The seaside town of Hastings is very famous for one thing. In a battle fought almost 1,000 years ago, King Harold of England was shot in the eye by Norman invaders and lost his kingdom after being forced to fight on two fronts.
Prime Minister David Cameron faces a similar handicap on the Hastings electoral battleground next year. His Tories, who won the seat by fewer than 2,000 votes in 2010, must ward off the Labour opposition without losing votes to the anti-European Union U.K. Independence Party.
As they defend Hastings, the Tories will “have to address the reasons Conservatives are switching to UKIP while simultaneously talking to people to try to prevent them voting Labour,” Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University, said in an interview. “If the Labour candidate is canny, they will exploit that difficulty by appealing to centrist Tories who may be fed up.”
Cameron’s struggle in Hastings helps illustrate why the economy’s rebound from recession and the lowest jobless rate in almost five years may not be enough to earn him a second term. Hastings, 65 miles (105 kilometers) southeast of London, is one of the swing districts -- marginals as they’re called in Britain -- that will decide the next election. Labour needs to add 68 seats to its 2010 tally for a House of Commons majority. Hastings is the 31st most winnable on the list.
Cameron’s Conservatives dominate politics in southeast England and can’t afford to lose seats in the region. For Labour, it’s must-win territory; the party won only six of 142 districts in the counties around London in 2010.
The town’s residents make the case in vain that it should be known for the first television broadcast, or its fishing fleet. For generations of schoolchildren, though, modern English history has always begun with the 1066 Battle of Hastings, which actually took place six miles outside the town. Harold was beaten by the forces of William the Conqueror partly because his army was exhausted from seeing off Vikings 200 miles further north less than three weeks earlier.
With Britain these days attracting foreign workers rather than invading armies, UKIP has risen in the polls by augmenting its traditional call to leave the EU with other policies designed to appeal to disaffected Conservatives. It attacks Cameron over immigration and the introduction of gay marriage.
In Hastings, the party took 2.8 percent of the 49,800 votes cast in 2010, close to its national level of 3.1 percent. For the past year, UKIP has regularly polled above 10 percent nationally. If that support holds through 2015, it might cut the Tory vote in Hastings enough to let Labour win the seat.
“If UKIP can hold onto 10 percent of the vote, the Tories are going to be stuffed” across the country, Peter Kellner, the president of polling company YouGov Plc, told reporters last week.
Amber Rudd, who took the seat for the Tories in 2010, has opted against attacking Cameron’s policies, as some rank-and-file Tory lawmakers have done, in an effort to outflank UKIP.
“I believe in what David Cameron’s doing,” she said in an interview in Parliament. “I find that reminding people that if you vote UKIP you will get Labour is effective.”
Neither Rudd, 50, nor Sarah Owen, her 31-year-old Labour challenger, is going to lose the seat for lack of effort. With 15 months to go to the election, both are already on the campaign footing that defines life in the district. Interviews with the two candidates were full of mentions of local issues -- against the closing of fire and ambulance stations in Owen’s case, for a new road and against cuts in rail services in Rudd’s.
Over a coffee on the town’s university campus, Owen said voters are feeling the effects of the government’s austerity drive -- the biggest fiscal squeeze since World War II, which has seen job and pay cuts for public-sector workers and restrictions on welfare payments.
“There’s 23,000 people in Hastings struggling with debt,” the Labour candidate said. “We’re seeing people who were on the cusp of making ends meet falling into poverty.”
The district has 4.2 percent of its working-age population claiming unemployment benefits, more than double the average for southeast England and above the 2.9 percent nationally.
Though the jobless rate has fallen from 5.4 percent at the time of the 2010 election, Labour argues that voters are being hit by wage increases that lag inflation. It’s pledging action such as capping energy prices if it wins the election. That’s an issue in a place like Hastings, where hourly pay for full-time workers averages 10.65 pounds, below the national average of 13.17 pounds.
“Hastings used to be this beautiful, refined seaside place,” said Rudd. “It has to reinvent itself, like lots of seaside towns.”
Walking along the seafront to the older part of Hastings, there are signs this is happening. A new modern-art gallery has opened, over the road from a shop selling the local fast-food delicacy, jellied eels. Behind it is what remains of the town’s fishing industry, dozens of small boats pulled up on the pebble beach in front of the characteristic tall black wooden sheds that are used to store nets.
The dozen or so working on the boats, none of whom agreed to be quoted by name, shared a similar outlook. Traditionally Labour voters who backed Rudd in 2010, they said they were likely to vote UKIP in 2015 because of EU quotas that they said limited their catch.
Derek Green, 71, a retired planning consultant, was unimpressed by all the parties. “There’s no one worth voting for,” he said as he sat in the Hastings shopping precinct. “David Cameron tells us we’re all in it together and then spends 90 pounds to have his hair cut,” he said, recalling stories about the premier’s hairdresser that provided several days’ fodder for the U.K. press this month.
Such views should make Green the ideal target for UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who plays up his own anti-politician status and is often pictured visiting a pub. But no.
“Nigel Farage has a pint of beer in his hand every time you see him,” Green said. “Who wants to vote for someone who can’t go for a day without a pint of beer?”
Rudd has another concern -- the collapse in support nationally for the Tories’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, who took 15.7 percent of the vote in 2010 to Rudd’s 41.1 percent and the Labour candidate’s 37.1 percent.
“I’m not happy with seeing the Lib Dems doing worse and worse; more will have gone to Labour than elsewhere, but some will have gone to UKIP,” she said. “The fracturing of the vote makes it very hard for politicians. That’s why this election is going to be so interesting.”