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Could home of the Windrush turn UKIP?

HISTORIC: New arrivals from Jamaica witnessing their first taste of Britain at Tilbury Docks, Thurrock, in 1948

IN THE summer of 2012, as the Olympic torch made its way through Britain’s smiling, flag-waving communities, the constituency of Thurrock was out of step with the positive mood of the nation.

According to the government’s wellbeing survey published in July of that year, people in the industrial, working class area of Essex in the Thames Estuary had the lowest life satisfaction levels in the country.

At a glance, you can see why. The Tilbury Docks, where the Windrush arrived in 1948, is no longer an arrival point for hopeful people starting new lives.

It’s a port for thousands of shipping containers, arriving and departing with the gloomy honk of the cargo vessels’ horns.

A few miles to the west, the town of Grays sits on the banks of the Thames where factories billow smoke over a river wide and murky enough to inspire Dickensian forebodings that something unpleasant might wash up on its muddy shore.

Used as an overspill to relocate unhoused people on waiting lists from overcrowded inner London boroughs, and with above average unemployment levels and house prices averaging £168,000 (significantly less than the £514,000 in London) the capital’s professional workforce is also migrating here, attracted by affordable dwellings or perhaps forced out of London’s property market.

In the wake of that wellbeing survey, one of Thurrock’s lifelong residents told a journalist it was “one big cesspit”.

But the incumbent Tory MP for Thurrock, Jackie Doyle-Price, who won the seat by just 92 votes from Labour in 2010, puts that down to the fact that her constituents “aren’t backwards in coming forward and telling you what they think. They articulate their grumpiness, but they’re good people”.


ELECTION BATTLE: Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price is confident she will retain her seat

At the last general election, 3,618 people voted BNP and 3,390 voted UKIP. This time the BNP don’t have a candidate and UKIP, which views this seat as a key target, has selected one of their big guns, former head of policy Tim Aker, to contest it.

Pollsters predict UKIP will absorb those BNP votes and attract disgruntled Tory voters too.

As a result, both Labour and UKIP see the campaign as a two-way fight, but Doyle-Price thinks she will still win it.

“Here in Thurrock UKIP are making their biggest inroads in what we’d normally describe as Labour’s best areas,” she tells The Voice. “And the reason for that is they’ve lost the white working class. The Labour party has become a party of metropolitan liberals who can’t engage with the people it was set up to represent. UKIP has given them somewhere else to go.”

Thurrock has a history of voting for far-right parties like the BNP, but with 17.5 per cent of the electorate identifying as non-white, predominantly African, does this suggest a racially divided area?

“No,” says Doyle-Price. “Regrettably some people have racist views but you’d hear the same views anywhere in the country outside the M25. It doesn’t mean Thurrock is divided. But again, lots of people who voted BNP voted Labour before. It’s the Labour party they’ve fallen out of love with.”

She says Thurrock ticks all the boxes for UKIP. “But they’re not going to win it, I am,” she adds defiantly.

However her Labour challenger, Polly Billington, says only her party can beat UKIP.

“It’s going to be really close,” she says “and if there’s one message I’d send to the readers of The Voice it’s that if we want to stop UKIP, every single vote for Labour will count. It is a three-way fight, but we will be the ones who stop UKIP, not the Tories. The UKIP vote is bigger than the Tory’s now. Ultimately, the choice is a Labour government or a Tory government propped up by UKIP and being made even more extreme about cuts and about attacks on the NHS which people really value.”

Around the country UKIP has selected black candidates and here in Thurrock they’ve chosen another black and minority ethnic (BME) candidate Tim Aker, who is half Turkish. Does this mean BME peope are actually considering voting UKIP?

“Absolutely not,” says Billington. “People who care about contributing to our community and making it stronger and a place where we have a tolerant attitude to people coming from different places and who believe in British values are rejecting UKIP resoundingly, and that includes significant numbers of BME voters. There’s a serious threat of the politics of division and despair and people know what the consequences of that are as we’ve had it before. They’re very clear they want to stop UKIP and will vote Labour.”


LABOUR CHALLENGER: Polly Billington

She says she understands the anxieties of those who have lived here all their lives who are seeing an influx of people from London which they fear will drive up house prices and put pressure on local services.

Billington also acknowledges that says they are used to seeing neighbours who look like them and sound like them, but adds: “You can play on those differences or you can bring people together with the things they share.”

One way to engender optimism and togetherness is by increasing opportunities. So Billington’s campaign for a technical university giving local people the chance to earn and learn, to train for the jobs of the future and to earn vocational qualifications in things like accountancy and engineering is chiming with black voters she speaks to on doorsteps.

“One of the biggest hurdles of university is the cost of moving away and not knowing if they’ll have a job when they finish,” she says. Instead, she believes local businesses and the “very entrepreneurial community” around her will help design the courses and ensure there are jobs.

Other Labour manifesto policies Billington says black voters want to hear about are childcare (Ed Miliband has proposed 25 hours of free childcare per week for parents of 3 and 4-year-olds), transport (rail fares under Labour would be frozen for a year and be subject to strict price caps thereafter) and housing.

“Seventy five per cent of demand for housing in this borough will come from people who already live here,” she says, bucking the myth that migration is straining the local housing stock. “We have 16-year-olds with no prospect of being able to get a house and parents with adult children still living at home in their 20s and 30s. We need to protect green belt land which is why our priority is to build on brownfield sites.”

On the issue of black representation within Labour, she says it is not good enough that there are so many black party members but so few in positions where they can influence the party and stand for election. “It’s a basic part of democracy and you can’t call it a democracy if the representatives don’t look like the people they seek to represent.”

The Voice put the same question to Liberal Democrat, Rhodri Jamieson-Ball, who was selected in March to run in Thurrock and appears to be playing catch-up.

