” he says. “I do not like people who want to try and take the country back to the 1970s, which is what he wants. I do not like people who want to do away with the British armed forces, which is what he wants. And quite honestly he’s a communist and he’s a traitor to his country. That’s how I feel.”
Even Clacton voters loyal to Labour for decades are put off by Corbyn. Sixty two-year-old Margaret, who is furious about the Brexit vote and whose chief concern is health and care standards, says: “I’ve voted Labour all my life. But I’m voting Tory this time because I don’t think Labour has got a strong enough leadership.”
'I VOTED REMAIN - SO WHAT?'
If the Kippers can’t bring themselves to vote Labour at the election and even ex-Labour voters can’t bring themselves to back the party under Corbyn, it’s the Tories who stand to gain. “I get an enormous amount of ex-Ukip people telling me they are moving back to the Conservatives,” Tory candidate and local actor Giles Watling claims. “And I‘ve had several Labour voters telling me they’re giving me their vote because they want to make sure Ukip doesn’t come back.” Sitting in the local Conservative office near Clacton-on-Sea station, and overlooked by a portrait of Theresa May that looks like something out of Stalinist Russia, Watling argues Ukip is pointless because he himself somehow intends to hold the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire on Brexit. “I’m going to make sure Theresa May doesn’t back down… that’s my job,” he insists.
Watling, who has directed some 70 plays, brushes off the Ukip outrage over his Remain vote as no big deal. “It’s the only argument they have got; Everything else falls into place in my favour,” he argues in his deep stage voice. “It was a personal vote, and that’s it. There was no campaigning; I wasn’t that passionate.” He even claims he was a eurosceptic, wanting to reform Brussels from within. He insists the Ukip attacks won’t stick. “A lot of people are saying ‘so what?’ And that’s exactly right – so what?” he says. “We’ve moved on. That vote has happened, and like so many other things Ukip, that’s living in the past.”
Is Ukip living in the past? Oakley’s desire to be “the first real Ukip MP” for Clacton certainly sounds forward-looking, but remains rooted in the internal battles of recent years. His claims that Theresa May wants to retain unfettered immigration are a throwback to the days before she unequivocally ruled it out in her Lancaster House speech. But his mind is firmly trained on the future - specifically at a point two years from now when the Prime Minister comes back from Brussels with the final Brexit deal. And he knows getting the clean break from the EU his party has desperately wanted for decades means piling on the pressure in parliament.
He calls on Ukip supporters to get out and vote on June 8 to prevent May “enjoying overall rule of this nation forever and ever, amen”. And in a plea to the “solid leavers” of Clacton, he adds: “This is a Brexit election, and the most important thing is to get – I’ll be quite unashamed about it – a hard Brexit.”