Basildon councillor: We haven’t lost Essex Man

With the ‘carnage’ wrought by UKIP in the bellweather borough of Basildon showing disturbing parallels with 1997, surviving Conservative Cllr Andrew Schrader speaks to Paul Nizinskyj about what went wrong and how the party can win back ‘Essex Man’ in 2015.

Sunday InterviewAt 32, Andrew Schrader has been a Billericay councillor on Basildon Council for little over a year, having taken the not unreasonable decision to step back from politics after university to focus on his career, rejoining the fold after the 2010 election and putting his name forward for selection in the by-election for the safe ward of Billericay last year with no real expectations of securing.

As it stands he is now one of only four Conservative councillors to have survived this week’s elections. In what was nothing short of a massacre – and described by Schrader himself as ‘carnage’ – UKIP hoovered up 11 of 15 seats up for grabs, decimating Labour and Conservative alike. With worrying parallels to the high-profile defeats of 1997’s general election, even leader of the council Tony Ball lost his seat, decapitating the Conservative group.

While it may well be the case that the promised UKIP ‘earthquake’ never really materialised nationally, it has undoubtedly razed South Essex to its foundations, completely redrawing the political map in this most aspirational, Thatcherite, area of the country. Previously untouchable Basildon Labour wards such as Fryerns fell to UKIP’s well-targeted populist rhetoric while, worryingly, Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Essex Man’ – typically Londoners who once voted Labour but moved to Essex and turned to the Conservatives – abandoned the ruling Conservatives in Basildon and Southend as well as the large opposition in Thurrock to a party run by Thatcher-worshipping duo Nigel Farage and his Thurrock-based head of policy, Tim Aker.

“It was quite an interesting result and very unexpected,” Schrader says, “in that we knew there were going to be some unusual results and anticipated we would probably be in for a fairly rough ride in Basildon proper – but we couldn’t have anticipated in our wildest nightmares that we would be wiped out like that. We half expected to lose the two Pitsea seats – but to Labour. In a sense it was an even worse night for them – they put up some pretty big hitters but didn’t make any gains. All evening I was watching smug expressions being slowly wiped from their faces as the true horror unfolded. They lost two of their longest serving members, including in Fryerns, which was previously thought to be unassailable.”

But while the night itself may well have been worse for Labour, the long-term implications for the Conservatives are more severe. The Basildon constituency has, since its creation in 1974, been a bellweather for every general election since. Even its heir, the reconstituted Basildon and Billericay seat, swung with the tide in keeping Conservative John Baron on board for its 2010 debut. While local election results may not be strictly analogous, this loss of ‘Essex Man’ to UKIP represents a grave threat to any Tory majority in 2015. Schrader is, however, confident that UKIP’s new intake of councillors will make good use of the rather abundant rope available to them over the next 12 months.

“A year of having UKIP councillors will bring some home truths for lots of people in my opinion,” he says. “Candidates in Basildon were running on a campaign of restoring the street lights (now switched off between midnight and 5am to save money), which will be very interesting to see how they do that, when lighting comes under the responsibility of Essex County Council  rather than the borough.

“We’ve got a year now to itemise every ridiculous policy promise they’ve made and tick their failures off one by one. It will be hard for them to effectively exert their influence, too, as they make a virtue of not being whipped. The job of the UKIP leader will be like herding cats, especially as the new intake seems to be a motley crew of waifs and strays from other parties. One of a former Labour leader of the council, Kerry Smith used to be a Conservative and David Harrison has stood under almost every party label imaginable.”

An optimist, Schrader also sets great store in the electorate’s ability to understand that a vote for UKIP in 2015 will most likely result in Ed Miliband moving into Number 10 – something that, despite Labour’s largely consistent (if flimsy) polling lead, most voters don’t appear to wish to see. “A lot of the electorate had determined one way or another that they were going to give our party a bloody nose and voted on national issues rather than vocal ones,” he says. “But I think next year people will have the nous to avoid a Miliband premiership and, if they want to secure a referendum, they can have as many UKIP councillors and MEPs as they like but, unless they have a Conservative majority in power, they won’t get it.

“We really need to reinforce in people’s minds that UKIP can’t deliver a referendum and that, actually, they don’t even offer one. They’re just working on the assumption that, if they take power, they will take us out of the EU. But the point is they’re not going to and I would be amazed if they even got one or two seats in Westminster. If the electorate are serious about wanting a referendum, their only option is to vote Conservative, and I also say that to Labour voters.”

He does have one prescription for ensuring this message is successfully conveyed and the necessary votes shored up, however. “I think the party itself has always been the party’s problem,” he says. “What we need to learn how to do again, which is a skill we seem to have forgotten, is loyalty to the leader. But I’m reasonably upbeat.”