Hot Seats is a series in which academics report from the UK’s most interesting marginal constituencies. Rob Johns takes the measure of Thurrock.
UKIP unveiled its 2015 manifesto in a hotel in Thurrock, a borough constituency just outside the M25 on the Essex side of the Dartford Crossing. The choice was no surprise, since this has long been one of the party’s top target seats. Ambitions there will have been fuelled further by the most recent Ashcroft constituency poll, which put UKIP on 35% – four points ahead of Labour.
Since other recent polls in UKIP’s top targets have shown it trailing, Thurrock looks likely to be one of the party’s few successes.
But strangely enough, this seat doesn’t fit the profile of a typical UKIP target. A look at Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin’s list of the seats whose socioeconomic and demographic profiles make them best suited to the party, Thurrock is not even in the top 100.
Whereas UKIP’s most fertile territory is supposedly what Morrissey might call “the coastal towns they forgot to close down” – Clacton, Skegness, Ramsgate and Great Yarmouth – Thurrock is altogether different.
There is no concentration of older voters here. The seat is estuarine rather than coastal, only 20 miles or so from London, and it feels the positive economic effects of being close to the UK’s economic powerhouse. Major employers such as Unilever and Proctor & Gamble operate large plants, and the unemployment rate is not much different from the national average.
The Lakeside shopping complex, a sprawling monument to modern affluence that once spawned its own docusoap, brings hundreds of thousands of visitors into the constituency each week. Aside from the World Darts Championship’s desertion of the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, neither Thurrock nor its people have been economically “left behind”.
However, as the authors of Revolt on the Right also make clear, the local political context matters too. While the social and demographic conditions aren’t great for UKIP, the party still polled respectably in Thurrock in 2010 (7.4%, more than double its national vote share that time around) and took 18% of the vote in the 2012 local elections.
The party’s nationwide polling surge since then has propelled it into pole position in Thurrock.
So what makes this seat so ripe for a UKIP candidate?
Falling into place
First, there’s the collapse of the British National Party (BNP), which actually outpolled UKIP in Thurrock in 2010. The question of the overlap between UKIP and the BNP is moot; the point is that a wealth of survey research from the past decade (and UKIP’s own behaviour) has shown that to a meaningful extent, both draw from the same reservoir of support. So the BNP’s disappearance from the scene has clearly played some role in UKIP’s rise to the top.
In 2010, the BNP candidate Emma Colgate was already a BNP councillor in the borough. But she has since resigned from the council, and this time around, the party will not be fielding a candidate in Thurrock at all.
In Tim Aker, meanwhile, UKIP has the rare luxury of a candidate who was born in the seat, politically experienced (elected an MEP in 2014 at the age of 29) and not extravagantly gaffe-prone. He and his campaign team are turning these things to their advantage with an intensive doorstep effort. In the Ashcroft poll mentioned above, 31% of people reported contact from UKIP, ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives.
In 2010, Thurrock was the third-tightest result in the UK, with the Tories’ Jackie Doyle-Price winning it from Labour by just 92 votes. Given the small shifts in nationwide vote intention since then, another close Conservative-Labour contest could have been expected.
The connection between Tory-Labour marginality and UKIP’s prospects depends heavily on the latter’s viability. If UKIP is trailing badly, a close race would probably prompt the party’s remaining sympathisers to choose a side in the Tory-Labour battle. But since UKIP is a strong contender, a close race becomes an advantage for the simple mathematical reason that the required winning percentage – 37% for Doyle-Price in 2010 – is much lower in a marginal than in a historically safe seat.
And it looks like these advantages could just pay off for UKIP on May 7.
The bookmakers predict that the lead it has found will hold up, generally pricing UKIP at around 4/6 with Labour in second.
And the academics at Election Forecast, not optimistic about UKIP’s nationwide performance, give the party a 48% chance of winning the seat.
What is clear is that this race is close enough to make the final weeks of campaigning, both national and local, absolutely crucial. All of the polling evidence suggests that if UKIP fails in Thurrock, both Labour and the Conservatives are in serious contention for the seat.
That means there’ll be a frantic attempt on all sides to stop as many defections to UKIP as can be prevented, probably accompanied by a flurry of misleading information about ways to vote tactically.
But it’s quite likely that these frantic efforts will fail to give either Tories or Labour a serious advantage, and will simply cancel each other out – leaving UKIP’s fragile advantage intact.
The mood has certainly been set for a stunning outsider victory. Unhappiness runs high here: Thurrock came bottom of all British local authorities in the ONS’s 2012 life satisfaction survey.
Perhaps this explains the mismatch between Thurrock’s far-from-miserable socioeconomic profile and its appetite for the BNP and UKIP, parties associated with the disaffected and marginalised. That same mismatch is evident when you compare the thriving Lakeside development with the downtrodden centres of nearby market towns such as Grays.
If the key driver of UKIP support is a sense that the old, familiar England is disappearing, then Thurrock will be fertile soil indeed. And if the atmosphere in your constituency feels similar, perhaps UKIP will soon be knocking on your door.