Signalling a sea change? Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage in Clacton. Photo: Getty
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How Clacton could be a crucial watershed in the history of Ukip

What impact will the Clacton by-election and Douglas Carswell's defection have on the UK Independence Party?

By defecting to the UK Independence Party, Douglas Carswell has almost certainly handed Ukip its first elected member of parliament. Since his announcement, two opinion polls present an incredibly bleak picture for the Conservative party, which could once count on Clacton as one of its safest seats. Survation puts Ukip on a remarkable 64 per cent, an astonishing 44 points ahead of the Tories and prompting some newspapers to talk of an impending "bloodbath". Polling by Lord Ashcroft predicts a similarly depressing result for the Tories, putting Ukip on 56 per cent and 32 points ahead. Ukip was supposed to wither and die over the summer. Instead, and in one stroke, Nigel Farage has pushed his party back into the forefront of British politics.

Ukip was confident about Clacton long before these polls. Carswell's defection had been a long time coming, was known to less than half-a-dozen activists and so Farage had complete control over the story. How the news broke was almost as interesting as the news itself, and will be covered in detail in my next book.

Interestingly, Carswell had also been present at a meeting in parliament where we shared our research with the Conservative party back in April, and when we noted how Clacton had more "Ukip-friendly" voters than any other seat in the country (we will present research to anyone who asks). This helps explain the reaction that Carswell has since received in Clacton. "I'm telling you", said Farage during an interview with the author, "the combination of Ukip and Carswell is like nothing we have ever seen". Similar sentiments were voiced by an organiser on the ground, who reflected after his first day of campaigning: "It was like a religious experience. People running across the street to shake Carswell's hand and praising his decision. I've campaigned for years and never seen anything like it".

But if all of this is true and Carswell does deliver a convincing victory, then what will be the impact of all this on Ukip? As part of a new book on the 2015 general election, I have been following Ukip closely on the campaign trail, spending much of last week with the party as these events unfolded. Based on these observations it strikes me that the impact of Clacton will be three-fold.

A first point centres on credibility. The biggest challenge facing Ukip is no longer organisational. Over the summer, Farage has delegated responsibility, established a "front bench" and covered his flank by improving candidate screening. His primary challenge now is tackling the "wasted vote syndrome"; a belief among voters that smaller parties like Ukip are not credible under first-past-the-post. It is a crushing disease, having ended dozens of political insurgencies before they even got going. A convincing win in Clacton will help Farage to begin to remedy this syndrome. This side of Christmas we may be hearing lots about how Clacton proves that "if you vote for Ukip, you get Ukip".

But this impact might also be more specific. It is a lucky coincidence for Ukip that the one MP who decided to defect is also based in its emerging heartland: the east coast of England. This means that success in Clacton will arrive in the same orbit of seats that offers Ukip its strongest prospects. It will instantly energise campaigns in Essex, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, where branches are probably already sending activists into Clacton to watch and learn from Carswell's operation. "Ukip winning here", may be planted on leaflets across this region. For the main parties the risk is obvious: a domino effect along the eastern half of England.

A second point concerns the all-important business of targeting. Electorally, Ukip's strength is rooted in its potential to rally a relatively broad church of voters: disillusioned Conservatives in the south, blue-collar voters further north, non-voters who abandoned politics after 1997, and the increasingly important protest wing of the Liberal Democrats. In this respect, some argue that Carswell is a mixed blessing for Ukip. While he might bring elected representation he could also upset a delicate balance in the small party between those disgruntled Tories in the southern shires who look a lot like Carswell, and a "purple collar" faction who are pushing Ukip to target left-behind voters in Labour's northern heartlands. This is a complete misreading of Ukip.

This view not only exaggerates the level of factionalism inside Ukip but misunderstands Carswell. Once upon a time, Ukip may well have balanced precariously on different factions, but since 2010 there has emerged a clear consensus in the party over the need to present a broader line of attack. Carswell himself is emblematic of this "broad church" approach, having had to pitch to different groups in Clacton and recognising the need to make an offer to voters who do not get excited about the EU but do feel intensely angry about an Oxbridge-educated elite that seems not to care about them feeling left behind.

And there is some evidence to suggest that Carswell will help Ukip with this coalition. In the Lord Ashcroft poll from Clacton, Ukip has a healthier gender split, is performing better than average across all age groups and is winning over more 2010 Labour and Liberal Democrat voters. Ukip still faces serious challenges, but Carswell's wider appeal will not have gone unnoticed. Will his arrival encourage a broadening of Ukip's anti-establishment narrative? Will his campaign provide a template for how Ukip attempts to rally this wider coalition in 2015, and will the lessons of the Clacton campaign be transplanted into other key targets?

The final point is leadership. Some journalists portray Carswell as a possible rival to Farage, whose four-year term as Ukip's leader is up for renewal in November. But this is also a misreading. Carswell has little incentive to play intra-party politics. He is not personally ambitious in the same way that other politicians are, and did not need to defect in order to save his seat. From hereon he will be content to concentrate on Clacton, and enjoy an elevated stage on which he can share his ideas about political reform and the state of modern-day conservatism. This is why his real significance as a leadership figure for Ukip lies outside of the party. As a respected voice in centre-right circles Carswell could become a crucial weapon in Ukip's arsenal, touring Conservative seats and urging activist foot soldiers from his old party to follow suit by deserting Cameron. Political pundits obsess about defections at the level of MPs, often ignoring the crucial question of whether Ukip actually wants that particular MP. But arguably it is at the activist level where mass defections would seriously damage the Conservative party while bringing further campaigning experience to Ukip.

