A ragbag collection of footsoldiers in the self-proclaimed "People's Army" of Ukip is struggling to keep pace as Roger Helmer strides through the back streets of Bingham, a Nottinghamshire market town once named as the best place in Britain to raise a family.
"Where are we canvassing?" shouts out one of the troops, who range from a retired chap of military bearing, wearing a tweed jacket and brown brogue shoes, to a dishevelled fan of Viz comics. Peering at a crumpled printout of the ONS map of the less affluent north-west side of Bingham – a rich source of Ukip votes – Helmer announces to his canvassers: "We're in Carnarvon ... something or other."
With their marching orders, the team wander off at varying speeds from Carnarvon Place into a warren of streets, mainly social housing, where they find a ready audience for their anti-establishment message. "I am right there, it is time for a change," Helmer is told by Meryl Donovan, the first voter to open a front door to the Ukip candidate in next Thursday's Newark byelection.
The spirited, if slightly amateur, Ukip byelection operation suggests that the "People's Army" needs to brush up on logistics if it is to topple the Westminster political establishment. These flaws are not lost on the Conservatives, who believe that the byelection, in which they are defending a majority of 16,152, will mark the moment when the Ukip bandwagon is slowed, if not entirely halted, as Britain's insurgent political force encounters the immense challenge of contesting Westminster seats.
A Sun/Survation poll on Friday put the Tory candidate, Robert Jenrick, in first place on 36%, with Ukip second on 28% and Labour on 27%. The Tories, whose campaign is run from a hall at the back of the local Conservative club in an imposing Edwardian house close to the centre of Newark, benefit from an electoral infrastructure dating from the 19th century, when the appropriately named Viscount Newark won the seat in 1885.
An MPs' roll of honour in the entrance to the campaign HQ, signed by David Cameron and every Tory MP who hopes to have a future in the party, shows the Conservatives are flooding the town with ministers and backbenchers who are dispatched to groups of target voters. The Ukip team, by contrast, have no record of where their voters live and are registering preferences as they go along on a clipboard. "Did you vote for us last week – how nice," Helmer said to one pensioner after she spoke with pride of how she voted Ukip in the local and European elections.
But Ukip's strong showing in the poll – up by 24.2 points on the 3.8% they achieved in the 2010 general election – shows that the party is now a highly potent electoral force after its success in last week's European elections. Nigel Farage became the first leader of a party other than Labour or the Conservatives to win a national election since 1910.
While Ukip has no formal record of where its supporters live in Newark, Helmer and his team know exactly where to go hunting. Ukip is targeting housing estates on the edges of towns in the semi-rural constituency as the party reaches out to the "left behind" voters, the phrase coined by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin in their new book on the rise of Ukip, Revolt on the Right. These voters, the book says, are being driven to Ukip by two key themes – cultural and political.
On the cultural side the party is tapping into the "value divide" between the educated and socially liberal elite at the top of the three established parties and a generally older generation in Ukip which regards modern Britain as "alien and threatening". But the key Ukip breakthrough in the last two years has been achieved, the authors argue, because Farage has successfully fused deep-seated Euroscepticism with anger about domestic issues such as immigration and a faltering economy.
Helmer, who has just won his fourth term as a Ukip MEP for the East Midlands, says: "People are starting to make the connection between Europe and other policy areas. If you ask people what policy areas they are worried about you get health, jobs, tax. And then at number 13 you get Europe. But we know that it is Europe that prevents us from having a rational immigration policy. We know it is Europe that causes us to have the most expensive energy prices in the world, near enough.
"So suddenly people are starting to realise that the things they do worry about are actually being driven by Europe. They may not care about Europe as Europe. But they care about Europe as the determinant of other policies."
Voters targeted by Ukip agree with Helmer, as they abandon the main parties amid concerns over immigration and a feeling that Britain is governed by an out-of-touch elite. There are fears that Grantham, a popular shopping destination for less affluent families across the county border in Lincolnshire, is now dominated by east Europeans. A similar story is told in Boston, also in Lincolnshire, where locals complain that seasonal agricultural workers from eastern Europe hang about when the work dries up.
