The village-like towns that make up Thurrock constituency are defined by a sombre industrial skyline. Reaching towards the clouds are the two imposing Tilbury docks, standing out amid a jungle of factory chimneys. But although the ferries still crawl in and the stacks of shipping containers pile high, work here has become increasingly insecure.
The mechanisation of industry and subsequent casualisation of labour have instilled in residents a sense of resentment and uncertainty about the future. John Kent, the leader of Thurrock Council, explained when I visited last year that in the past, people would leave school, go out to Tilbury and get a job for life on the docks. It’s no longer like that, he said.
Along with the decline in steady manual work, migration has transformed this old white, working-class area. Thurrock has experienced a rapid rise in the proportion of black and minority-ethnic residents, which doubled to almost 20 per cent in the decade up to the most recent census in 2011.
So, it is not surprising that Ukip’s popularity has rocketed in what was once a precarious Tory seat ripe for Labour’s taking. (Thurrock’s MP, Jackie Doyle-Price, won the seat for the Tories for the first time in 23 years, with a majority of 92 votes, in 2010.)
Tim Aker, a Ukip MEP and the only candidate among the main three who grew up here, is on track to win the seat. Constituency polling published at the end of April by Michael Ashcroft shows Ukip on 35 per cent, Labour on 31 per cent and the Tories on 30 per cent.
“Ground Zero for Labour’s Ukip crisis,” is how one hassled Thurrock Labour councillor described this shift to me when it became clear that Ukip was in the lead.
The fight is so close that you can see the politicians’ strain. Polly Billington, a former aide to Ed Miliband standing for Labour, who campaigns by knocking on doors or phone canvassing three times a day, every day of the week, broke her foot a few weeks ago after tripping on a pavement. “This really is the front line of making sure that
we maintain hope and opportunities for working-class communities in this country,” she says. “If we get it right here, we’ll get it right for the country.”
Aker is also trying to “knock on as many doors as possible, every day. Every day until sundown.” He sounds cheery but exhausted. His campaign focuses on the effect of newcomers to Thurrock. “Immigration is the first domino,” he says. “When you can’t control your borders, you cannot manage public services.”
Billington often uses the word “globalisation” when discussing immigration, emphasising Labour’s policies to abolish exploitative zero-hours contracts and employers recruiting exclusively from mainland Europe. She is also backing a campaign to make St George’s Day a bank holiday. “I’m quite straightforward with people,” she says. “Anybody who says they are going to stop immigration altogether is lying to you. And people accept that, and then you can have a much more reasonable conversation about what you can and can’t do. Practical solutions to employers undercutting and underpaying people, agencies advertising abroad. That’s just crappy behaviour. It’s a choice between hope and despair; Ukip’s language and analysis is one of despair.”
Both she and Doyle-Price decry what they call the “fear” Ukip is inculcating in Thurrock residents. Doyle-Price dismisses Ukip’s campaign as being fuelled by a “pretty nasty brand of nationalism”, and Billington is concentrating studiously on a message of hope conquering fear.
Perhaps it’s best to leave Thurrock with the thoughts of one of its residents, an Indian man who has sold tracksuits at Grays Market for ten years. When we chatted last year he explained how much the area – the people and business – had changed, and not for the better. Yet with a smile he told me that he had no plans of moving, because: “You ride it out, don’t you?”