Ultimately, only time will tell whether these three consequences come to pass. But make no mistake; Clacton may come to be seen as a crucial watershed in the history of the UK Independence Party.

Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Nottingham and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He is co-author, with Robert Ford, of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in BritainHe tweets @GoodwinMJ

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So many teenage girls don’t want to be treated as girls any more. And who can blame them?

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations.

On the bus back from the cinema, a conversation drifted over from the back row. A mother questioning, curious, her speech accented; her teenage daughter, with perfect RP, fielding her inquiries with the exasperated patience that flourishes between the ages of 13 and 21.

“No, Mum, you’re a cis woman because you’re the gender you were born as.”

“OK. And what about Lily?”

Lily – or, perhaps, Daisy or Rose – was a school friend who was now using the pronoun “they”. The heavy overtone of the daughter’s forbearance was that these were matters her mother could not understand.

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations. I know four journalists – London-based, middle class – whose children have announced that they do not consider themselves to be girls. It seems too many to be a coincidence. And if pained teenagers are now explaining gender fluidity to their mums on the 108 from Millennium Leisure Park West, you know the idea has truly gone mainstream.

We should welcome young people challenging gender, an arbitrary system that has acquired the status of immutable human nature. Name almost anything now associated with women – high heels, long hair, the colour pink – and you can find a time or place when it was considered masculine. And just as feminists once fought for “Ms” alongside “Miss” and “Mrs”, people should be allowed to take gender out of their honorific altogether and go by “Mx”. Getting used to “they” as a singular pronoun is harder but not impossible. Language evolves.

However, there is more to the current Gender Revolution than upending our assumptions about the “correct” names or pronouns or hobbies or appearance for men and women. In the past few years, the word “transsexual” has dropped out of favour – it is considered impolite to reference sex – in favour of “transgender”. But this obscures the idea that to cross definitively from one gender to another requires surgery and a lifetime of synthetic hormones. For trans men, it’s top surgery – breast removal – and, more rarely, a phalloplasty to make a penis, plus testosterone (“T”), which lowers the voice, hardens fat to muscle and unleashes any latent male-pattern baldness. For trans women, oestrogen (HRT, used off-label) can be supplemented with breast implants and a procedure to skin the penis and invert it, creating a neovagina and clitoris.

These surgeries are non-trivial – I have a friend undergoing the latter this summer and she will be housebound for two weeks afterwards, with a 12-week recovery period. Infection is always a risk. For her, it’s a life-saving intervention: she says she simply would not want to live in a male body.

But 80 per cent of gender-nonconforming children do not grow up to be transsexual; many emerge as happy gay men or lesbians content to live in their birth sex. A strange taboo has sprung up about mentioning this, as if the way that some people do not turn out to be trans invalidates the experiences of those who do. It should not.

But separating dissatisfaction with the social constraints of gender from body dysmorphia is vital. Because we have smudged together the categories of “transsexual” and “transgender”, is every youngster who questions their gender – and, frankly, every youngster should, because gender is restrictive bollocks – getting the message that they must bind their breasts or tuck their penis? I wince when I read oh-so-liberal parents explaining that they knew their toddler son was a girl when he wore pink and played with Barbies. Is there really anything so wrong with being a boy who wants to dress up as Elsa from Frozen? Or a girl who would rather be outside getting muddy than wear skirts and be “ladylike”? Toys and children’s clothes are becoming more gendered: when I was young, we played with Lego – not “Lego” and “Lego for Girls”. As we have shrunk the boxes, is it any wonder that more and more children want to escape from them?

In the year to March 2015, the Tavistock in London – the only specialist gender clinic in the country for under-16s – saw 697 children. This year, it saw 1,419. The largest surge has been among girls aged 14 and over and it is this group I feel most personal affinity for, because, if I were growing up today, I would be among them. A few years ago, I found a textbook from my junior school, with three sentences that floored me: “My name is Helen. I am nine years old. I am skinny.” And the truth was, I was skinny. I had a bowl haircut and wore culottes. Then puberty hit and I piled on a few stone in a year. Taut pink skin turned to lumpen fat and mottled flesh. And everyone had an opinion about it. I was trapped inside a body that didn’t feel like mine any more.

Many of my school friends felt the same way. Some tried to escape through vomiting or starving. Others were part of that charmed cohort who became lissom, beautiful, golden; their parents felt a different sort of ­worry and they were treated to sermons about getting into strange men’s cars.

I won my body back by defacing it; at least, that’s how my parents saw it. An earring, then two. And another. Then piercings that no one could see: nursing each one like a wound or a child. Salvation through pain: a metal bar through cartilage that couldn’t be slept on for a month. A tattoo that hurt like hell. Pink hair, ebbing to orange in a shower that looked like Carrie. And finally – finally – a body that felt like me.

I tell my story not to belittle anyone else’s, or to imply that they have chosen the wrong path. If you cannot live in your body, then change it – and the world must help you to do that. But if you feel crushed by society’s expectations, it might be that there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something wrong with the world.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad