As the setting for a reality TV series filled with scandals, bitter rivalries and tales of unrequited love, one English county has fascinated millions of people – in the shape of The Only Way is Essex, or Towie, to its fans.
But who would have guessed the same county would spawn a rival series with the UK Independence Party’s farcical attempts to select a candidate for South Basildon and East Thurrock?
To recap: Kerry Smith has just quit as the Ukip candidate for that seat after a party colleague released a tape of him making homophobic remarks. This came less than a week after the notoriety-prone former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton quit as a candidate for the same seat, muttering about “Ukip dirty tricks” as somebody released something on a dodgy expense claim.
If that wasn’t enough, Ukip’s general secretary, Roger Bird, who had been talked of as a candidate for South Basildon and East Thurrock, has been suspended after allegedly sexually harassing another candidate, Natasha Bolter. Clearly, as power is beckoning, senior members of Ukip are partaking in that oldest political tradition: backstabbing to clear a way to the top.
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But apart from being mildly entertaining, why should Ukip’s travails in a corner of a southern English county matter to voters in Scotland?
The reason was underlined by the joint press conference between the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and leaders of Plaid Cymru and the English Greens, where they set out their “anti-austerity alliance” stall for a hung parliament in 2015. The general election result in May next year is probably the most unpredictable in modern British political history, and the wave of “anti-politics” is thrusting minor parties into a position of potential powerbrokers. Ukip remains the most likely big player in this and its support remains at around 15 per cent, despite its internal problems and leader Nigel Farage not managing to keep the same sex education policy from the beginning of a broadcast interview to the end.
However, to hold the balance of power Ukip needs to win its target seats off the Tories, of which South Basildon and East Thurrock is one, along with a clutch around Essex and Kent.
“Essex Man” and “Essex Girls” have been the subject of white van, dancing- around-handbag jokes since they became symbolic of the Thatcherite working class. But joking aside, this is a bellwether county which, arguably, decides UK elections more than Scotland.
If Ukip manages to get serious candidates in place there, it will set the terms of the election debate and the message of the main parties may well be “the only way is Essex” with an anti-EU and anti-immigration campaign.
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