‘He’s for English people’: Farage’s populist pitch gains traction in Clacton

<span>Clacton has the highest levels of economic inactivity of any constituency in England and Wales, at 51%, indicating a community in very poor health.</span><span>Composite: The Guardian/Guardian Design</span>
Clacton has the highest levels of economic inactivity of any constituency in England and Wales, at 51%, indicating a community in very poor health.Composite: The Guardian/Guardian Design

On a bright but chilly June morning in Clacton-on-Sea, seagulls are wheeling overhead and music is blasting from the largely empty pier arcades as Martin and Shirley Twaites walk their spaniel, Alfie, along the beachside esplanade.

They like Clacton, having moved here nine years ago, but “the town is dying”, says Shirley. With Marks & Spencer having recently closed, says Martin, a retired plumbing engineer, “as a man you can’t come into town and buy a pair of socks or a pair of underwear”. Sainsbury’s shut a while ago; Barclays has just gone, too.

They would normally be Conservative voters, “but Nigel Farage is swaying me,” Shirley says. Rishi Sunak is so rich “he doesn’t appreciate the ordinary person in an ordinary town”. Isn’t Farage also wealthy? “Yeah, but I see him as more of a people person. I’m not that politically minded. But I do find I could listen to him.”

Which of his policies particularly appeal? “I like his rules on immigration,” she says.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Farage disdained at the prospect of spending time in Clacton – but that was before the prospect of Tory humiliation prompted a swift pivot, and his eighth attempt to secure a Westminster seat.

Why Clacton, a town with which Farage – a privately educated former commodities broker who lives in Kent – has no connection? A glance at its demographics gives a clue. Despite pockets of wealth, this is a highly deprived area and an elderly one, with almost 30% aged over 65. Strikingly, it has the highest levels of economic inactivity of any constituency in England and Wales, at 51%, indicating a community in very poor health.

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Clacton is extremely white (95.3%). It is also the only place in Britain ever to have elected a Ukip MP at a general election, when the Tory defector Douglas Carswell was reelected in 2015. He called Clacton “the town that delivered Brexit”; Farage now hopes it can deliver him to parliament, and with it a broader political earthquake.

To do so, he is leaning heavily on the anti-immigration button, telling an excitable crowd at his first appearance earlier this month that the Tories would “pay a price” for failing to control migrant numbers. It is true that this is often the first subject locals mention when asked what issues concern them.

But what is equally apparent, from talking to dozens of people in towns across the constituency, is a widespread and profound sense of alienation from mainstream politics, and a feeling that no one speaks for them. Enter a charismatic populist promising change. “No longer will you be at the end of the line,” Farage promised at that campaign launch. “No longer will you be ignored.”

Are voters here buying it? This time, the polls strongly suggest so – and Farage appears to be growing in confidence locally as well as nationally, hosting a packed rally at Clacton’s Princes Theatre earlier this week that he entered to Eminem’s “guess who’s back?” riff.

Which is not to say everyone in Clacton is a fan of Farage. In a community hall in the suburb of Jaywick, a group of older women have gathered for their regular Knit and Natter group, chatting over cups of tea and handicrafts.

“Usually we’re a stoutly Conservative [place],” says Cheryl Watson, who worked in the NHS before her retirement. “But he’s now dividing the town. Every single thing is going around politics, which is absolute rubbish.”

Jaywick occupies some enviable beachside real estate, but in parts is shockingly poor, with one small patch of streets made up of prefab former holiday shacks that came to be permanently occupied but are now crumbling, linked by looping service cables above their patchy roofs.

This has repeatedly been identified as the most deprived area of Britain, and to Watson and four other friends, chatting together over balls of yarn and swiftly darting fingers, Farage is cynically exploiting the area’s poverty. “Oh yeah – there’s a reason he’s come here,” says Marilyn Logan, who is teaching herself to crochet. Janice Latham, knitting a blanket for Ukraine, agrees: “Basically, he’s a pain in the butt, I’m sorry.”

Latham will vote, though she is unsure how, “because whoever gets in, they’re not going to change much”. Her daughter’s job as a nurse means she sees the value of immigration, however. “Colchester hospital would absolutely collapse if all the people – the foreign people, for want of a better word – left. Simple as that.”

On the other side of the room, sisters Karen Moore and Michelle Thomson are planning to vote for Farage. They have no trust for the Conservatives or Labour – partly because of the £350m weekly Brexit windfall they have yet to see.

Wasn’t Farage also promising post-Brexit “free money”? “But that was a Conservative bus – it was Boris Johnson,” says Moore. “Where’s all the Brexit money? They are hoarders.”

Thomson says she likes Farage because “he was concentrating on our borders and I think that is one of the top priorities. I know nurses, police and everything is [too] … but we’re only an island, and you can only get so many people in here”.

Why is this part of the country so hostile to immigrants when it has so few of them? Giles Watling has been the Tory MP here since 2017, and with a 24,000 majority in 2019 (on a whopping 72% vote share), until a few weeks ago looked nailed on to win again.

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“We have a lot of people who came here from London, particularly the East End,” says Watling, taking a break from canvassing in a pub garden in the village of St Osyth. “This is what Nigel Farage is appealing to. They’ve seen their communities become multicultural and that’s not something that people like. They’ve moved out here in search of more homogeny. But of course, that won’t necessarily happen.”

Watling, a Tory centrist who advocates “gentle conservatism”, says he’s running on his record of attracting £100m of investment to the area (while skipping past his party’s legacy over 14 years – “I personally don’t have to run on that. Because I’m the local guy.”)

Labour’s 27-year-old candidate, Jovan Owusu-Nepaul, initially well behind, has gained ground to overtake Watling in a number of polls this week, with some excitedly hoping that with tactical voting he could come through the middle and win. In four days in the constituency, however, the Guardian met only two people who said they would vote Labour, and Farage remains the strong favourite.

“My point is, is Mr Farage going to do anything that’s going to address doctor’s appointments?” Owusu-Nepaul tells the Guardian by phone. “Is he going to do anything about the roads? Is he going to do anything [about] your child having a decent education or bringing down energy bills or addressing the cost of living crisis?

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“We’re continuing to campaign on what we always have been campaigning on, which is the real issues that matter.”

Just a few miles out of Jaywick is the family farm of David Lord, a third-generation arable farmer. Essex is 75% agricultural, points out Lord, but farmers here are struggling.

Rising costs and a rapidly changing climate are serious enough, says Lord, but at the most fundamental level, if they can’t hire labour, they can’t pick their potatoes. “We need workers. We’ve got the soils, the skills and the weather to produce these foods, but we haven’t got the workforce.”

What about the Reform suggestion they hire British workers instead (the party wants to freeze all immigration except for a few essential healthcare roles)? “I just think anyone who says that is living in La La land.”

British people don’t want to do those jobs, he says. “You’re talking about agriculture workers, care home workers, nursing, hospital porters. All the guys that make everything happen. They’re the jobs that we really need, and they’re not going to be filled unless we have a sensible migration policy.”

Back in the Red Lion in St Osyth, however, that argument carries little weight. Peter, a retired market trader who is cradling a pint of Guinness, says he is enthusiastically backing Farage. Why? “He’s for English people.” Meaning? “I mean looking after our own people first. There’s far too many people in this country, we don’t need all the immigrants. Enough is enough.”

With a grin, he breaks into the opening lines of an old XTC song: “We’re only making plans for Nigel …”

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