Tuesday, 7 October 2014

By-election Preview: Clacton

House of Commons
Caused by the resignation of Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, in order to seek re-election as a UKIP candidate.

(I am very grateful to "East Anglian Lefty" on the Vote UK Forum for extensive help with this preview, and the later preview for Brightlingsea.  "East Anglian Lefty" is the son of the Labour candidate in the Brightlingsea by-election.)

"Harwich for the continent, Frinton for the incontinent"
- graffiti at Liverpool Street station, London

Clacton Pier
There's been a noticeable trend in recent years for the party conference season to move away from the seaside.  This year Labour held their conference in Manchester, the Tories were in Birmingham and the Lib Dems are in Glasgow this week.  However, there is one thing which has brought most of the political campaigners in East Anglia to the seaside resort of Clacton in this year's conference season: a sensational by-election in north-east Essex that could end up making a bit of history.

The constituency based on north-east Essex has traditionally been known as Harwich.  In 1918, the first election in which women had the vote, it re-elected Major Harry Newton as a Coalition Conservative; Newton, a barrister and Boer War veteran, had taken over the seat in 1910.  Newton stood down in 1922 and the Conservatives lost Harwich to the Liberals, the victorious candidate being chocolate manufacturer Albert Hillary.  Hillary increased his majority in 1923, but with the Liberals in decline at the following year's election he lost his seat back to the Tories' Sir Frederick Rice.  Rice served just one term before standing down in 1929, and the Liberals came back with John Pybus, former chairman of English Electric, gaining the seat.

The 1929 election resulted in Ramsay MacDonald coming to power at the head of the second Labour government; however, Labour lacked a majority in Parliament and initially relied on the support of the Liberals.  This led to a split in the Liberal Party over the issue of free trade and protectionism, with a breakaway group in favour of protectionism forming the Liberal National Party under Sir John Simon.  Pybus joined the Liberal Nationals group and was appointed Minister for Transport in the National Government.  He was re-elected in 1931 under his new colours, without Conservative opposition, but failed to finish his second term, dying shortly before the 1935 election.

The National Liberals had no trouble holding Harwich in 1935 under their new candidate Stanley Holmes, a chartered accountant who had served as Liberal MP for North East Derbyshire from 1918 to 1922.  Holmes held the seat with few problems until his elevation to the peerage (as Lord Dovercourt) in 1954; he was never opposed by the Conservatives and by 1950 the National Liberals were formally allied with the Conservatives.

Holmes' elevation to the peerage resulted in a by-election in Harwich in 1954.  The new National Liberal and Conservative candidate was Julian Ridsdale, a nephew of Stanley Baldwin who had served as a military intelligence officer in Japan during the Second World War; by now he was running a fruit farm in Sussex.  Ridsdale's wife Paddy had been a secretary to Ian Fleming during the war, and was rumoured to be the inspiration for a character called Miss Moneypenny in Fleming's hit book Casino Royale which had been published the previous year.  Ridsdale was up against Labour, who by now had emerged as the main challengers to the National Liberals and had cut their majority to 11 points in the 1945 election.  Fighting her first election campaign, the Labour candidate was a 23-year-old journalist called Shirley Catlin, fresh out of university where she had been the first woman to chair the Oxford University Labour Club.  We know her today as Shirley Williams.  Ridsdale won the by-election by 59% to 41%, starting off a long Parliamentary career which lasted until his retirement in 1992, when he passed the seat on to Iain Sproat.  A journalist and publisher, Sproat had previously served three terms as Conservative MP for Aberdeen South before a chicken-run in 1983 to what he thought was a safer seat in the Borders went horribly wrong.

