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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.