Here comes everybody: Nigel Farage (left) and Alex Salmond are both contesting seats in Westminster at this general election (FARAGE: ©GARETH FULLER/PA WIRE; SALMOND: ©ANDREW MILLIGAN/PA WIRE)
One of just two men will be Prime Minister after May 7. In that sense this election is a two-horse race. In every other respect, Britain is in for a messy, multi-dimensional and unpredictable few weeks, after which the country might wake up on May 8 knowing little more than it knew the night before. The process by which Britain resolves the contest between the two candidates for the top job will, to a greater extent than in any election in living memory, be a local rather than national process. Of course, the fierce national debate (televised or not) between Labour and the Conservatives and their respective visions for the country rages on. But an unprecedented proportion of voters are listening to someone else: above all, UKIP and the Greens in England, and the SNP in Scotland. Both UKIP and the SNP have won considerable support by connecting people’s problems to membership of a union, the former a European one, the latter a British one. Can the insurgents live up to their own high expectations on polling day?
One person who hopes so is Tim Aker, UKIP’s parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, a constituency many expect him to win in May. It is a Friday afternoon and Aker is canvassing in Tilbury, one of the seat’s main towns. He is talking to an elderly dishevelled man at his doorstep. With his wild unkempt hair and grubby tracksuit, the voter is a living rebuttal to the erroneous caricature of a UKIP supporter Nigel Farage has described as “a retired half-colonel living on the edge of Salisbury Plain”.
“I can remember when there were only five coloured people in Tilbury,” the voter tells Aker, holding up five fingers to make his point more forcefully. The candidate nods, expressing only the faintest signs of agreement with a man whose vote he tells me he can count on in May.
Aker is a 29-year-old Member of the European Parliament who—as he eager to tell everyone he meets—is a local boy, not “parachuted in” like his Conservative and Labour rivals. He is decked out in a grey-suit-and-wax-jacket combination that his party’s leader would be proud of and walks the streets of the constituency he hopes will elect him with the purpose of a politician who wants to meet everyone on the electoral register before polling day.
“I’m running a local campaign, listening to the concerns of residents.” These are platitudes uttered by every politician and Aker is no different in making such claims. Yet he appears to mean it. After a by-election last year, Aker sits on Thurrock council (putting him in the unusual situation of simultaneously representing the people of Averley and Uplands, and the entire East of England). With this position comes local clout to help residents who have had difficulties dealing with the council. This appears to be making him a popular man. One Tilbury resident thanks Aker for helping with the damp problem in his council house. A large number of doorstep conversations end with Aker taking down a voter’s email address and promising to fix a problem they have. He even cuts his canvassing short when a resident calls to say she has been evicted by the council. Aker had helped her friend and she wondered if he might be able to help her too. “Stay where you are, we’re coming now,” he tells her. When Aker tells voters “You’re my boss” he appears to mean it.
Just ten minutes before his conversation with the man concerned about the increase in Tilbury’s “coloured” population, Aker had been talking to a black man. He too assured Aker that, on May 7, he would be voting UKIP. “The people are no longer the government,” he tells the candidate. “Something has to change.” Aker agrees: “That’s why I’ll be holding regular public meetings—because you’re the ones in charge.”
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