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The betrayal of Essex man

Reform's victories here are symbolic of the area's contradictions and inequalities.

By Tim Burrows

Picture a Reform MP in your mind’s eye and you will probably conjure a grizzled yet clubbable male boomer who looks like he’s just nipped out for a fag during Henley Royal Regatta. Nigel Farage, Richard Tice, Lee Anderson and Rupert Lowe all fit the bill – but not the party’s fifth MP. South Basildon and East Thurrock’s James McMurdock, a 38-year-old father of four who grew up in a council house near Basildon, was elected in a shock result for the party and the wider political world after a recount on 5 July.

I spent election night at the London Cruise terminal in Tilbury where McMurdock eagerly awaited the South Basildon and East Thurrock verdict. Essex has been viewed as immovably Tory in recent years. But last week the Conservatives lost eight constituencies – five to Labour, one to the Lib Dems, and two to Reform (Clacton and South Basildon and East Thurrock). Clacton was won by Farage of course, overwhelmingly by comparison to McMurdock’s tiny majority. But while Farage remains most prominent in Reform’s retinue, this much smaller victory deserves closer examination. In the setting of Essex, it has much to reveal about the shifting politics of the region, but also the deficiencies of the party that has claimed so much of the vote here.

James McMurdock came to politics with some of Farage’s grassroots anti-Tory zeal, but was entirely new to the game itself. In fact, he only decided to join Reform in May this year while working in the City, deciding to run once the election was called. After briefly talking to him, as it looked likely he would win, it became clear how unformed his politics seemed to be. He said he had looked for options as a voter, but, disappointed by the establishment parties, he had decided to go out and do it for himself, believing (in short) that taxes were too high and quality of services too low. The answer to the country’s problems, he said, was a turbo-boosted blast back to Thatcher’s future of low taxation and free enterprise.

When the returning officer said he had won, McMurdock did not seem prepared for it. His face cycled through various shades of white and pink, as shock, pride, anxiety and disbelief took turns to course through him. And it had been a stressful several hours: throughout the long night, his young baby was looked after in shifts by his mum and dad, with other family members acting as his count agents. But despite his makeshift campaign, this electoral rubber stamp for immigration-centric Reform party could not have taken place in a more poignantly significant place: the Port of Tilbury, where HMT Empire Windrush docked in 1948.

It would be tempting for some to run with the narrative that here was the far-right on the march in the place where multicultural Britain was born. And yet more striking about McMurdock himself was another loaded term, one which I had thought wasn’t all that relevant to the 2024 election: Essex man, Thatcher’s target voter that gave rise to so many other electoral imitations. As I argued in my book, The Invention of Essex, Essex man originally caught on because it summed up something true about the country at that time: in spite of the economic instability in the 1970s, the material wealth of a sizable portion of the south-east English working class was growing. The increase in home ownership, and the increasing importance of consumer goods to home life had reached something of an apex with the Sky satellite dish, which Simon Heffer’s original caricature proudly displayed on the front of his newly purchased council house.

And yet, Essex man was always an act of projection on the part of the political class, an attempt to call the ideological winner in a first-past-the-post system where the actual picture is usually far more murky. When the late David Amess won in Basildon in 1992, he proclaimed that the “working class is disappearing as people have more individualistic aims, more privatised aims”, and his majority was reported in the press as a slim one. Now, if Essex man exists, he is even less predominant. Look at the numbers in south Essex this election and you will be reaching for imagery far more miniscule than a cigarette paper – perhaps a tardigrade’s whisker – to describe the gap between the candidates. McMurdock ultimately beat his Labour challenger by 98 votes, while the Tories’ Richard Holden only won in Basildon and Billericay by 20. 

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McMurdock was born in a council house and made his money from the City, and so fits the rags-to-riches bill of Heffer’s creation. But he has returned home as a throwback, not a portent. You couldn’t claim the same, dynamic, upwardly mobile conditions that made him exist here today. McMurdock can’t promise the same life trajectory he has enjoyed to his constituents. And that makes his election the victory of a new party, but also the symbol of a dying ideology, a zombie Thatcherism which his economically libertarian party still subscribes to. McMurdock might have entered politics out of a sincere dissatisfaction with our public services, but his party’s relentless focus on immigration, without a rejection of the neoliberal economics that has delivered such a malfunctioning state and therefore the political need for scapegoats, won’t change the lives of Essex men – or women.

More than his parliamentary colleagues, McMurdock symbolises the contradictions of the Reform vote and this election writ large: a cry for radical change which has received a reply of muted moderation from the centre, and political distraction from the right. When I left his count at 6.30am, I took a last look at the cruise terminal of the port. It stood grandly in the light of dawn, but was dwarfed by a cruise ship, the Viking, which had received passengers through the night for a 14-day trip around the British Isles. In some senses, they needn’t have shelled out the fare. For a glimpse of what is really happening in this frayed country, they should have stepped into the counting hall.

[See also: Keir Starmer beyond the wall]

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