One of the first things you see as you step out of the train station in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, is the inimitable, grinning face of Douglas Carswell. A large purple banner bearing his face and Ukip’s famous pound symbol logo identify this as his office. A sign on the window advertises a quiz night, with him as quizmaster – an indication, perhaps, that Carswell gets votes as much for his personal involvement in the area as his right-wing politics. It is here in Clacton – in sun-washed, broad-skied Essex – that Ukip have their sole MP.
That’s not the only thing that makes this constituency unique, because it also happens to contain the town of Jaywick Sands, a five-minute bus journey away, which is – officially – the most deprived ward in the whole of England. Ordinarily and traditionally – and rightly or wrongly – one expects economically disadvantaged areas to return Labour MPs – as the other most deprived districts do, including Blackpool South and some parts of Liverpool. But not here. Iain Duncan Smith ought to know a bit about these sorts of places, since his very own Centre for Social Justice think tank has produced a research document on Britain’s declining sea-side towns, Turning the Tide, profiling Clacton in its report.
Getting off the bus at the furthest end of Jaywick, you are immediately hit by an atmosphere of strangeness. Seagulls wail above, while adders rattle ominously in the grass, and in the distance you can see the Gunfleet Sands offshore windfarm. Walking around Brooklands – or “The Badlands” as it’s known – many of the streets are not tarred or paved, they are merely wide, water-logged paths. There is the odd corner shop and convenience store, but no proper food shops. One pub, the Sheldrake, has four people in it, and an arcade bearing a faded sign proclaims it “Wonderland”. Most of the houses themselves are clearly renovated huts – some decrepit, some relatively neat and tidy. Amid such poverty, why would people here vote Ukip?
Local Jaywick resident Brian – whose window bears an ‘I’m backing Douglas’ sign – is clear about why. “The whole of Clacton is fed up… at one point Clacton had lots of immigrants, Polish, Bosnians. It didn’t give Clacton as a whole a very good image, running hotels, running things down….We are not vetting the people coming over…It’s gonna kill us…. I say to my kids, you need to go to school and knuckle down, otherwise someone from another country is gonna come and nick your job. Douglas has more balls than half the politicians in there.”
Brian is a retired lorry driver, and is merely one example of an emerging political trend: the working-class vote for Ukip. Such a trend has been documented thoroughly in Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford’s book Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. “Since 2010 the party has actively courted disadvantaged, working-class voters, including Old Labour supporters, with activists like Paul Nuttall identifying this as crucial to widening Ukip’s appeal,” they write, adding “These working-class voters have begun to turn to a radical right party who reject the established political class and provide them with someone to blame for their problems.” They show that some 42 per cent of Ukip’s votes come from those they identify as “working-class”, measurably above those supporting the Labour Party at 35 per cent.
Probing Brian a bit more, he tells me about his wider views on welfare and work: “Bedroom tax – wrong, absolutely wrong…” Asked if he was ever in a trade union while he was a lorry driver, he says: “Yes I was… If we had a problem, we come out on strike…. Any trade union, I support.” It is clear from Brian’s comments that Ukip has managed to pull off an astonishing sleight of hand here. The truth is that Douglas Carswell himself voted for the bedroom tax, and has a clear and unequivocal record of voting to reduce both in-work and out-of-work benefits.
While Ukip may like to portray themselves as anti-establishment rebels – with Farage’s beer drinking and fag smoking making for good PR on this front – dig a little deeper, and it is clear whose side Ukip are really on. The GMB trade union has documented that their past manifestos have pledged to scrap maternity, holiday and sick pay. Indeed, one of their most prominent supporters, Jon Moulton (the private equity tycoon with an estimated wealth of £225) infamously made 2,700 City Link workers redundant on Christmas Day, after the firm went into administration. Many of these workers were registered as self-employed by City Link, and so were left with no rights to things like redundancy or sick pay. Farage himself, a privately educated former banker, publicly criticised calls for a financial transaction tax and other attempts to rein in the City. As journalist Patrick Strudwick put it: “He is about as anti-establishment as Buckingham Palace.”
On welfare policy, Ukip has been revealingly shady, but historically, the party has taken quite a hard line. In a 2010 policy document, the party claims the welfare state has created a “parasitic underclass of scroungers”, and quotes articles claiming that three out of four incapacity benefit claimants are fraudulent. As welfare reform blogger Johnny Void has pointed out, the policy document mysteriously vanished from their website, and the party now likes to brag of their pro-welfare credentials. Nigel Farage himself visited one bedroom tax victim in Kent, saying: “We don’t support it, it’s been very divisive and you’re living proof of how upsetting it is.” Perhaps sensing their growing appeal among working-class voters, they wanted to cover its tracks to avoid jeopordising any future electoral gains.
Meeting with a local charity worker who wants to remain anonymous – we’ll him Ian – I quiz him about the poverty in the area. He explains that around 80 per cent of the people in Jaywick are on social security, saying that it’s because of a range of causes, including a lack of infrastructure and mental health problems. “We have lots of abuse cases, lots of things that are shocking… the big story is the sheer weight of numbers…. The sheer amount of food vouchers because people’s benefits are being sanctioned. The sheer amount of shit that the Tories are causing… It didn’t used to be like that under Labour.” Asking if he meets people who haven’t eaten in, say, two days, he says: “Yeah, plenty of times…I have met people who look ill and in a bad way…. You get a lot of people coming in who are reluctant…. I bet there are a lot of people who need food but just don’t come in.” He suggests what he sees is almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg.