Sproat's fourth term in Parliament saw him appointed to the Major government, in which he served for four years as minister for sport.  But as it turned out, Sproat only had one term as MP for Harwich; in 1997 he became one of a large number of ministers to lose their seats in the Labour landslide, Ivan Henderson making one of the most unlikely Labour gains of all with a majority of 1,216, to become the first, and so far only, Labour MP for Harwich.  A stevedore and trade union official at the port of Harwich, Henderson even managed to increase his majority in the 2001 election in a rematch with Sproat, but couldn't hold back the returning Tory tide in 2005 and lost his seat to new Tory candidate Douglas Carswell.

The son of two medical doctors, Carswell had grown up in Africa, where his father diagnosed Uganda's first case of AIDS in the 1980s; after graduating in history from UEA and King's College London, he had worked in TV broadcasting in Italy and, after being the Tory sacrificial lamb against Tony Blair in Sedgefield in 2001, in the Tory party's policy unit.  In Parliament, Carswell emerged as a campaigner on traditional Conservative values, radical political reform (he was the only Conservative MP to support proportional representation) and withdrawal from the European Union.

Carswell's position in parliament was greatly enhanced in 2010 by the Boundary Commission, which undertook a radical redrawing of the constituencies in northern Essex in order to allow for an eighteenth seat for the county.  The physical effect of this was to remove the port of Harwich from the seat which bore its name and transfer it to the North Essex constituency; the political effect was to greatly increase the Conservative majority in the rump Harwich constituency, which was renamed Clacton after its main town.  This increase came about because Harwich is a major port, with regular passenger ferry services over the North Sea to the Hook of Holland (the Esbjerg ferry has just been discontinued), and has a large number of Labour voters.  Ivan Henderson did try to get his seat back in 2010, but without his Harwich powerbase (he is now the town's county councillor) lost badly.

Without Harwich in the Clacton seat, what you got left?  An awful lot of pensioners, that's what.  About half of the Clacton constituency consists of the town of Clacton-on-Sea, a traditional and slightly depressed seaside resort.  To the east of Clacton are the elderly Holland-on-Sea, once home of the singer Sade; Frinton-on-Sea, one of the most well-known retirement ghettos in England (this is a place which protested against the recent removal of the town's level crossing gates); and Walton on the Naze, a small seaside resort.  Inland are a series of villages including Thorpe-le-Soken, whose name commemorates an ecclesiastical peculiar of times past; Weeley, once known for its music festival; and Great Clacton, both distinct and indistinguishable from Clacton town.  To the west of Clacton-on-Sea is Jaywick, part of which (the Brooklands Estate) is famous for being the sub-area at the very bottom of the Governemnt's indices of multiple deprivation; possibly not what the Times foresaw in 1871 when it wrote about Clacton "there will be no slums, nor do any object that can offend the eye".  The Times was referring to what was effectively the opening of Clacton-on-Sea, which owes its entire existence to the vision of Peter Bruff, a nineteenth-century railway engineer and entrepreneur who is almost single-handedly responsible for the town's development.

Clacton wards in Tendring District Council showing 2011 winners in each ward

Peter Bruff's name is commemorated in one of Clacton's electoral wards.  The town is the administrative centre for Tendring district council, one of the more interesting councils when election time comes round because of the wide range of localist parties that stand.  Tendring's last ordinary election was in May 2011; as can be seen from the map (grey wards are outside the constituency) the Tories cleaned up in Frinton and Walton, Holland-on-Sea was dominated by a local residents' party, the inland areas mostly elected independents while Clacton mostly elected Tory councillors, although Labour can win in the rougher areas of town (such as Golf Green ward, which includes Jaywick).  In 2012 there were two by-elections in St Bartholomews ward, both of which were held by the Holland-on-Sea Residents Association.  St Osyth parish is in both the Clacton constituency and the Brightlingsea county council division, and is covered by a two-member district ward of the same name, which is the only area which will go to the polls in both by-elections. Currently it is represented by two independents, although in 2007 the Conservatives took one of the seats by a single vote.

