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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.