Clacton-on-Sea is a depressing, depressed town in Essex that has a reputation of having the highest number of mobility scooters for the elderly and infirm of any town in Britain. It lies in the constituency of the same name which last month saw Conservative defector Douglas Carswell winning a byelection – brought about by his defection from the Tories – for the UK Independence Party (Ukip).
Clacton, which is obsessed with immigration, has few, if any immigrants. Ninety-five in every 100 residents are white British. Indeed, it has few of any demographic other than an ageing population that moved out to the seaside town on retirement.
Carswell’s victory, therefore, was dismissed by Conservatives – Clacton is redneck territory best by described by a defaced advertising poster: “Clacton for the Incontinent”.
Today, however, matters are different. In the early hours of yesterday, another former Conservative MP, Mark Reckless, who too had provoked a byelection, won his seat in Rochester and Strood in Kent for Ukip.
The Tories vowed to have his head following his defection. Prime minister David Cameron, referring to Reckless, told party members in the constituency that he would get "his fat arse off the green benches of the House of Commons".
The party certainly tried; it spent a fortune on the campaign. MPs were dragooned into service in the constituency, but it did not work – Reckless won by 2,900 votes. However, this was less than Ukip had been predicting in the days immediately before the vote, and not enough, the Tories now claim, to hold on to the seat in next May’s general election.
Michael Ashcroft’s polling – increasingly the Bible for political obsessives – suggests that the Tories have grounds for hope, if not optimism, as Reckless’s lead falls to just one percentage point.
Ukip however is doing better, even if its ability to target voters using data-management techniques, which was the subject of glowing reviews during the campaign, is still an imperfect beast.
Most importantly, it managed to fend off a Tory campaign that was directly targeted at Reckless – they assaulted his honesty, his intelligence, his loyalty and his past declarations.
Tories argue that the negative campaign worked, after a fashion. Reckless should have won by far more than he did, judging by mid-campaign polling, they say, but they reeled him back.
However, Clacton and Rochester and Strood have, most importantly, highlighted several salient facts – MPs find it easier to get re-elected and name recognition counts.
For now, the question is whether more Tories will jump, afraid that, particularly in seaside constituencies stretching from southern Kent well up into Lincolnshire, they will fall to a Ukip surge in June.
Under House of Commons conventions, byelections are not held in the same six months of a parliament’s life, but there are other ways Tory waverers could announce their intentions.
Ukip, however, does not need another Tory to quit, but someone from Labour, as it is positioning itself as the voice of the common man of Britain.
It has done so with little attention being paid to its policies, partly because those who want to vote for it are not interested much in policy, but rather want to vent their fury against the political establishment.
Policies, where they exist, are not as incoherent as in past times, but, as we saw this week, Nigel Farage’s previous preference for an insurance-based NHS has the power to cause discomfort. Nonsense, says Farage, saying his remarks were an instruction to test out policy before deciding that the NHS is fine as it is. Untrue, but few of those who vote for Ukip will care much.
Matters will get more complicated in the general election campaign, although the assumption in the Commons over recent months that Ukip support would fall away was wrong then and it is wrong now.
Nevertheless, there are differences in the ranks. Carswell is less than comfortable with some of the rabid anti- immigration views of many in his new flock. Equally, there are widely differing views within the party about economic policy.
The party’s economic spokesman, Patrick O’Flynn, was slapped down by Farage when he went on a solo run at the party conference, for example.
Reckless himself got into a tangle about immigration during the byelection, when he said people from other EU states – bar Ireland – could be repatriated if they did not meet ill-defined integration tests.
His fumble caused short- term difficulties for Ukip, but those concerned about immigration – they are many and growing and are not all rabid, spittle-flecked racists – will care little.
Despite Labour’s latter-day conversion to tougher welfare rules (and it is doubtful if they could be implemented), neither it nor the Tories are reflecting opinion in tired, deprived, ignored constituencies.