“How can the Liberal Democrats attract BMEs? It’s a long-term solution; we have to showcase the good quality BME candidates we have. Like Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, the first Turkish Cypriot woman in the House of Lords, like Duwayne Brooks who was unfortunately with Stephen Lawrence when he was murdered. Like Pauline Pearce, the Hackney heroine, who is standing for the Liberal Democrats because she recognised we’re a party that gives people second chances and doesn’t write people off because of what they did when they were younger.”

Away from the mainstream candidates, a smaller party has fundamentally set out to represent people of every background; the appropriately named All People’s Party. In Thurrock, the candidate is Aba Kristilolu, originally from Nigeria.


LIB DEM HOPEFUL: Rhodri Jamieson-Ball

Kristilolu has lived in countries in three continents and says: “If I’ve been through that and settled in Thurrock then it shows it’s a good enough place. But Thurrock can do better; it has potential which isn’t being realised. It’s a beautiful place but it’s being rocked by tribal, narrow, parochial, political interests. People who divide communities and talk about ‘us and them’, ‘migrants and non-migrants’. Dividing people will get us nowhere. Politicians look back in fear and project their fears. We don’t need to be afraid of anybody.”

He is, of course, talking about UKIP, and the language he uses is eloquent and moving. He talks of a “malaise spreading in the community” and says he is horrified by the language used by people he considers neighbours and friends who have been “poisoned by the agenda of the media”.

“They complain about Polish people and I tell them they are immigrants too, they’re not born here,” he adds. “These are black people spewing this filth.”

After a two-day delay The Voice finally manages to speak to the man accused of instigating the politics of division in the area. Aker, who we caught up with in Millbank just after his lunchtime appearance on BBC2’s Daily Politics show, was born and raised in Thurrock and quit his role spearheading party policy to contest the seat.

We started by asking him what the legacy of UKIP’s policies will be for the young British children born here in the last decade to parents from Poland, Lithuania or Bulgaria whose parents have been told they aren’t welcome here.

“That’s a false diagnosis,” he says. “UKIP are saying that policies have been made without the consent of the British people. We don’t blame people for the policy failures of previous governments. We want to welcome people that want to come and contribute. Being British is inclusive, it’s forward-thinking and forward-looking and what we want is better integrated, supported communities that can make this country strong again.”

When pressed for an answer on whether the second generation will carry the same feelings of distrust or anger that second generation Caribbeans or Asians were handed down from their parents because of the way Britain’s right-wing politicians rejected them, Aker responds: “I hope they look back and see that UKIP were right.”

But then he gives an answer to a question that wasn’t asked. “We shouldn’t be embroiling ourselves in endless foreign wars. We need to re-democratise the country again and increase turnouts so people feel completely engaged with the political process.”

At last year’s Thurrock council by-election, the Conservatives put out a leaflet referring to Aker by his given name, Timür, a Turkish name given to him by his Turkish father. Aker was furious about it. But why?


UKIP CANDIDATE: Tim Aker

“They tried to tell the voters of Aveley not to vote for me because of my heritage,” he says.

But while Doyle-Price admits it was “crass” she says it’s relevant to Aker’s politics. “What if his immigrant father hadn’t been allowed into Britain and had instead been denied the benefit of freedom of movement which allowed Aker to grow up in this country?”

“That’s absolutely disingenuous to say that,” says Aker. “The European Union’s freedom of movement since 2004 is a completely different time and place to the immigration policy in the 70s. My father came in the 70s. He worked as a mechanic. He paid his taxes. He came to Britain when we actually controlled our borders. When we realised we had skill shortages here and got people in to fill those skills gaps. Immigration barely went over 50,000 a year and people could say immigration was a good thing for the country.”

But he balks at the suggestion that UKIP’s sons and daughters of immigrants now want to pull up the drawbridge on other economic migrants.

“Who said we want to pull up the drawbridge? The policy we want is an Australian-based points system so we can decide the skill set and numbers of people coming in so we can have a democratic immigration system and one that gives immigration a good name again because this immigration debate…I don’t like the atmosphere it has and the negativity. Immigration can be a positive thing and immigrants have contributed to this country but when you have 300,000 net a year coming in, it’s unsustainable.”

One of his campaigns in Thurrock is premised on giving local school places to local children. But isn’t that already happening, and who does he define as “local”?

“We’re hearing from lots of parents and grandparents who are frustrated that they’re not getting the school places their families want. And it should be right that local school places go to local families first.”

He clarifies that local means people who live in the borough, regardless of where their family come from. And when asked if a Bulgarian family who moved to the area and needed a school place for their child would be considered local, he says yes; so long as they are contributing to the borough and are part of the community.

He remembers his mum once struggling to get him a place at Kenningtons primary school in Aveley and says it’s a problem that’s “festered” as Thurrock has been ignored by mainstream party candidates who are “parachuted in, do their tour of office and then disappear again”.

Asked whether building houses and new towns on the vast acres of undeveloped land around the country might be a better solution to easing Britain’s increasingly dense urban populations than curbing immigration, Aker says there are answers closer to home in the many empty, boarded up properties in Thurrock. But, he says, Labour-run Thurrock Council chose to spend £5 million refurbishing the council offices (“a vanity project”) rather than making council homes fit to live in.

And how does he feel about the prospect of 3,600 former BNP voters voting for him? “Well they’ve got to realise they’re voting for an Australian points style system and an open foreigner-inclusive party and if they don’t like me they can vote for someone else.”

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THURROCK
Sitting MP: Jackie Doyle-Price (Con)
2010 Majority: 92 (Ultra marginal)
Nearest challenger: Labour
BME voters: 14, 892
Black voters: 9,517 (Majority African)
BME impact: Very significant

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