Welcome (back) to Clacton, the fading Essex seaside town that became famous in October 2014 for being the site of an apparent political revolution.
Clacton was where the incumbent Conservative MP Douglas Carswell triggered a by-election after resigning from the party and won as a Ukip candidate. Yet by 2017, the seat was voting Conservative again and Ukip was left with no MPs.
The party’s parliamentary legacy is almost non-existent but its political one has been totemic – the shockwaves are still reverberating today. Clacton was identified by the pollsters Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin as one of the most Ukip-friendly seats in the country in their defining work Revolt on the Right (2013). The Essex coast remains perhaps the most probable location for a comeback by the right as voters flee the Conservatives.
Modelling by myself and pollsters suggests that the Tories would still hold Clacton at the next election – though their vote share would almost halve from 72 per cent in 2019 to around 35 per cent, with Labour just behind on 30 per cent. Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit Party, would finish third with a vote share in the high teens. That seems plausible – its best projected result in any seat.
But what if Nigel Farage stood? In such a scenario, Survation found that Farage might well win (having tried and failed seven times to win election to parliament). Prompt for parties, not candidates, and the Conservatives win, as you can see above. But prompt for Giles Watling, the incumbent Tory MP (who lost against Carswell in 2014 and 2015), and all other candidates, with Nigel Farage as Reform’s choice, and Farage wins.
One could easily dismiss this as merely a consequence of name recognition. And you’d be right. Candidate polls focus voters’ minds in a way that party polls sometimes don’t. The risk, however, is that they distract from other key factors (such as who the public want as prime minister).
Nevertheless, Farage has the name recognition. While Watling elicits an opinion from 52 per cent of voters, Farage attracts the attention of 70 per cent. Rishi Sunak, by contrast, has the attention of 62 per cent and Keir Starmer 63 per cent.
For good or ill, Farage has currency. He is more popular than Sunak among the Tory base and speaks more to their anxieties and emotions than the current leader does. And that’s not the wishful thinking of some Breitbart keyboard warrior hyping up their man. That’s what the polling is telling us. Farage has become the comfort-eating companion of Tory party members. That has implications for a future Conservative leadership election. And were he to stand, he’d be in with a chance in Clacton.
But as with any insurgent campaign, organisation is essential. And in Ukip’s time, their ground game was more haphazard rabble than Prussian drill. In the party’s key seats in 2015, activists were sent to town centres to make noise rather than knock on doors, denying their organisers valuable voter data for polling day. Farage is a noise master. He can poll well. But to win under first past the post, he needs to organise well.