The district as a whole most recently went to the polls in the Essex county council election of May 2013.  By this point UKIP were taking local elections very seriously.  The Tories held Frinton and Walton and two of the three divisions covering Clacton town, but lost Clacton East to the localist group Tendring First and the two divisions covering the rural part of the constituency to UKIP, although only about half of Tendring Rural East division and one-sixth of Brightlingsea division is within the constituency boundary.  The Tories and UKIP were both in contention throughout the constituency and scores were low; the highest winning share of the vote was 38% for the Tories in Clacton West (to 31% for UKIP), while Clacton North was won by the Tories with just 29% of the vote, Labour and UKIP polling 25% each.  The Conservatives were actually pushed down to third place in Brightlingsea with 25%; UKIP won with 30% and the Lib Dems were runners-up on 27%.  In the seventeen months since then there have been three district council by-elections in wards within Clacton town, all of which were held by the Conservatives.

For students of the Second World War, the name "Jaywick" may conjure up not an image of a modern-day Essex slum on the edge of Clacton but a memory of an Australian/British special forces operation in 1943 to raid Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour.  It worked because the enemy were taken completely by surprise.  While there have been signs of a Eurosceptic vote in this corner of Essex for a long time (the old Harwich seat saw the best score for the short-lived Referendum Party in 1997, and UKIP saved their deposit in 2001), nobody foresaw Douglas Carswell's defection to UKIP and wish to seek re-election as a UKIP candidate.  Not David Cameron, who wasn't informed in advance; not the Tory whips, who would undoubtedly have squashed the idea; and certainly not UKIP's county councillor for Brightlingsea Roger Lord, a former Tory figure who had already been selected as UKIP's PPC for Clacton.  In the ensuing fallout Lord resigned from Essex county council to force a by-election of his own, in which he has endorsed the Liberal Democrats.  This is better than fiction; you can't make this sort of thing up and expect to be believed.

"Racist" Banksy mural in Clacton - borrowed in good faith from banksy.co.uk
Carswell will appear at the top of the ballot paper for this increasingly bizarre by-election thanks to John Black, who was to stand as the candidate of the Scottish Jacobite Party, failing to correctly fill out his nomination papers.  While there were rumours that the Mayor of London Boris Johnson would throw his hat into the ring, the official Conservative candidate is Giles Watling, who as well as being a district councillor for Frinton-on-Sea is an actor probably best known for the role of Oswald in the TV series Bread.  (Again, you can't make this up.)  Labour have selected Tim Young, a Colchester borough councillor.  The Lib Dem candidate is another actor, former mayor of Bishop's Stortford and former East Hertfordshire district councillor Andy Graham, who gives an address in Oxfordshire.  The Greens have reselected Chris Southall, who fought the seat in 2010.  Also standing are the Monster Raving Loony Party's Howling Laud Hope and two independent candidates: Charlotte Rose is a "high class courtesan" (ahem) from London, while Bruze Sizer is an oncologist at Colchester Hospital who is standing on the single issue of health and cancer care.

Two opinion polls taken in the immediate aftermath of Carswell's defection both showed him well ahead, and the election-data blog (whose author, like all good psephologists, is a Boltonian) has a good analysis of how Clacton's elderly demographic is particularly friendly to UKIP.  Nonetheless, it is now over thirty years since the Mitcham and Morden by-election of 1982, the last time in which a defector to a new party immediately resigned to seek re-election, and Bruce Douglas-Mann (the defector in that case) lost.  We shall see on Friday morning whether Carswell's decision to join a new party has come at the cost of his job; or whether he has become the first member of the UK Independence Party to be elected to the House of Commons on that ticket.

Douglas Carswell (UKIP)
Andy Graham (LD)
Howling Laud Hope (Loony)
Charlotte Rose (Ind)
Bruce Sizer (Ind)
Chris Southall (Grn)
Giles Watling (C)
Tim Young (Lab)

May 2010 result C 22867 Lab 10799 LD 5577 BNP 1975 Tendring First 1078 Grn 535 Ind 292

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