Madness in Medway as Reckless reigns. Photo: Getty
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“I’m not a racist”: a visit to the by-election battleground, Rochester and Strood

Polls have now opened in the constituency where immigration dominates debate, and Ukip is poised to seize power from the Tories.

This is an updated extract of an article that originally appeared on the New Statesman's election website May2015. Follow it on Twitter @May2015NS.

The morning’s first crisp rays of sunlight bounce off Rochester Cathedral’s small cluster of spires. Compact and rather squat, it looks over the town’s cobbled high street, as people begin to go about their day. It seems to be a sleepy Tuesday in this town on the Medway River. You would never guess it was in political turmoil.

But it is on these quaint little streets that the most significant by-election in this parliament is about to take place. Triggered by the erstwhile Tory MP for Rochester and Strood, Mark Reckless, defecting to Ukip, the vote today is likely to deliver Ukip’s second MP in two months. The latest poll shows Ukip 12 points ahead of the Tories, in a demonstration that what was once a maverick fourth party is rapidly increasing its grip on the political establishment.

On the grounds outside Rochester Castle, I meet a 34-year-old white English man, who is walking his Staffie. “I’ll be voting Ukip. I don’t agree with all these Slovaks, Polish, Latvians, coming over here,” he tells me.

He is a qualified plumber but has been out of work since April. He blames this on “Latvian people, Polish people, willing to work for £6.50 an hour. I’m registered, I’m qualified, I’d like to work for £15, £20 an hour. They keep the money, or send it home, and when they go back they live like kings and queens,” he adds.

Ukip is zealously campaigning on this hostile view of EU migrants. Reckless is framing the by-election as a race between the party that will “take back control of our borders from the EU” and the others who he claims could never deliver that result.

When I speak to Rochester and Strood’s Tory candidate, Kelly Tolhurst, she is unable to tell me how her party would bring down EU migrant levels. She repeatedly says she is eager for “action, rather than talk” on immigration – calling it a “numbers game” – but cannot tell me exactly what such “action” would entail, beyond David Cameron’s potential future renegotiation.

While visiting the main areas of the constituency – Rochester town centre and its surrounding residential areas, the streets of Strood, and Chatham High Street – I pick up an overwhelming enthusiasm for Ukip. Even a mild-mannered volunteer at the Cathedral tells me quietly that her family supports Ukip because they, “really do believe in its ideas.”

The chunk of Chatham encompassed by the constituency is more diverse than other parts of Rochester and Strood. One white middle-aged man I speak to mumbles, “I know it’s not a good word to use, but I’d say Chatham is definitely swamped”.

Chatham High Street is filled with familiar chains – McDonald’s, Debenhams and Primark – that take it a world away from Rochester’s “Ye Olde” quaintness. It hosts a variety of cultures. Halal meat is sold a few doors down from an Afro-Carribean barber; Asian men speaking Urdu preside over a vast fruit stall; Chinese workers sit laughing on a step outside a takeaway on their cigarette break; a large Polish family stops for a chat with passing friends.

I speak to a Polish painter-decorator, who is sitting on a bench, rolling a cigarette. He is on his day off, and looking forward to seeing friends later. He has lived here for two months. “It’s a very nice area,” he smiles. “Rochester is a nice old city, it looks like a picture [postcard]. I like it because parts of it are like a big city, but some of it is like a village.”

What does he think of his MP switching allegiance to Ukip? He gives a hollow laugh and looks uneasy, simply shaking his head. Would he want to stay here if Ukip took control? “Maybe yes, maybe no. I like to party, not talk about politics,” he smiles apologetically. “But it is bad.”

In spite of constituents’ concerns, and the diversity of Chatham, Rochester and Strood actually has a lower than average immigrant population than the national, and even regional, level. Its population is 87 per cent white British; the national average is 80.5 per cent. So is the focus on EU migrants really a constituents’ priority, or more a result of effective Ukip messaging?

