David Cameron with potential Tory candidates, Kelly Tolhurst (left) and Anna Firth (right). Photo: Getty
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Rochester and Strood: what is the Tories’ postal primary, and who’s running?

By-election hopefuls.

The Tories are preparing to fight the Rochester and Strood by-election with all their might on 20 November. They are up against Mark Reckless, one of their backbenchers who recently defected to Ukip. They’ve already lost Clacton to former Conservative Douglas Carswell, giving Ukip its first elected MP, and want to hold Rochester and Strood to quell the encroachment of Nigel Farage and his merry men on parliament.

It’s clear the Tories are in overdrive, amid reports that Reckless fears being “smeared” by CCHQ, and considering the distaste felt for their ex-MP (one cabinet minister told me at party conference that, “he’s a complete dick”).

One of their strategies is a postal primary, allowing constituents – whether party members or not – to select their candidate for the seat. This is a sign of a party desperate for new ideas, and democratic cut-through, as one party insider informs me it’s an “incredibly expensive” process. It requires the initial letter to be sent, then a freepost reply to state whether or not a ballot is desired, and then a ballot paper being sent.

Constituents are able to meet the candidates and ask them questions in meetings held around the area. There was controversy yesterday, as reporters from national papers complained that they were excluded from one of these meetings, advertised as “public”:

The two candidates contesting this postal primary, one of whom will be selected on 23 October, are Kelly Tolhurst and Anna Firth.

Who are they?

 

Kelly Tolhurst

The Tories are keen to point out that Kelly Tolhurst has “lived and worked here all her life”, in their postal primary letter to constituents. She is the daughter of a boat builder, runs her own small business in marine surveying, and has been a councillor on Medway Council for over three years. She represents Rochester West ward, and is the cabinet member for school improvement.

On her website, she cites her top priority for the area: “Pressing the government and the council to get immigration properly under control – to ease pressure on services and make sure social housing is made available to local people first.”

 

Anna Firth

The Telegraph has repeatedly defined Anna Firth first and foremost as a “stay-at-home mother”. On her Twitter bio, her own description reads: “Councillor, Barrister, Mother of Three”. She left her job as a medical negligence barrister to bring up her children, and now serves as a councillor on Sevenoaks District Council – also in Kent, but perhaps not quite as local as her rival. She grew up in nearby Essex to an engineer and a schoolteacher.

Unlike Tolhurst, she doesn’t mention immigration as one of her priorities on her website, but has made headlines by voicing her support for a points-based system barring unskilled workers like “a fruit-picker in Romania”. She said in a recent meeting:

I think we need the same immigration system that we have, the five points system, which currently applies to people coming to this country from outside the EU. We need the same system to apply to those who come to this country from inside the EU.

Once we have that system in place then I think we will have a sensible immigration policy. One that says if you come to this country with skills we really need – say you’re a brain surgeon or something in Australia as opposed to someone who has no skills, a fruit picker in Romania – then we say yes.

If you come into this country with a job, we say yes. If you come into this country because you’ve got the money to support you and contribute to this country, we say yes. But otherwise need to say we can’t support you. That would be my policy.

This supports Ukip’s proposed Australian-style system for immigration. It diverges embarrassingly from David Cameron’s stance. Though the Prime Minister has suggested he’s working on a “game-changing” policy regarding EU migrants, he does not currently hold Firth’s view to call for an end to “uncontrolled” migration from the EU. She said, “we have had uncontrolled immigration. We are a small island. We must have controlled immigration.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.