Until recently, The Isle of Thanet had been the South East’s best kept secret; the sibling in the attic, the black sheep, the tambourine of Kent’s ensemble. But following UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s decision to contest the South Thanet seat, the area has emerged as one of the most interesting battlegrounds for the General Election in 2015.
The truth is, the island’s political scene is a mixed bag. While Roger Gale has held the North Thanet seat for the Conservative Party since 1983, Labour’s Stephen Ladyman occupied South Thanet for a solid 13 years before Tory thoroughbred Laura Sandys took the post in 2010. In the years since, however, approval ratings for Sandys have dipped and she has announced that she will not stand in the next election. Rather, in what is by no means a hollow move by the Conservative Party, she is to be replaced by the more eurosceptic Craig Mackinlay.
As Labour and Conservatives both clamber to repair the relationship with a once-bitten-twice-shy electorate in the aftermath of 2010, UKIP have faced no such culpability. The ace up their sleeves has largely been their status as something different. In an area as offbeat as Thanet, this appeal goes a long way.
Indeed, the island is an embodiment of contrast. While its grammar schools, seasides and idyllic beach front properties signpost it as a half-haven for Kent’s commuters; teenage pregnancy, unemployment and a dependency on the word ‘innit’ indicate unsavory duality.
So, why have UKIP gained momentum here? Whether by the destructive shibboleths of tabloid editorial, or simply the poor state of national football, Britain’s siege concerns about immigration are being continually stoked; and no more prevalent is the island mentality than on an island within an island. In reality, only 3.7 per cent of Thanet’s 134,400 population are not white British, but, against the backdrop of a savage economy, scapegoats are always welcome.
The question now is, is there any appetite to sustain it? The answer is maybe. On the one hand, consider that UKIP are ahead in Thanet’s polls with 32 per cent; they make up seven of the isle’s eight county councillors; and one local pub-goer informed me of his disappointment that “some streets in Cliftonville look like they’ve been airlifted out of Beirut.”
However, it’s important to scratch beneath the surface. Though UKIP might have ‘won’ the European Elections in the South East, it’s worth noting that the voter turnout in Thanet was only 36 per cent, compared to 65 per cent four years previously. Whether this is through apathy, disenchantment or just plain forgetfulness, plenty have ventured a guess; but judging by the volume of outraged Facebook statuses I saw following Farage’s decision to stand, I can’t help but feel that May’s results weren’t wholly representative of Thanet’s mood. UKIP are ahead in the polls, but whom exactly are they asking?
Interestingly, a report published by YouGov earlier this year revealed that just 7 per cent of university students are likely to vote for UKIP, and while the proportion of university students from Thanet might be small, in raw numbers, it would still be enough to make an impact on UKIP’s hold. Moreover, party spokesperson, Suzanne Evans, has already conceded that UKIP struggle to appeal to the “young and well-educated.” That most of Thanet’s university students tend to study further afield, and are only at home for the holidays, could also partly explain the area’s recent results.
Still, it’s not enough to stand back and hope that Thanet will simply sort itself out before 2015. Both Labour and the Conservative Party have a responsibility to win back those who abstained in May; and, while I maintain that there are more people in Thanet who are inclined not to vote UKIP than would, there can be no dismissing the progress Farage has made since he last contested this seat in 2005. Nine years ago, the UKIP leader won just 5 per cent of the vote. This time around, I would guess that he’s likely to get closer to 20 per cent, but whether this will be enough will depend on how the rest of Thanet responds.
What’s to be done? Labour are seeking support through a locally reared candidate, Will Scobie. The Conservative Party appears to be aping UKIP’s drawbridge rhetoric through Mackinlay. To my mind, though, the real solution rests somewhere in between. Yes, Thanet’s next MP needs to show that they are committed to protecting the island’s interests and unique identity, but they also need to demonstrate how this can be done in a less closed-minded and more economically viable way. In any case, leaving Europe will not make the Turner Centre any better.
I hope that in 2015 more of Thanet’s people will turn out to vote, if only to spare us the ignominy of being labeled UKIP’s sweatshop by the sea. I hope that the island’s university students will take the time to send a postal vote back home and that we can reduce this purple patch to a flash in the pan. Above all, I hope that both the Labour and Conservative candidates up their game.