On the politics of poverty and Jaywick’s Ukip MP, when I suggest that it’s baffling that the poorest people in England would vote for a free market capitalist, he bursts out laughing. “This is turkeys voting for Christmas… The general complaint you have here is ‘if I were a fucking Paki or if I were fucking black I’d get everything I fucking want’…. The big reason for that is misplaced hatred.” One of the people who approached Ian recently for foodbank vouchers was ranting about politicians. He asked how she was voting. “Well I’m voting for Carswell ain’t aye?” And he said “You do understand that you are voting for someone who in the last Parliament voted for things which would hurt you… Bedroom tax, and I listed off a real of things he’d voted for which were detrimental to her as a person… And she said ‘well it’s all these fucking immigrants, isn’t it?…It’s not about the immigrants here – they [feel they have] been pushed out of Hackney’.”
It has long seemed to me that there is a section of the population who, while they cannot fairly be described as disabled, the truth is that they are simply not very employable. Lost people, eccentric people, difficult people. Ian agrees with me: “There’s a huge group of them.” Suggesting that the Tories just don’t get that human life is messy, human beings are messy, and that sometimes our lives don’t fit with the economic demands of the market, he says: “Yeah, for sure. I agree with you 100 per cent”. Do these people deserve to starve to death? “Nobody does. Nobody chooses where they’re born or what they’re born into… People would love to be born like David Cameron with a silver spoon in their mouth.”
He also suggests that the welfare reforms are profoundly counter-productive, leading people into a vicious cycle: “The DWP do not help at all… Not only have they taken out all their phones…. Mobile phones all charge to phone these numbers, so you have to use a landline – but who has a landline these days?” Talking about the people who simply fall on hard times he says: “The real problem is… the people who don’t want to be on benefits, you’re making their life hell… And it just snowballs, and they’re in the system and they can’t get out of it because you’ve sanctioned them. It perpetuates itself…” Once again, he brings up mental health: “One of the biggest problems is the NHS doesn’t really offer any psychological help. A lot of the problems we face are mental health related.”
He speculates about the real agenda behind welfare reform: “The Tories are… trying to get it so that they have a pool of cheaper labour for their capitalist chums to use.” It is here where one cannot escape thinking that the left has failed places like Jaywick and Clacton. There has been a clear failure to tap into working class anger – in this area, at least – and provide a clear narrative about who is to blame and the real solutions to problems – from wealth redistribution to proper job creation schemes. Ian agrees: “I was having this conversation with my dad, what happened to my generation? Your generation would have been out in the streets, up in arms about this…”. Later, he says: “The left is too disorganised to do something about it, and we are fucking suffering for it. Maybe next time we should get off our arses and campaign.” No wonder resident Brian thought Labour is a “waste of space”.
The local foodbank for the area is in Clacton, a £4.50 bus journey away. “A lot of people moan about that,” said Ian. And understandably – that could pay for several meals. It is run by the Salvation Army, who run a significant proportion of foodbanks around the UK. Phoning up, I ask them if I can pay them a visit to report on the politics of food poverty. “We’ve made the decision not to do media requests,” I’m told.
After making a donation and having a quick chat to the workers about the needs of the food bank – they explain they can get low on things like toiletries and other non-food essentials – I stand outside for a bit and eventually meet Sam, who is 26. Sam was on his way to a Jobcentre appointment, and – fully aware that being just a couple of minutes late could render him santioned – we exchange contact details and I end up interviewing him by email (which he accesses from a community centre).
Sam left home at the age of 15, moving into local housing accommodation surrounded by those with alcohol and other drug problems. “This was extremely hard!” he says. Sam has a passion for music, who earned the odd bit of cash as a gigging musician – eventually going onto study sound engineering in London. Because he is legally adopted, Sam says it was difficult to get a student loan, and while studying, he had to work two jobs to get by. Sam didn’t finish his degree, saying “I lost my friend from the year before…. everything with uni was going really wrong and I had somewhat of a quiet and reserved nervous breakdown,” so now he has to pay his £24,000 loan back immediately.
Having moved back to Clacton, he found himself in Jaywick. He says the council “felt I was somebody else’s problem”. He adds that “living in Jaywick is horrible”. He brings up the transport costs: “The bus to Clacton is the most extortionately priced bus journey I have ever encountered… Jaywick really feels forgotten…. I have lived in some of the worst areas in the UK… but Jaywick really seems like the end of the line.” At this point he was on disability benefit – Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – having been signed off for depression by the doctor. But he has now come off ESA, saying he “wanted to get a full time job and start moving forward in life a bit”.
The Jobcentre hasn’t been any help. He missed his first appointment as another close friend of his passed away. After telling the Jobcentre he tries to run a small, independent record label in his spare time, he was told he would have to start again as self-employed. While the bureaucracy clears up all the details, he has not received any financial support. “I am still very hungry and in little bits of debt from friends helping out and quite honestly, the Jobcentre really doesn’t seem to care.
“My friend’s funeral is this Friday but I can’t even afford to go and pay my respects, have a little cry and try to move on with other friends and loved ones.” Looking to the future, he says “I want nothing more than to find a job and get on with things”.
Leaving Jaywick, I am left with the impression of a fractured, broken place with fractured, broken people. It’s a story of neglect – both political and personal. Meanwhile, Sam is still struggling: “I went in today as I was told last week I had to sign on today…..They made a mistake of course and it’s supposed to be next week so I have walked two miles into town while being very weak from lack of food for nothing….. Hopefully I can qualify for another food parcel this week!”.