Look at Thurrock on a map and it seems as though the place ought to be yet one more suburb of outer Greater London – perhaps like Ilford or Barking, which the post office reckons are in Essex, but which few people would be able to distinguish from the capital city. Indeed, Thurrock council has begun sharing services with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham in an effort to reduce costs.
But it’s hard to understate just how much this is Essex, not London. Somewhere between Barking station and Dagenham Docks, housing estates and perpetual grey give way to warehouses, factories, and the odd flash of greenery. And with it, the political atmosphere changes, too: after the swathe of Labour red in east London, Thurrock is the first seat along the Thames to be Conservative-held since the constituency of Parliament’s home, Westminster.
The local MP, Jackie Doyle-Price, won this wedge of Essex by a margin of just 92 votes, the same feat as performed by Labour’s Julie Hilling in Bolton West. Outside Northern Ireland, only Hampstead and Kilburn’s Glenda Jackson won a smaller victory (42 votes).
Opposition to Doyle-Price, in 2010, was split between Carl Morris for Labour, Carys Davis for the Liberal Democrats, Emma Colgate for the BNP, and Clive Broad for UKIP. The latest polls by Lord Ashcroft suggest that the Lib Dem vote has almost vanished, and the BNP has likewise disappeared from the political scene.
So far, the non-mainstream parties represented in Thurrock in 2010 have thus been concentrated down to one, and recent polls have suggested that UKIP’s Tim Aker is practically guaranteed to win here. Lord Ashcroft’s polls last July gave UKIP a lead of 8% over the Conservatives and 6% over Labour. Matthew Goodwin, a professor at Nottingham University and a leading expert on the rise of UKIP, recently claimed Thurrock was “now in the bag” for UKIP.
Jackie Doyle-Price, however, is in a combative mood when I join her for a Sunday morning of canvassing. She points out that Ashcroft’s polls last summer were taken in the aftermath of the European elections: “Lots of Conservatives vote UKIP at European elections.” But does that matter when Ashcroft was asking specifically about the general election, not the European elections? “That’s irrelevant, it’s about the mood.”
“At the 2009 European elections, the BNP and UKIP did very well – but they voted Conservative in 2010,” she adds.
What may also play into Doyle-Price’s hands is the apparently weakening hold that the Labour Party has on working class votes. Emily Thornberry’s now infamous “Image from #Rochester” Tweet, which led to her getting sacked from the Shadow Cabinet, was a high-profile instance of this. Plenty of concern has been voiced by Labour supporters, too, about the party’s near-loss of Heywood and Middleton to UKIP.
According to Doyle-Price, Labour voters in Thurrock are not switching allegiances to her or any other party; they’re simply staying at home. A broad trend might, perhaps, be seen between reduced voter turnout in Thurrock and a falling Labour majority:
As we canvass in Tilbury, a town that is home to Britain’s third largest container port and that returned exclusively Labour and independent councillors in the most recent local elections, it is strikingly difficult to find a vast number of Labour supporters – that said, it is also hard to find many people willing to answer the door at all. “I’m not sure I’d answer if someone knocked on my door at eleven on a Sunday morning,” Doyle-Price laughs.
There is a small team of canvassers out this Sunday morning, including a contingent from Greenwich and Woolwich in south-east London – a constituency that, to phrase it tactfully, is not one of the Conservatives’ target seats. The Thurrock team are far from the stereotype of huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ Tory toffs: the Essex accents come through loud and clear.
This is something Doyle-Price is keen to emphasise to me. “How many of them are toffs?” she asks, nodding to her team. “The Labour Party pump out this stereotype of Tories as privileged toffs, which the media repeat incessantly, but it’s not true.”
Doyle-Price’s background is similarly far removed from those of her party’s most senior members: she grew up on a council estate in Sheffield, and still describes herself as a “tough-talking street fighter. Always have been… I’m a working class girl from Sheffield.”
“If the Labour Party was doing what it should be doing, I shouldn’t be a Conservative,” she adds. “But they’re just the metropolitan elite, middle-class do-gooders. How has the Labour Party become Harriet Harman sitting on the front bench of the House of Commons wearing a ‘This is feminism’ t-shirt?”
Would she have joined the Labour Party of fifty, sixty years ago? “I joined the [Conservative] Party twenty-five years ago,” she says simply.
In the car travelling from Tilbury to the post-canvassing pub-lunch, Doyle-Price lets rip about her dislike of the media: “I turn down 60% of media requests. They always want me to talk about Boris Johnson or whatever, but I really don’t believe most people have any interest in whether Boris Johnson becomes an MP or not.
“I was one of the first to get off the fence about Maria Miller, so Newsnight have my number and they rang me up recently to ask whether I’d talk about Boris Johnson, and I said, ‘Of course not’ – for the reasons I just explained to you.
“Then they asked me to come along and say that. They just don’t get it, they really don’t… The problem is, people only remember you when they see you on TV.”
She adds: “The media is so London-centric, but it’s an entirely different political discussion outside the M25.”
Indeed, despite being only just outside the M25, the political discussion in Tilbury – a tired-looking, if not exactly run-down place – is very distinct from that of London. Although its docks are certainly stronger than London’s, which faded away in the sixties and seventies, whereas Tilbury’s have expanded in recent years.
“You wouldn’t think this place is an hour from London,” Doyle-Price says as we arrive in the town. “Labour think they’ll vote for them whatever happens, so they don’t put any investment into it.”
“It just needs a bit of love,” she tells any of her constituents who will open the door on a Sunday morning.
Note on data: the data for the 2009 and 2010 election results in Thurrock were taken respectively from the Thurrock council website (here) and the Guardian (here). Data for general election results from 1992 to 2010 were taken from the Guardian (here).