Photos by Oscar Webb
Clacton-on-Sea, a small town on the Tendring peninsula in Essex, England, is poised to become a stronghold for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which advocates abandoning the European Union and making it harder for immigrants to enter the island nation. In August, local member of parliament (MP) Douglas Carswell jumped ship from the ruling Conservatives to join UKIP, sparking an election. On Thursday, the follow-up vote will take place, and the town looks set to install Carswell as the country's first UKIP member of the lower house of parliament.
Clacton is one of Britain’s depressed seaside towns. It was a busy tourist spot until the 1980s, when people started to look to the Costa del Sol rather than Essex's Sunshine Coast for their vacations. A local holiday retreat shut down and took with it much of the jobs and money; today, the tourism trade is at the mercy of day-trippers. Last year, an area near Clacton's once-lucrative pier had an unemployment rate of 54 percent, the fifth highest in the country. Many of the B&Bs now provide emergency accommodation for welfare recipients and the town is a popular retirement destination for Londoners, who price locals out of the market and then sit around being economically inactive. In recent years, Clacton's mean income has hovered around half the national average.
It’s in these eastern coastal towns—Great Yarmouth, Thanet, and Rochester are others—that politician Nigel Farage’s UKIP insurgency is gaining the most traction. When I visited Clacton on Saturday, the town was laden with UKIP paraphernalia, its purple and yellow logo visible on almost every street. The million pounds ($1.6 million) gifted to UKIP by former Conservative Party donor Aaron Banks was being spent on signs in front gardens, wraparound ads in the local paper, lapels for the blazers of campaigners, and posters in windows.
As I left the station and looked at the UKIP HQ across the street, a guy named Tristan walked past with a poster. Immigration was on his mind—he'd never voted before and told me he'd never vote Tory, but due to the “200,000, 400,000, 1.5 million” coming in, he said he was backing Carswell this time. UKIP’s not right-wing, Tristan said, because it’s not right-wing to look after your own.
Virtually the only traces of anti-UKIP sentiment I saw were in the town's main square. On one side, a Green Party candidate was canvassing, while opposite protesters handed out leaflets asking people to “say no to racism." Bob Lambert, who's lived in Clacton all his life, was pretty unhappy at the thought of waking up in UKIP-land on Thursday.
“It’s always easy to blame someone else, no matter how low you are in the pecking order," he said. "The main parties blame minorities rather than mend what’s wrong."
Former Labour Party member Malcome Mead had come from Wycombe to warn people about the UKIP. “The Labour Party should be here. They’re no longer for the working people. A lot of people are very ignorant here and are voting UKIP. They say, 'immigration, immigration, immigration'—terrible… Not many people are coming over to us,” he admitted.
To be honest, their effort seemed a little despondent. I asked Malcome who he'll be voting for in next year's general election. “I don’t know," he replied. "I’ll have to vote Green I suppose."
Down at the seafront, the pier was doing a decent trade in day-trippers pumping coins into the machines. But just around the corner were signs of decay—an empty hotel that happened to be covered in Carswell posters, for instance. UKIP’s vision is a nostalgic one, harking back to a pre-EU, pre-immigration Britain. It’s easy to see why people in places like Clacton would buy into it. Things were much better here 60 years ago.
Just southwest of Clacton is the village of Jaywick. Its fine sandy beaches haven't helped it escape from being officially named the most deprived place in the UK. Right on cue, the black clouds hanging over Jaywick emptied their rain as soon as I got there.
The bungalow development was built in 1928 as part of the “plotlands” movement, which sold little strips of land to Londoners seeking respite from the city. People ended up staying all year round, and while other plotland developments were demolished after World War II, Jaywick held on.
Nowadays, it’s a place to escape from rather than to. Jaywick tops the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation—a kind of league table that uses stats for income, employment, health, disability, crime, and living standards to figure out the best and worst places to live in the country.
Jaywick no longer attracts Londoners who can afford a little taste of paradise by the sea, but rather retirees and benefits claimants who can’t afford to go anywhere else. It only got a modern sewer system in the 1980s. Some of the roads are private and not maintained by the local government. In an area this poor, that means that they’re falling apart. In the Brooklands estate, at the west end of Jaywick, a lot of the houses have been abandoned and some of those are now burned out. Most of the shops have closed down and are slowly rotting.
Jaywick feels like a concentration of bad luck and grim prospects. There were no office blocks or better residences to aspire to, envy, or throw bricks at—just abandoned buildings reminding people that things haven’t always been this bad.
Alan Olford, the chairman of the Jaywick Action Group, invited me into his house, which had Douglas Carswell signage in the windows. As a UKIPer of 15 years, he said he was voting to get out of Europe. He believed that pretty much everyone in the area was voting for his party. “They’re all fed up, for the simple reason that all the London boroughs are pushing all their immigrants and stuff like that down into Jaywick," he said.
“I’ve been coming to Jaywick since I was that high,” he continued, putting his hand a couple of feet from the floor. “In fact, I was born in Jaywick. I’ve noticed it go down and down and down and down, because nothing is ever spent on Jaywick. They think a penny spent on Jaywick is a penny wasted, so they spend it elsewhere… We used to have someone clean the promenade and empty the bins but the chap who used to do that has been taken away.”
Down the road at a café decked out in UKIP's purple and yellow, people were cagey about talking to me. They were upset that their area was only ever paid any attention because it’s a dive. Despite the problems, they were proud of their community, but it didn’t take much for the place to erupt into political discussion, with people shouting over each other to reel off tabloid complaints. Immigrants and money being spent on foreign aid topped the list. Then they moved onto more parochial issues—the street lights are switched off at midnight to save money, they said, making comparisons to the £500,000 ($800,400) recently spent building the “Taj Mahal of toilets” in Frinton, the comparatively affluent town to the north.
Was everyone here voting UKIP? “Definitely," they told me. "Too bloody right.” They claimed that the election had brought Conservative and Labour Party reps to Jaywick for the first time in 20 years.
Some of the people I met in Jaywick probably have more in common than they’d like to admit with immigrants. Neither group is doing particularly well these days. But it was easy to see why UKIP’s narrative is so seductive here. Their arguments took on a new meaning among Jaywick’s burnt-out shacks. The appeal of the idea that the country should “look after its own people first” is obvious in a place that obviously hasn’t been looked after very well by elites in London.
How Douglas Carswell, who has already been the area's MP for several years, will help the people I met is anyone’s guess. As ever, beyond EU and immigration, UKIP don’t seem to have any policy positions that its politicians will actually admit to. In any case, it seems that in Jaywick, more than anything, UKIP represent a generalized shout into the wilderness for attention—a cry for help from a place lacking a path out of its present predicament.