Carswell, the new face of Harwich
EADT Political Editor talks to Douglas Carswell, who last month won back Harwich for the Conservatives.JUST weeks after wresting the once Tory fortress of Harwich back from eight years of having a Labour MP, new MP Douglas Carswell is facing up to the fact that the constituency will disappear at the next election.
EADT Political Editor talks to Douglas Carswell, who last month won back Harwich for the Conservatives.
JUST weeks after wresting the once Tory fortress of Harwich back from eight years of having a Labour MP, new MP Douglas Carswell is facing up to the fact that the constituency will disappear at the next election.
Major changes being recommended by the independent Boundary Commission for England will divorce, for the first time in parliamentary history, Harwich from Clacton.
Harwich town itself will join with Manningtree and Wivenhoe to form a new Harwich and North Essex constituency while Clacton – along with Frinton and Walton – absorbs some of the surrounding villages including St Osyth to form the Clacton division.
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It seems likely, subject to the vagaries of Tory Party activists in the soon-to-be new constituency associations, that Bernard Jenkin who current represents North Essex will fight the Harwich & North Essex seat while Mr Carswell will hope for the Clacton nomination.
"Clacton is where I live," says r Carswell. "The rules on boundary changes are very clear – it's up to the membership of the party to decide who they want as their candidate and I seek to fight the new Clacton seat."
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After his selection as Tory candidate for Harwich in 2002, the would-be MP moved to Clacton, but his opponents at the General Election – and particularly the Labour MP of eight years Ivan Henderson – took great exception to Mr Carswell describing himself as "local" despite being the only one of the six candidates not to have been born in the constituency.
"It didn't hurt me," says Mr Carswell affably. "Most people realised that to blame me for not having been born somewhere was absurd – it's one of the few things in life you can't control!
"I am local in the sense that I live in the constituency. I am a school governor, I go to local churches, visit markets. Clacton is my home – what part of Nelson Road didn't my opponents think was local?
"Any kind of negative attacks on a candidate backfires. I went out of my way not to join in personal abuse of any of my opponents. If they chose to do that against me, it was their call."
Born in London on May 3 1971, Mr Carswell graduated from the University of East Anglia in Norwich and took his masters degree at King's College, London. He worked in fund and investment management for Investco and was chosen to stand against Tony Blair in Sedgefield in the 2001 election.
"I apologise for coming second but I substantially cut his majority," he laughs. "The experience of standing against the Prime Minister was a baptism of fire but put me in good stead.
"I was selected for Harwich in 2002 and dug in straight away. I was appointed a governor of Holland Haven primary school and I believe it is very important to keep a level of local involvement and build on it.
"I was involved in the selection process for appointing the new headteacher, which as a governor is one of the most important things you can do. There are exciting times ahead for the school."
His number one priority having defeated Mr Henderson by a margin of just 920 votes is to get involved in as many community issues as possible and be supportive wherever he can.
"Harwich, Dovercourt, Walton, Thorpe, Frinton and Clacton have their own distinct identities which makes it an interesting constituency to represent. I can't afford to be linked with one part of the constituency – I'm at Westminster to represent the whole."
During the General Election campaign, the constituency was inundated with Labour Cabinet ministers – Tony Blair, John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, John Reid, Tessa Jowell etc – trying to ensure Ivan Henderson's re-election.
"I think the appearance of all these ministers numbed the voters and turned them off Labour. What an insult to people to only show an interest in the Harwich constituency when there's an election happening.
"I told the Conservative Party I did not want outside help. I needed to concentrate on meeting the voters, not posing with Shadow Cabinet members."
As part of my election duties for the EADT, I paid 10 visits to all parts of the constituency. Three days before polling day, I went canvassing with the candidates and it was then that I detected that victory was moving away from Labour.
The Henderson camp seemed to have lost that early spring in its step, worried that the UK Independence Party campaign had come off the rails and that Tory defectors to anti European parties, which had cost the party the seat in both 1997 and 2001, were returning to the fold, thanks in part to the aggressive anti-EU campaign of Mr Carswell.
"I was always quietly confident about the outcome," says Mr Carswell, "but I did not know for sure until two or three minutes before the result was announced.
"I always took the line that I could win it, but if we said we would win it we would put people off. I lot of voters switched directly to us from Labour. For the first time since 1987, the Conservative vote in the constituency went up.
"In no sense was my victory by default or through the underperformance or overperformance of other parties. To me that says we fought the right campaign.
"And whether you win by 92, 920, or 9,200 you have to prove yourself and have to show you are a committed constituency MP.
"Unlike the Conservatives previously, we are holding our surgeries not in party offices but in churches and community centres all across the constituency."
The result has led to a resurgence in Conservative support throughout the division. The victory has given a huge lift to the association. There's been an extraordinary response from people who want to join us, morale is up, our victory party had an incredible feelgood factor."
The decline in Conservative fortunes was halted in 2003, when the party took outright control of Tendring district council. "If as a party you fail to put up candidates at local elections, you pay the price and for 12 years we did not contest wards in parts of the constituency for reasons that I neither sought to nor want to understand.
"As far as I am concerned, that was denying people democratic choice and after I was chosen to fight the seat, I told the association that we had to find good candidates to fight every seat at the Tendring council elections.
"It gave us a good local government base on which to build for the General Election. During the election campaign, we did not draft in hundreds of activists.
"Conservatives from Maldon helped out a bit and we had volunteers from that part of Tendring which is in the North Essex constituency. We had 170 tellers on the day of the election, but I would be surprised if more than 20 were from outside our division. My parents were two of the outside supporters, but the bulk of them were local."
With victory comes the constituency work of an MP. "Huge, and at times overwhelming, numbers of letters are coming in from all across the constituency. There are a lot of people who need help with personal problems. I have to prove myself by dealing with their cases."
He will be helped in the constituency by his girlfriend Caroline, who works for McAlpines in London. "She has been immensely supportive, kept my feet firmly on the ground. "
Douglas Carswell has already made his mark at Westminster, by co-authoring Direct Democracy, a book written by the influential younger group of new MPs, Euro MPs, and think tank members.
"We have been meeting for three years and come up with an over arching critique of the state of Britain today. The book has come up with some answers.
"It's not a manifesto or a final, done and dusted, solution to Britain's problems. We come from across all sections of the party – wet, dry, Christian, atheist, traditionalist, moderniser.
"We will not form ourselves into a pressure group – that's the wrong move. "W are not getting carried away, we have made a contribution to the debate on the future of the party."
Looking at his first few weeks at Westminster, he says: "I didn't know being an MP could be so much fun.
"But one thing I have decided is not to drink, especially at lunchtime. Parliament is packed full of bars. But I'm not going to be involved – that's the road to ruin."