At a special press conference this morning, the Clacton MP Douglas Carswell made a surprise announcement that he has defected from the Conservative party to Ukip. He will stand down as an MP, triggering a by-election to give his constituents the chance to re-elect him now he has changed his political allegiance.
According to tweets by academic and Ukip expert Matthew Goodwin, Carswell told the press conference:
Only Ukip can shake up that cosy little clique called Westminster…
Ministers don’t think things through. They are not getting the basics right. We need change…
There is one honourable thing to do. I will now resign from parliament and stand for Ukip in the by election that will follow…
I am standing here precisely because the Conservative leadership does not [want] real change…
I voted for Cameron in 2005 but I’ve come to realise that they are not serious about political reform…
I want change. We have had a duopoly. They are just taking turns of sitting on a sofa.
Goodwin, who has done extensive research into Ukip’s appeal, and co-wrote the book Revolt on the Right (April 2014), describes Carswell’s seat as the “number one most demographically favourable seat in the country for Ukip” and calls it “stacked full of Ukip-friendly voters”. Carswell has a big majority of 12,068, or 27.93 per cent (a 52.93 per cent share of the vote), although it’s difficult to tell from the last general election results how Ukip would fare in that seat, as they didn’t field a candidate there last time.
The seat has a high concentration of voters who are likely to be enthusiastic about a Ukip representative: a high number of pensioners, voters without degrees and many with no educational qualifications at all, as well as being an area with above-average unemployment levels. This is the type of community in which Ukip typically thrives. It is also a very white area.
Carswell himself is an interesting personality. Characterised as everything from a maverick genius to a rightwing maniac, he has certainly been shaking up the political narrative somewhat from the Tory backbenches. As well as being an intense europhobe – he was one of the rebels who voted for a referendum on EU membership in 2011 – he also has some rather more unusual views about direct democracy and modernising party membership.
He co-founded the Conservative party’s Direct Democracy group, is an advocate of proportional representation (forming an odd alliance with Green MP Caroline Lucas in 2010 on pushing for PR on the electoral reform referendum), and believes a digital revolution will create true democracy, publishing a book at the end of last year called The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy. He told me in July last year that he’d pitched a plan to the Prime Minister to “Spotify the Tory party”, focusing on a localist agenda and driving membership using a tiered online system. David Cameron hadn’t responded to his ideas then, and it doesn’t look like he ever did.
Carswell was elected in 2005 in Harwich, winning the seat back from Labour, but he ran once before, unsuccessfully, against Tony Blair in Sedgefield in 2001 – perhaps the first example of his underdog spirit of taking on the powers-that-be. Winning a big majority in Clacton in 2010 has given him even more of boost, and he is a high-profile figure both locally and in the Westminster world, writing a regular blog on the Telegraph. It was Carswell’s motion of no-confidence in 2009 that led to the first time in 300 years that a Speaker was removed from the House of Commons; it was over Michael Martin’s (the then Speaker) handling of the MPs’ expenses crisis.
He is in favour of installing a recall system in which MPs can be ousted, and also of open primaries for elections, stemming from his belief that faith in Westminster politics needs to be restored by more direct democratic methods. This view explains his decision to trigger a by-election, rather than remaining as a Ukip MP until the election. Another exciting, though perhaps less significant, fact about Carswell is that he made a citizen’s arrest in January this year, chasing and catching a shoplifter in a branch of Boots in Clacton.
Carswell, though often critical of the Tory leadership, had a change of heart in January this year, when he warned his fellow eurosceptic backbenchers that rebelling was the wrong way to go about achieving an EU referendum, arguing that a Conservative victory was the only way of achieving it. The Spectator reported at the time his own comments that it was wrong for Conservative MPs to lack discipline:
What is it we now want, guys? We’re going to face a reckoning with the electorate in just over a year’s time. We’re two points behind the Labour Party. We can do this – we really can do this. If we lack discipline, we’re going to have five or six appalling years in opposition to dwell on it.
However, it seems that a long summer recess for reflection and the rise and rise of Ukip’s prominence, coupled with his large majority and the “Ukip-friendly” nature of Clacton, has made him rethink his relationship with the party leadership once and for all, preferring to leave the Tory tent.
Carswell is being hailed as Ukip’s first MP, although back in April 2008, Bob Spink, then MP for Castle Point, defected to Ukip until November that year, when he was recast as an independent. However, Carswell is likely to be the first Ukip candidate to beat the Conservatives – and any other party for that matter – to a seat in parliament.