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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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.