Watford is a couple of hours drive from Clacton, but, despite the potential tortures of the M25, it was a UKIP call to action and a sense of impending history that made Phil Cox and I abandon our work desks and head to the bracing Clacton coast on by-election day. By sheer fluke of timing, we found ourselves made part of a very small group that were sent campaigning with Nigel Farage around Jaywick, the most deprived part of the town. It was quite an unexpected thrill to be able to stroll up and down empty backwater roads and be chatting with the party leader in complete freedom and without any media in tow.
Most of the housing in the selected area were no more than single story beach-dwellings arranged in many little cul-de-sacs and sat on crumbling roads with few or no amenities. Knocking on doors here led to the most surreal moment when we came to the end of a road alongside fields where suddenly we found ourselves in a windswept middle of nowhere. Nigel knocked on the door of a small dwelling that seemed like it had been deliberately built to mark the end of Clacton. A man answered. His jaw literally dropped as he discovered perhaps one of the most recognised faces on television standing on his doorstep! Apparently no politicians take much notice of this area so you can barely imagine his shock at finding Nigel standing in front of him asking him if he supported UKIP!! Thankfully, the man replied that he did, and I guessed that even if he didn’t really, he now would from that moment on. Indeed, he’ll probably dine out on the tale of that encounter for a very long time.
In the afternoon we picked up a chap from London called Andy from the local UKIP centre of operations and were all duly directed, by the amazing ball of happy energy that is Lisa Duffy, to knock on doors at a far end of the constituency, in Walton-on-the-Naze. It took over 20 minutes to drive there and was effectively two towns away from Clacton. Funny things these Parliamentary Boundaries. We clearly were paying the penalty for our earlier excitement alongside Nigel, this time being cast adrift from the rest of the UKIP hoard, but hey, somebody had to do it.
Our mood dampened though as rain showers began lashing down and we jokingly fought each other for the right to campaign on doorsteps with porches. Was it my imagination or were the electorate looking happier? I suppose I can see how it could make the mistrustful gleeful watching politicians being rained on. But no matter, soggy or not, it still felt like we were doing something very worthwhile on a day that would be long remembered.
As darkness fell and the campaigning ended we gathered, inevitably, in a seafront pub to rest a while and enjoy eating, drinking (those not driving, anyway) with other Ukippers. Phil even managed to get a photo of himself with the Monster Raving Loony candidate who had arrived to quench his thirst. Not sure that was wise because the inevitable caption will inquire that if MRL man was the loony, did that make Phil the fruitcake?
Suitably refreshed, we all headed out to converge on another pub reserved for us activists from 10:15 onwards where we could chat and watch events unfolding on TV. Electoral rules meant only a few UKIP people were allowed to the actual count, but no matter, the better atmosphere, and of course the beer pumps, were where we were. Result.
We all enjoyed, in a masochistic sort of way, watching Patrick O’Flynn on Question Time fighting off the obviously pre-planned mass attack of left-wing wasps so thoughtfully drafted in by the BBC whenever they get a chance to sting a UKIP panellist. I confess it was good to watch with so many UKIP people. Somehow I now recognise that shouting at Harriet Harman whilst sitting on your own sofa and your wife giving you that ‘not politics again’ look is easily bettered by a good round of booing in the company of like minded people.
As midnight turned to early morning it pretty soon became clear that we were going to win handsomely in Clacton but, around one o’clock, the less anticipated Heywood and Middleton result came in. Less anticipated? We should have known better. The marvellous shock that we had so nearly captured the seat – barely 2% behind – in a rock solid labour heartland left everyone cheering and bubbling. If we can get that close to winning there, is there any Labour seat in the country that is safe from a UKIP attack?
Impatiently, we had to wait until quarter to three in the morning for the main course to be served. Suddenly our main man, Douglas Carswell, was on the stage and the result declared which left us all reeling. Yes, we expected to win, but never with the margin now echoing through our dazed minds. 60% to our Doug (he is ours now). 60%! He ‘only’ got 53% at the last election. Nobody, and I mean nobody, had predicted he would actually extend his lead; many Conservative voters were expected to punish him. Instead, not only did local people support Douglas on a personal basis, they clearly endorsed his decision to swap to UKIP. At a stroke, not only did we have a UKIP MP seated in Parliament, but also a safe, rock solid UKIP seat as well! The pub went wild!!
