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The Toxic Politics Polluting Essex

It's the failure of the main parties when it comes to dealing with local concerns that has led people to see UKIP as representing hope in Grays.

How Nigel Farage must have wished he'd picked Thurrock over South Thanet now. Just look at last Monday's turnout at the venue more often used for boxing and darts than political rallies, the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, which UKIP claimed to have been the biggest public meeting in Thurrock's history – and the cauldron atmosphere inside the the Thurrock Hotel in Aveley a couple of days later as the party launched its manifesto that seeks to turn the country into an attempted cross between hanging-era England and modern-day Singapore.

Instead it's Thurrock-born UKIP MEP Tim Aker who is presiding over the surge of enthusiasm for UKIP here. Like many of his fellow UKIP candidates, Aker could be described as a kind of cartoon Tory. Formerly a spokesman for the Taxpayer's Alliance, he's a budget Thatcherite; Reg Varney from On the Buses without the smile (Varney was 52 when he started playing the character of Stan Butler, who was 35; Aker is 29), spouting populist promises – "SCRAP THE TOLLS" – and wanting to turn the UK into the sovereign equivalent of a high-end City club in which admission is strictly limited to a "brightest and best" (read: most loaded) clientele, with him as one of the bouncers.

Aker's performance at the Circus Tavern spooked me. Perhaps it was the joylessness of his delivery while he stood there all suited up like a Mr Byrite gangster or something out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Which is apt, as a scene from that film was shot in Grays' now-derelict State Cinema. When I was a kid I used to be fascinated by the film, in particular the scene in which Christopher Lloyd's character Judge Doom drops a shoe into a mysterious acidic substance known as "dip". It was quite a horrific scene for a kids' movie, turning the stomach over – but it was also exhilarating in a sort of sadistic way, opening up the impulse to be fascinated by this unequivocal horror. And a similarly toxic air cloaks Thurrock – quite literally, as it has some of the most polluted air in the country, and some of its most toxic politics.

Thurrock is a series of settlements and boxed up bucolic patches; fly-tipped fields and council estates on marshland passing like a zoetrope from the motor. Grays is located on the Thames Estuary in the south-western tip of Essex, just outside the M25. I grew up in Southend, nearer the mouth of the river, but my schoolmate Paul who commuted from Grays every day used to tell me about the attitude here, a kind of no-one-likes-us-we-don't-care vibe grown out of a residual suspicion of London, of its elites and of hidden agendas, that's not uncommon in Essex and which goes back to the old East End.

Paul moved to nearby Chadwell St Mary and I bumped into him at a mate's wedding last year. "Round there we get leaflets through the door from the Socialist Worker and the National Front, bruv," he told me. In Thurrock, it feels as if the ghosts of past dichotomies are taking part in some noxious war, which UKIP has tapped into. The Times recently reported that former National Front member Robert Ray is on Tim Aker's payroll, where he remains, despite being suspended for a drink-driving offence last June.

Thurrock's UKIP contingent is painted as Marx's impoverished class transplanted to 21st century Essex, who, instead of overturning capitalist society and making a new one, seek to replace the Thatcherism that has seen it suffer with an even more extreme version in the form of UKIP. Some polls have had UKIP in the lead, some haven't. But the feeling here is of a two-way fight between UKIP and Labour, at least symbolically. Much of Essex voted Thatcher first-time round in 1979 but Thurrock, staunchly blue collar, resisted till 1987. It is said that Tory MP Jackie Doyle-Price only won the seat in 2010 because New Labour had overseen such a massive period of decline in Thurrock.

Opposite Grays Pie and Mash cafe, three teens fuss over a baby bird that has fallen out of a nest above a kebab shop; one of them cradles it in their hands before they all head off to seek help. A little way up the street, there's a wedding going on at the Baptist church, a congregation dressed up in their finery. It doesn't seem like the "no-go area" Aker has described it as. But treading a path into the town, the rubbish starts to swirl around us and you enter the neglect.

I ask a husband and wife their opinions of Grays. They laugh. "Don't come 'ere! It's 'ad it. Just toot shops, all toot." A trader who is selling pillows and duvets in a street off the main drag points to the abandoned State cinema that was opened in 1938, closed 50 years later and has been on the at-risk register ever since: "They should clean that up for a start. It's an eyesore."

A taxi driver parked in the rank outside the train station embodies the resignation that you find is common in a Grays resident. She says the government stopped putting money into the town years ago. "People are scared. Half the time the lights aren't working. The government are taking out but they're not putting back. For years it has been getting worse. I doubt it will ever get better – It's a bit too late mate."

Resignation is anaesthetised terror. Flanked by the river and the ring road, this area of Thurrock can sometimes feel like the still centre of the accelerationist whirlpool of activity churned up by London. Commuter housing surrounding a problematic middle that, in agreement with Aker, locals say is best avoided at night. The shopping mall was built in the early 1970s, when Grays was a thriving town. But Lakeside shopping centre opened in a nearby former quarry in 1990 and all the big shops followed it. Street maintenance in Grays' town centre has been cut. It used to be the city that was filthy, but the logic has been reversed. The increasing sterility of London has dovetailed with the swelling toxicity of the estranged English town, paving the way for the new dichotomy of the gated city and the mall. Grays betrays a wider culture that caters for the suburban – but not the civic – lifestyle.

