CLACTON-ON-SEA, ENGLAND – As he walks through the southeastern English seaside town of Clacton-on-Sea with a large banner for the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party under his arm, there is no doubt who 47-year-old builder Phil Drew will vote for in an election this week.
A former supporter of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, Drew likes UKIP’s promise to curb immigration, he likes its plan to pull Britain out of the European Union, and he believes the established political parties are out of touch.
He is not the only one.
UKIP appears set to win its first elected seat in Britain’s parliament in the seaside town on Thursday, a blow to Cameron which highlights the threat posed to his chances of victory in a national election seven months hence.
“They have come in and done nothing . . . we have been lied to in the past,” said Drew of Cameron’s party. “We have got to get the country out of this mess. The youngsters can’t get jobs, the immigrants . . . send all the money back home. We have got to look after our own first.”
Disenchanted, he voted for UKIP in the European elections in May. UKIP topped those polls in Britain, winning 24 of the country’s 73 seats in the European Parliament.
Cameron, whose party trails opposition Labour in most opinion polls, is scrambling to stop voters and even some of his lawmakers deserting him for UKIP ahead of next year’s national vote, a trend which could split the center-right vote and gift victory to Labour.
The Clacton vote was triggered by Conservative lawmaker Douglas Carswell’s decision in August to switch allegiance to UKIP and seek re-election to validate the move.
It has since been followed by the defection of another Conservative lawmaker, a former deputy London mayor and a major Conservative donor, changes which overshadowed the governing party’s final annual conference ahead of the 2015 election.
Carswell, 43, said he was resigning because he had lost faith in Cameron’s promises to try to renegotiate Britain’s EU ties if re-elected. Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum in 2017 on whether to stay in the EU after the planned renegotiation.
Opinion polls have shown Carswell, who won the seat for the Conservatives in 2010 with a majority of more than 12,000, will hold on to it. One put support for UKIP at 64 percent and the other at 56 percent, versus just 20 and 24 percent for the Conservatives.
While that is in part due to his personal popularity locally, one of the polls by Survation showed nearly 57 percent of respondents planned to vote for him because they like UKIP.
Like many British seaside resorts, Clacton has struggled to reverse a decline in visitor numbers as increasingly affordable overseas travel has shifted Britons’ holiday tastes.
A large proportion of its residents are retired and the amusement arcades on its 140-year-old pier lie largely deserted, while its fairground rides only open on weekends and during school holidays.
The nearby village of Jaywick, part of the parliamentary constituency where around 1,000 members of the public attended a UKIP meeting last month, has been ranked by the government as one of the most deprived areas in the country.
In terms of its demographics, Clacton is the most UKIP-friendly constituency in the country, according to analysis by academics Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford.
“It’s very white, very old, very working class, lots of economic deprivation and . . . there is a heightened anxiety over migration and Europe,” Goodwin said.
UKIP, whose prominent Clacton office is on the same road as that of the Conservatives, is throwing all its efforts into winning the seat with campaigners coming from as far afield as Scotland to drum up support.
“I have never seen so many UKIP posters,” said John Chapman, 67, a retired long-distance truck driver who doesn’t normally vote but is considering backing UKIP.
“Politicians all promise this and that, but nothing ever materializes. (Carswell) stands for quite a few things.”
As well as UKIP’s well-known stances on immigration and Europe, Carswell has built support over matters of local concern such as knife crime, linking it to what he said were failures in government policy over police powers to stop and search people.
“All of these local issues tell that same story of a remote, arrogant, political elite, that is unresponsive, unaccountable and doesn’t do what it says it is going to do,” Carswell said.
“David Cameron and (opposition Labour leader) Ed Miliband will come to this town, pontificate in politician-speak and wonder why people don’t connect to them.”
The feeling among voters in Clacton that the political elite doesn’t care about them has been fueled by a column in a national newspaper by a former Conservative lawmaker which said his party should turn their backs on the town.
“Clacton-on-Sea is going nowhere. Its voters are going nowhere. . . . This is Britain on crutches,” Matthew Parris wrote in an article which UKIP activists said only served to boost their support.
“I am not arguing that we should be careless of the needs of struggling people and places such as Clacton. But I am arguing, if I am honest, that we should be careless of their opinions,” Parris said.
The Conservatives cannot afford to turn a blind eye. A convincing win in Clacton could encourage further Conservative defections to UKIP, academic Goodwin said.
“Carswell is a respected politician in the Conservative Party . . . is very well regarded among activists and Conservative associations and is somebody who I think would be very well placed to further UKIP’s incursion into Conservative Party territory,” he added.
But it is the vote triggered by the defection of a second Conservative lawmaker, Mark Reckless, which could be more profound, he added, as that seat of Rochester and Strood is much further down the list of UKIP-friendly seats, at No. 271.
A date is yet to be set for that vote, expected in November.
“If UKIP wins Rochester and Strood then it is a very, very, very significant blow to the Conservative Party because potentially then you are looking at 100 or so Conservative seats that theoretically UKIP could take,” Goodwin said.