Anyone who watched the latest episode of Mary Queen of the High Street will have been mildly amused to see the retail diva encounter the good burghers of Margate. Urbane, fabulous and witty, with a mission tinged an air liberal imperialism, as if ‘to explore strange new worlds’. One can almost imagine her government reports: ‘It’s commercial life, Prime Minister, but not as we know it.’ Suffice to say, much as some of the animosity was no doubt hammed up for the cameras, not every inhabitant of Planet Thanet welcomed Portas with open arms.
What project more symbolises the Cameroon ‘big society’ effete tofu-laden conservatism than Operation Portas? And how is the once-bustling holiday destination of the Isle of Thanet responding to the Prime Minister’s affections? By voting UKIP in droves.
Indeed, there could almost be an episode of the BBC’s Coast series looking at Nigel Farage’s new recruits in this month’s local elections. From Shoreham to Skegness, from Folkestone to Minehead, they do like the purples by the seaside.
It is easy to understand a certain innate conservatism in communities that have in many ways been ravaged by social and economic liberalisation. With more Brits having substituted their bucket-and-spade trains with Marbella-bound planes over the decades and many of the jobs at peak season being taken by migrants, it’s easy to see how Europe, both as a place and a people, looms large on the local mindset.
The coastal districts where UKIP were neck-and-neck with the Conservatives include Castle Point, the place which drew the highest numbers of ‘no’ votes in the 2011 AV referendum – a triumph for conservative scepticism over liberal enthusiasm. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into pure Conservatism with places like Folkestone and Shoreham having elected Liberal Democrat councils in past years, as well as Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Thanet South, Felixstowe and Waveney all choosing Labour MPs, at least for a time, under Tony Blair. Boston Council was even controlled by ‘Bypass Independents’ from 2007 to 2011 (think roads not heart operations) and the Greens took a council seat in Hythe. These voters are used to being fed up and shopping around for an opportunity to vent their frustrations – the big difference is that they seem to have settled nationally on one party for this parliament.
But Boston and Norfolk aren’t just about the seaside. They’re also about carrots, salads and sugar beet. Indeed, it’s possible to see a clear UKIP ‘Lettuce Belt’ in the Fens. It’s here where immigration is key; the arduous activity of picking vegetables requiring large amounts of manual labour at particular times of the year. Jesse Norman’s Hereford & South Herefordshire seat also has a high level of arable farming, and while the district saw no elections this year, UKIP topped the poll in the neighbouring Forest Of Dean, a former mining community, where local jobs are scarce and whose residents will hop across the county border for work. But not in the fields, it seems. Norman declared in a parliamentary debate last year that ‘farmers advertise scrupulously for local, English labour when attempting to fill such jobs, but often without success’. Or as one young man in Peterborough, offered a £7 an hour job picking vegetables, told the BBC in 2008: ‘No mate, I’d prefer to sign-on than do that. I don’t want to work in like no cornfield. I don’t want to work with a load of foreigners.’
As such, local farmers take advantage of the ‘Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme’, hiring largely Polish labour in 2004 and Romanian and Bulgarian since 2007. One of the great ironies of the lifting of restrictions on the latter’s employment next year will mean they can set their sights higher than a damp Fenland field and local farmers may have to look for migrant workers from outside the EU. Good luck with that migration cap, Theresa May.
It doesn’t take a statistical genius to work out the effects of this migration on the local population, but I’ll give you some anyway. The 2011 census has released the nationality of anyone in a given authority – and the key figure is not the volume of people from countries that have joined the EU since 2004, but how those numbers compare to the existing migrant population. As such, much as there is a large Polish community in Haringey, the area is diverse and fairly accustomed to such an influx.
A brief glance at the figures shows a stark pattern: of the five council areas that voted this May where more than 40 per cent of non-British or Irish nationals come from the new EU states, UKIP won two or more councillors in each. In Boston, where UKIP comfortably topped the poll, the figure is 71 per cent. In Fenland, whose local MP Steve Barclay told a parliamentary debate last year of pensioners’ complaints about urinating migrants outside their house, the figure was 57 per cent. His seat contains Wisbech, where UKIP won all three councillors, and a Facebook group highlighting immigration issues in a town of under 21,000 residents has 1,065 members.
Similar tensions are likely in Peterborough, which would be my One to Watch for next year’s elections – where a purple surge may serve in 2015 to hand the seat of arch-Eurosceptic Stewart Jackson to Labour, with UKIP themselves more likely to target Shailesh Vara’s Cambridgeshire North West constituency, having topped the poll in the Huntingdonshire half of the seat this May. They already have a candidate against Vara: local councillor Peter Reeve, who has just found himself re-elected in Ramsey with two thirds of the vote.
And finally, UKIP did well in Aylesbury, where the local Conservative MP hasn’t categorically said whether or not he will vote against the hated High Speed Rail, prompting the Stop HS2 campaign to erect a five metre banner asking ‘where are you David Lidington?’ The answer to that is probably ‘in the Foreign Office’ and much as he might not be keen to resign as Europe Minister to vote against the rail project, it seems hardly the perfect job to see off Farage’s troops. Perhaps he and Forest Of Dean MP and Immigration Minister, Mark Harper, can set up a support group for the embattled.
Mark Gettleson is an elections and polling analyst and columnist for The House magazine.