Len White, 65, who has placed a large Ukip poster in his window in the village of Farndon, south of Newark, is ending a lifetime habit of voting Conservative because of his concerns over immigration. "It is the open door policy – it is more Europe," he says. "Alright we are getting some good people in, people who are helping the country. But we are also getting the riff raff.
"Grantham is being taken over by eastern Europeans and it is starting in Newark where you see Polish and Ukrainian shops in the sidestreets. I have nothing against them. If they are working hard, and they are contributing to the country, that is fine. But it is the dregs we get over here as well.
"We are British, we are English, we are the indigenous population in this country. We should have some say about what is actually happening in this country."
Other Ukip supporters express themselves in milder language, reflecting Newark's special relationship with eastern Europe. The graves of Polish airmen, who were stationed at nearby RAF stations during the second world war, are maintained with loving attention in the town's Polish war cemetery. Fresh flowers have been placed on the grave of the exiled Polish prime minister Władysław Sikorski, buried in the town after he died in an air crash in Gilbratar in 1943.His remains were removed to Poland in 1993 after the fall of communism.
Michael Hunter, 63, a mechanical engineer and lifelong Labour supporter who lives behind the Nottingham to Grantham railway line on the edge of Bingham, is one such voter who would never have identified with a party associated with the right. "I will always be a socialist, I shall never desert socialist ideals and I will vote Labour at the general election," he says. "But I am considering voting Ukip to send a message. At certain stages in history you need people who are not necessarily very pleasant to give the establishment a prod.
"Nigel Farage is scaremongering a bit on immigration – I don't totally go along with the idea that people have been put out of work because people are coming in. But there are only so many jobs to go around.
"I have certainly not got the answers. People used to say to me in Michael Foot's time why vote for somebody who has no hope of getting in. I said because if I don't reach for that star I'm not going to get it."
It is not just in the less affluent areas of the constituency that Ukip's message is cutting through. In leafy Southwell, dominated by the minster, which dates back to the 13th century, Ukip has won over the owner of the Saracens Head hotel, where Charles I spent his last free night in 1646. "Ukip are leading a peasants' revolt," David Donegan says. "They will ransack the village, but will probably be stopped at the city gates. Hopefully that will shake up the Westminster establishment which needs a kick up the backside."
He believes the consensus over gay marriage has alienated many voters. "Civil partnership is absolutely fine," he says. "But gay marriage is appalling nonsense. The next thing they will saying is we should be marrying pigs."
Others in Southwell are sticking with the Conservatives. Ian Wright, 70, a retired engineer, says: "Ukip is obviously providing a wakeup call for the main parties. But if you look through all the hype it is clear they do not have a structured plan for how they would run the country, keeping the debt down and tackling unemployment."
That thinking is echoed by Jenrick, the Tory candidate, who has moved his family to a large property in Southwell. He is sticking to a carefully prepared script about how the Conservatives are presiding over steady economic progress.
William Hague, one of a succession of cabinet ministers to support Jenrick, believes he has the measure of Ukip. The foreign secretary plays down Ukip's success in the European elections as the latest example of a protest vote.
Bursting into laughter, he says: "I managed, the Conservatives managed, to get the protest vote in 1999 when we won a huge victory in the European elections. It did me absolutely no good whatsoever."
• Newark is in the large East Midlands constituency for European parliamentary elections, in which Ukip – whose candidate Roger Helmer is standing in the byelection – topped the poll with 32.9%, ahead of the Tories on 25.9%.
• In 2000, Helmer called homosexuality "abnormal", but now says he is relaxed about it. In 2011 he said some rape victims bear responsibility, but now says blame should not be attached to the victim but women should take "reasonable care".
• Robert Jenrick, the youthful Tory candidate, who is writing a history of the English civil war, says Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles I and commander of the royalist cavalry at the age of 23, is his hero.
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