A bus adorned with the Farage visage creeps away from the stop and an abstract noise grows around us, disappears and comes back again. We eventually realise it is emanating from a red car that is affecting a monotonous circuit around the town, the driver giving a speech that nobody can understand. It is Jack Barnes, the Conservative candidate for Grays Riverside, who has earned the hashtag #scousemegaphoneman, and who is doing his daily rounds. It's absurdist political set pieces such as this that remind you that Russell Brand grew up in Grays.

Four Weddings and a Funeral was filmed at St Clements Church, which is owned by Proctor and Gamble (there is a P&G factory nearby) and is probably one of the best kept parts of the town centre, in addition to a gleaming new college. We pass both on the way to the White Hart pub near the riverside. Outside the pub, a group of UKIP activists who look like they're in their late teens drink pints and chat in huddled fashion. Their clan feels almost subcultural. One of them looks like Dan Jukes, an ambitious young 'kipper; he wears a rosette, another sports a natty UKIP pin badge. But before I can find out if it's him, I'm shut down. I walk up and try to explain I'd like to talk to them about the area, but I'm very quickly seen to by the smallest of their number: "No. No. No. No. No."

This hostile reception is in keeping with Aker's campaign in Grays, which feels a particularly dirty fight. When pressed on his thoughts on his competitors by the Spectator in December, he preferred to say, "Our campaign is just about what UKIP is doing for the residents" but these days the gloves are off. Jukes recently posted a film of Aker replacing an Ockendon voter's Labour banner with a UKIP one. A local man accused UKIP of exploiting his nan, who suffers from dementia, by putting a placard in her garden without her consent: he promptly dismantled it. Another witness on Twitter attested to UKIP campaigners going round stealing Labour posters from people's gardens.

"When we're walking down the road, we'll have kids run past no older than seven or eight and they'll shout: 'UKIP! UKIP!'" says Scott Nelson, a local Labour activist who grew up in West Thurrock, and works as a civil servant in nearby Basildon. He became a member and activist last year: he relentlessly tweets, goes door to door and leaflets in support of Labour candidate Polly Billington.

"Thurrock seems to be a dumping ground for all the unwanted things from Essex," says Scott. "Traffic is the biggest problem, the queuing at the QE2 crossing." But he fears UKIP won't be able to act upon their promises for residents, and worries about the effects of their rhetoric on a place with such a diverse population (the number of Africans living here increased by 1000 percent between 2001 and 2011). "They think we can just close our borders and everything will be hunky dory. But it could take up to ten years to leave the EU... A report came out that leaving the EU could cost £56 billion. UKIP have not said how they're gonna finance it." Scott is gay, and says he has been targeted by UKIP trolls on Twitter who have called him a "faggot" and a "queer". He gives as good as he gets, leading some to accuse him of being a left-wing troll, but he's partisan as he feels his home is being threatened by something that will do it more harm than good. He likens the election to a "ground war": an adult playground fight for the future of an area that already feels cursed.

Scott says Grays has become a more violent place through the years, with teenage knife crime more common now than when he was young. Anti-social behaviour and vandalism are givens. There has been a crime-wave that UKIP have blamed on immigration, but Scott sees it as a much more nuanced issue – and anyway, there are plenty of nasty "indigenous" bastards about.

Thurrock is a symbol of what is happening in much of the country that isn't boom-time London or its jolly parasite, the commuter belt. In one of the charity shops in Grays, I buy a book, Beyond Thatcherism, originally published in the late 80s. Later I read a passage: "It is an inherent feature of Thatcherism to protest against social trends which are of its own making and to castigate social institutions for failing to live up to the Thatcherite vision."

In the same vein, immigrants are blamed for the failures of economic planning and infrastructure, victims of a political short-termism that is typified by the Tories' proposed extension of right-to-buy, which – if it were pushed through – would let a small number of people gain a very valuable asset at the expense of future generations. It's hard not to see the not-too-distant future filled with further societal decay.

I speak to Aba Kristilolu, Thurrock candidate for the All People's Party, an inclusive, grassroots antidote to UKIP. He concedes he hasn't much hope of winning the seat but feels it is important to inject some clearer thinking and dignity into the local debate. "A politics of hate and fear will not equate to progress," he says. "UKIP are talking from a place of pain and frustration, but people in the end realise that hate can't take you forward. It happened in Dagenham, where BNP popularity fell away." Abu is an academic, originally from Nigeria. He lives in Purfleet, and mentions only when I ask that he and his family have been targeted by racism in the form of comments on the street and things thrown in his garden. "We can only hope that over time people learn to understand."

The kind of things that concern UKIPman are the rubbish on the street, the escalation of parking fees at the local hospital, the general feeling of things not being as they once were. It's the failure of the smoke-and-mirror men (and the odd woman) of the main parties when it comes to dealing with local concerns that has led people to see UKIP as representing hope – instead of representing the political equivalent of a bloke who wants to go back to the party even though everyone's left because he can't bear to go home and face the day.

@timburrows

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