The ghost of Farage hangs over Thanet

In South Thanet, Nigel Farage is everywhere and nowhere. He's the subject of every political conversation and his beaming face stares out from countless posters and billboards. But the man himself is absent. No-one I speak to in the area – supporter or opponent – has seen him. He refuses to appear at debates with other candidates. His own debates are ticket-only, reportedly so he can eject anyone who disagrees with him. Ukip themselves won't return my calls and there is no office presence in the seat.

The day after I visit Thanet, Farage is on the BBC criticising it for not giving Ukip fair coverage in the election. But the irony is that Farage seems to be using his national media presence to batter his opponents in South Thanet into submission rather than taking them on face-to-face.

As he prepared for his tour of London media studios, the rest of Westminster seemed to be heading down to Thanet. On the day I visit, foreign secretary Phillip Hammond has come down from London, flanked by security men and imposing vehicles with tinted windows. We're not allowed to accompany him and Tory candidate Craig Mackinlay as they have a private chat in the office, or when they go canvassing, because of unspecified security reasons. But we get a few moments with them before they head off.

Mackinlay is a founding member of Ukip and acted in the past as its treasurer and vice-chairman. He's in the standard mould of the candidates the Tories pick to take on Ukip, which is to say that he basically is Ukip. They've tried the same thing several times before, for instance with Kelly Tolhurst in Rochester, who made Ghenghis Khan look like a hand-wringing liberal. It tends not to work. It certainly didn't work in Rochester. If Ukip is what people want, Ukip is what they'll vote for.

To be fair, Mackinley is holding his own against Farage. The latest Ashcroft poll has him a couple of points ahead, on 34% to Ukip's 32%. But you get the sense talking to people in the constituency that the Tories would be further ahead if they fielded a candidate who Labour voters could stomach, in a bid to maximise an anti-Farage vote. That wouldn't be a particularly radical move. After all, the Tory winner in 2010, Laura Sandys, was a centrist.

The Labour vote is holding quite strong in the constituency, on 26%. Ashcroft speculated that the slight drop in the Labour vote corresponded to a slight increase in the Tory one and that we might be seeing a bit of tactical voting. I ask Mackinley if he thinks that's true.

"Could be, could be," he says, not sounding particularly convinced himself. "Of course there are many people who find Nigel and Ukip… vaguely offensive to what they believe in for Britain and if they don't want him they have to vote for someone else. I've tried to be very positive across the spectrum of politics."

Mackinley is presentable, broadly competent and has the kind of strong handshake which suggests a deep inner insecurity. Hammond hovers nearby while we talk, like a bleak vision of the future, and eventually the two drive off to talk to voters.

The streets around the Conservative campaign office are not as receptive to Mackinley's message as he might wish. I stop in at a barber shop a few steps away, where the owner is talking to his friend, a man who gives every impression of spending most of his days there. The smell hits you instantly. It's the smell of old-fashioned barber shops – the type you basically don't see in London anymore – where there are uncollected curls of hair on the floor and fading black and white posters of hairstyles which long ago went out of fashion hanging on the walls. Not that it's like that in here. It's all very clean and tidy. 

He's really nice. He offers me a drink and calls me 'young man'. When you’re 33 you'll forgive anything of a person who still calls you a young man. He's been a Tory voter all his life, but he'll vote Ukip this time. I ask why.

"I think in this area it is immigration," he replies. "We're getting full up. We can't keep taking all and sundry. But who knows, once you get to that voting booth, you don't know do you?"

Across the street, the owner of the second hand shop – a lovely little place stuffed to the brim with little bits and pieces, most of them seemingly from the 1950s – says the barber has been trying to convince her to vote Ukip too but she refuses.

"I don't know if they've got enough… you know. I don't like to say." I press her a bit. "Well you've got to be quite brainy to run a country haven't you?"

I laugh and ask if she'd be happy to have Farage as her local MP. She replies: "I don’t think so. No." Something has clearly made her take against them, but what is it?

"I had a notice the other day," she says. "It said: 'Put this in the window'. I don't like things like that. It didn't even have 'please' on it. So I thought: 'Right. That does it'."

Most of the people I see on the streets look white British, but I do find a few minorities, most of them first generation immigrants working in local shops and fast food outlets. I ask perhaps a dozen to speak to me but they all refuse. As soon as I mention the election they look down at the floor. Over and over I hear the same phrase: "I don't talk politics."

A Turkish shop worker's face lights up when I say I'm a political journalist. For a long time he talks enthusiastically and knowledgeably about the battle to get rid of Erdogan. But when I switch the conversation to the local campaign, his smile dies. "Sorry, I don't talk politics," he says.

It's easy to project your suspicions onto a silence, but I get the sense that it is easier for them to back out of the discussion altogether, given where it has gone. It feels like a self-defence mechanism. I think these people do talk politics. But when politics is all about immigration, they feel safer staying out of it.

I follow the sea along from Broadstairs, where the Tories are based, to Ramsgate, where Tom Watson, one of Labour's big beasts, is down to help the parties' local candidate. The town is pleasant enough, but it seems more like an open-air museum, sealed against modernity. This is not the knowing, ironic sentimentality of a 'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster. It’s the real deal: shops selling sweets from large plastic jars, bunting laced between houses, fairground rides perishing under the rain.

I find the gaggle of Labour campaigners around Chilton Lane, south of the train station. It's a Tory ward, leafy and full of big houses, but at least one of them is voting Labour and tells them to put a poster up on her lawn. Every time Farage is mentioned her eyes narrow.

Anti-Farage voters want him to lose more than they particularly want anyone else to win. Some people sound quite ashamed that he might represent their local area. Again I get the sense that a more centrist Tory candidate could have made good use of tactical left-wing voters.

Labour's candidate, Will Scobie, is tall, a bit geeky and very young. But he seems genuinely passionate about the fight and the local area.

"Ukip described one of the most deprived communities in the country as being a no-go area. I've lived in Clifton my whole life – that's the area they're talking about. They choose to stand there… and rile people up in other areas and tell them 'if you're not careful, your area is next'."

But Scobie's ability to take on Farage's arguments is severely hampered by the fact he can't get into the same room as him.

"Farage doesn't turn up at public hustings, his offices are closed to the public and he doesn’t do proper walk-abouts where he's actually having a chat with people. All he does are these public set-piece events where he turns up somewhere and has a pint. He organises these media scrums where he's surrounded by journalists and doesn't actually have to meet any of the public. And he organises his own ticket-only meetings whereby he doesn't actually have to answer any questions from the public."

Scobie would have had more luck if he was one of the BBC reporters in London who Farage apparently so despises. The next day I am about to speak on Radio 2 when Farage literally comes out the studio in front of me. The man who had been impossible to find in Thanet is easy enough to stumble on in metropolitan liberal London.

I am reminded of the Turkish shop-keepers staring at the floor when I ask about politics and suddenly Ukip's insistence that it is hard to speak about immigration seems cruel and ludicrous. Farage's absence in Thanet is peculiarly loud. He might not spend much time there, but his presence is felt throughout the constituency.