Essex appeal has long seduced both politicians and media. While the by-election in Heywood and Middleton received relatively little coverage – May2015’s polling day profile aside – Clacton was besieged by hacks.
The denizens of Jaywick Sands, the most deprived area in the UK, found themselves fully employed for once, being vigorously vox popped on Radio 4’s Today and videoed by the Guardian’s John Harris as they debated whether to re-elect Tory defector Douglas Carswell for Ukip.
Former Conservative MP Mathew Parris said Clacton was “going nowhere” in the Times, sparking outrage from Nigel Farage.
In the Evening Standard Michael Collins pleaded, “Don’t sneer at the real England beyond the M25”, concluding that Clacton housed “the original Essex Man and those native Londoners exiled from a capital they no longer recognise… It might be unfashionable but for the moment, but Clacton is in the spotlight and relevant”.
As he did the Daily Telegraph gleefully reported that a Banksy mural in Clacton – worth £400,000 and featuring pigeons telling an African swallow to go home – had been painted over by Tendring Council.
The county first became totemic to the politicos when the term ‘Essex Man’ was used by Simon Heffer in a 1990 Sunday Telegraph profile headlined “Maggie’s mauler.” Heffer described Essex Man as “young, industrious, mildly brutish and culturally barren”, and “breathtakingly right-wing”. The illustration with the piece featured a bull-necked young man in a shiny suit standing outside his bought council house with a satellite dish on the roof and a new motor outside.
Essex Man was part of the reason why Thatcherism was successful.
Essex Man was part of the reason why Thatcherism was successful, thought Heffer: “The barrow boy who uses instinct and energy rather than contacts and education… He is unencumbered by any ‘may the best man win’ philosophy. He expects to win whether he’s the best man or not”.
Old East Enders had migrated to Essex after world war two and colonised new towns such as Basildon and Harlow and also much of the Thames estuary. Essex had long had a reputation for straight talking, and it returned abrasive MPs such as Norman “he got on his bike and looked for work” Tebbit in Chingford, Harvey Proctor (who resigned after a spanking-and-rent-boys scandal in 1986) and Teresa Gorman, both in Billericay.
If there been a nuclear war in the 1980s Maggie Thatcher planned to retreat to her spiritual home of Essex, and seek refuge in the Secret Nuclear Bunker in Kelvedon Hatch. Today it’s a tourist attraction and there’s still a dummy of Thatcher inside.
Latterly came Eric Pickles in Brentwood, sexting Brooks Newmark in Braintree and Ukip U-turner Douglas Carswell in Clacton. Though alternative Essex has also produced Billy Bragg and Crass. All characters who kept the county in the public eye.
The politicians’ obsession with Essex could certainly be seen on 8 May 2012, when David Cameron and Nick Clegg held a question and answer session at the Fiat-owned New Holland tractor factory in Basildon. On the same day Ed Miliband appeared at a meeting in Harlow — though when questioned Ed admitted he’d forgotten to watch Towie.
In Basildon Dave and Nick got down and dirty with a set of tractor-making blokes in yellow and blue polo shirts.
In Basildon Dave and Nick got down and dirty with a set of tractor-making blokes in yellow and blue polo shirts, as Cameron took off his jacket to look serious. “The only way to win is Essex,” commented the Sun, while the Guardian suggested, “The only way is Essex as party leaders go in search of aspirational voters”.
TV played a part too. The characters The Only Way is Essex, the reality soap, might have been shallow, but all were the type of aspirational voter both main parties wanted. They either ran nightclubs like Mark Wright or in the cases of Amy Childs, Lauren Goodger and Lucy Mecklenburgh, set up salons and boutiques.
In 2011 David Cameron seemed remarkably reluctant to let go of his director of communications Andy Coulson, despite all the rumours of phone hacking at the News of the World. On the BBC News Nick Robinson said “Essex boy” Coulson was valuable to the “posh boys” in the Cabinet because he provided a direct link to working class core Tory voters in deepest Essex. The Guardian commented that Coulson had a “street-smart background born of Beauchamps comprehensive in Wickford.” Clearly Cameron had fallen for the ‘Essex Men tells it as it is’ mythology.
The joy of Essex was even mentioned in the Commons. In March 2012 Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, asked if David Cameron would visit the seat to see the fruits of economic recovery. Cameron replied: “In danger of being accused of watching too much television I think you could summarise the question as saying ‘The only way is Essex!’” Flanking Cameron Nick Clegg smirked and George Osborne looked as if he preferred Made in Chelsea.
Yet you do wonder if the Essex appeal is a little overstated. Ukip succeeding in coastal Essex seems to have more significance than them winning in, say, the Cumbrian coast because Essex is the UK’s most iconic county, bar possibly Yorkshire.
“Essex boy” Coulson was valuable to the “posh boys” in the Cabinet.
The emotional appeal of Essex to politicians should not be underestimated. Pundits and MPs are human and just as susceptible as everyone else to the county’s branding of Essex Man and Towie, or Mark Wright and Pixie Lott on Strictly Come Dancing.
This political generation has also been bought up with the idea that Basildon is the key marginal seat in every general election (The seat was re-drawn in 2010; Basildon South voted Tory by 12.9 per cent). Yes, it probably mirrored nationwide trends, but the idea has been inflated to attach huge importance to the county as a whole. Essex voters only get one vote like everyone else.
Another factor in Essex’s appeal is that it is close to London and nearly everyone from Essex commutes to the City giving it a loud voice in the Square Mile. Conversely it’s very easy for London-based journalists to get on the train from Liverpool Street to Essex and write up a story.
On a more mundane level most MPs in London are probably driven by opinionated Essex taxi drivers and for PPE graduates it’s the closest to an authentic voice they hear; subconsciously the Oxbridge types want some street credibility from the exiled East Enders who now frequent Estuary Essex.
But whatever the real relevance of Essex, you can be sure that the county will still fascinate the media and political classes and that any electoral success there will be hailed as a right result.
Pete May is author of The Joy of Essex (Robson Press).