I meet Reckless at the mock Tudor-fronted Ukip HQ on Rochester High Street.  He has noticed “a demographic change” since around 2004. There has been, “an increasing number of eastern Europeans who moved to the area – not in anything like overwhelming numbers, but in significant numbers,” he says.

He continues: “Ukip is saying that if we have unlimited immigration, from eastern and southern Europe, then that may hold down wages for other people in the labour market.”

While I walk around Rochester with Reckless, he admits to receiving more “strong negative reactions” among constituents than he did as a Tory. A resident who claims to know Reckless’s builder tells me that, a week before he defected, Reckless had a special fire extinguishing attachment fitted to his letterbox, in case he was posted any explosive devices.

As if on cue, a young father in a checked shirt strides over to Reckless and me, dragging his bored seven-year-old along with him. “I hope you don’t get in. You don’t represent the people of Rochester,” he shouts. “You say you’re not a racist party, but you think Lenny Henry should be deported! You talk about Bongo Bongo Land. It’s a dangerous party, stirring up hatred.”

Reckless splutters, “I wholly dispute your characterisation of Ukip.” But the man carries on: “If you don’t like this country, go and live in Canada, go and live in Australia.”

“No,” counters Reckless, “I’m very happy here.”

“Then let other people be happy here. You’re scaremongering and scapegoating,” is the man’s parting shot.

But it appears from Ukip’s double digit poll-lead that most Rochester and Strood residents would be all too happy for Reckless to stay living here too.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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The murder of fearless journalist Pavel Sheremet must be solved - but Ukraine needs more

Sheremet was blown up as he drove to host a morning radio programme

On 20th of July Kiev was shaken by the news of the assassination of the respected Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet. Outside the ex-Soviet republics he was hardly known. Yet the murder is one that the West should reflect on, as it could do much to aggravate the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. 

Sheremet was one of the most significant and high profile investigative journalists of his generation. His career as an archetypal  examiner of the post-Soviet regimes in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia bought him fame and notoriety in the region. From 1997 onwards Sheremet became a name for fearless and non-partisan interrogation, both in print and as also as TV presenter. He paid the price early on when he was incarcerated by the Belarus government, then stripped of his Belarusian nationality and deported. Such is the way of things in the region.

Taking up residence in Kiev, Sheremet became immersed in interrogating the political life of Ukraine. He wrote for the Ukrayinska Pravda publication and also helped to develop a journalism school. Under these auspices he was a participant of a congress, "The dialogue between Ukraine and Russia", in April 2014. He reported on beginnings of the Euromaidan uprising. He warned of the rise of the concept  of "Novorossia" and suggested that Ukraine needed to reset its current status and stand up to Russian pressure. After the Russian occupation of Crimea his blame for the Ukrainian government was ferocious. He alleged that that they "left their soldiers face to face the [Russian] aggressor and had given up the Crimean peninsula with no attempt to defend it." These, he said "are going to be the most disgraceful pages of Ukrainian history."

Sheremet was blown up at 7.45am on 20 July as he drove to host a morning radio programme.

Ukraine is a dangerous place for journalists. Fifty of them have been murdered since Ukraine achieved independence. However, this murder is different from the others. Firstly, both the Ukrainian President and the Interior minister immediately sought assistance from FBI and EU investigators. For once it seems that the Ukrainian government is serious about solving this crime. Secondly, this IED type assassination had all the trappings of a professional operation. To blow a car up in rush hour Kiev needs a surveillance team and sophisticated explosive expertise. 

Where to lay the blame? Pavel Sheremet had plenty of enemies, including those in power in Belarus, Russia and the militias in Ukraine (his last blog warned of a possible coup by the militias). But Ukraine needs assistance beyond investigators from the FBI and the EU. It needs more financial help to support credible investigative journalism.   

The murder of Pavel Sheremet was an attack on the already fragile Ukrainian civil society, a country on the doorstep of the EU. The fear is that the latest murder might well be the beginning of worse to come.

Mohammad Zahoor is the publisher of Ukrainian newspaper The Kyiv Post.