A round of Shhh’s quickly ensued as we all barely managed to contain ourselves when Douglas marched to the mike to deliver his victory speech. This was something we all wanted to hear and in moments you could hear a pin drop in the room where seconds earlier, bedlam reigned. And what a speech it was too. If you haven’t heard it, I recommend you hunt it down and burn it into your mind. Here was a man from the past. Mild mannered, gracious in victory and at last, a politician that showed the kind of moral leadership which offers a role model we would all do well to follow. I had thought his breed all but extinct, yet here I witnessed a rebirth. Perhaps at last we are witnessing the turning of the circle, a point in time where people are voting not for the image, not for the sound bite, but for a person who has by their actions shown that they care about the things that really matter; honesty, integrity, loyalty to one’s beliefs and a sense of public duty.
By contrast, the other parties are in a complete spin because they still don’t get it. In the aftermath, in television interviews, they stuck to their tired old lines insisting people have got it wrong and that by voting for UKIP they will let in Labour or they will let in the Conservatives. It is beyond their arrogant comprehension that the problem is not with the voters, but that the problem is with themselves. Douglas instinctively understands that and it is one reason why he is so popular. What comes across throughout Clacton is that Douglas puts people first. He cares about them and their futures and puts their needs before his own. Truly a great man of our time.
Back to us in the pub, and there was now a tired frisson of excitement. We were all waiting for something more to happen, though in true UKIP style, nobody seemed to be quite certain whether there was to be any more. Half an hour passed with people chatting and laughing before suddenly a ring of cheers broke out as Nigel steamed in through the doors and delivered an excellent off the cuff speech. It really was quite something even though, for this one night at least, he was not the main man. We knew now that Douglas would also join us once he had satisfied the appetite of the media scrum, all wanting to feed on the thoughts of Douglas in a cataclysmic night for politics.
Nigel provided a brief interlude of fun as we waited when he went and stood behind the bar. It suited him. In another life he could so easily have been the friendly publican with a cheery charm and friendly voice to soothe the weary traveller. He really is free of airs and graces, as open and easy going as he appears on TV, very much a man of the people.
Now though we were getting twitchy. A BBC film crew had arrived which clearly heralded that a VIP was on his way. Nigel chatted to the media and did a brief interview outside which many of us spilled into the car park to eavesdrop. However, when he spied the vehicle with you-know-who turning in, the boss ordered us all indoors. This was to be Douglas’ night and Nigel thoughtfully wanted to make sure that he had star billing. We all returned into the pub and waited for our hero. Cue lights, action and in came Douglas with his wife, the two side by side, him rightfully sharing the limelight with the woman without whose support this could never have happened. The doors opened and the cheers exploded, nearly blowing the roof off the pub. It was 3:30am and I fear we must have woken up half of Clacton who, if they had not been aware that they were now the proud possessors of Britain’s first UKIP MP, then they were now.
Everyone was euphoric and could not wait for Douglas to speak. Again he did not disappoint. Heartfelt thank-you’s and special mentions to those who had put in effort above the call of duty were delivered humbly and were clearly truly meant. He hit the tone of the night perfectly and clipped his address to the ideal length, knowing that everyone just couldn’t wait to go up to congratulate him individually.
The evening was winding down as I found myself talking to Douglas’ wife, Clementine. I just had to thank her for taking the plunge to support Douglas in his switch to UKIP. Leaving behind a lifetime of friends and colleagues from the Conservative Party is no mean feat when it is not your own career that will benefit. This night that we were all celebrating was as much down to her unselfish choice as it was Douglas’s. Unexpectedly, Nigel came over to us and I found myself in a three way conversation with the Party Leader. Not something I could imagine happening with the likes of Cameron. As Clementine was called away, I was left enjoying the light hearted conversation about Nigel’s family on a one to one basis. I must admit I felt unworthy of the individual attention from such a busy man, but what struck me was that despite being mega-famous now, Nigel carried on chatting with me so naturally because he really does see himself as no more than another worker for UKIP. Fame has not spoilt him one iota.
But this day was not about Nigel, Phil, me or ultimately, even Douglas. This was the moment in time when UKIP proved to the nation that we truly are the fourth force in politics. In fact, given the LibDems dismal 1% in Clacton, we are in all honesty the third force in British politics. Just two more failed parties left to knock out now and, after Thursday night, nobody can ever again say that it is not possible.
History was made in Clacton on Thursday and Phil and I, just two ordinary UKIP foot soldiers from Watford, were tremendously fortunate to find ourselves at the heart of it.
A truly remarkable day.