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.

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood