Chatham High Street, where Ukip fever is thin on the ground. Photo: Anoosh Chakelian
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Ukip tells us of Rochester's immigration concerns, so what do its immigrants think of Ukip?

Although there is concern about immigration among some ethnic minority residents, many fear a Ukip win would be bad news for the area.

As immigration dominates national political debate, driven mainly by Ukip's apparently snowballing success, it is worth asking some of the actual migrants what they think.

In Rochester and Strood today, it's easy for the festival of purple and yellow-tinted triumph on Rochester High Street to appear to characterise this constituency and drown out many others' views. However, although most passersby I have spoken to in the town centre have mentioned their concern about immigration – one even calling for the closure of the Channel Tunnel because "since they built that, everyone can get here" – doorknocking around the more residential areas shows that it is not every voter's number one concern. Rather, they mention difficulties with disability benefits, the beleagured local hospital being "like the Third World", and struggling to find employment.

The Labour candidate, Naushabah Khan, who is descended from Pakistani migrants, told me that although her heritage plays "an interesting backdrop" to this by-election, she has found that immigration is nowhere near “the first thing on top of everybody’s list”.

Similarly, the former Labour MP for this constituency, Bob Marshall-Andrews, was sceptical about Ukip's rhetoric regarding the concerns of Rochester and Strood residents. He gave me his view, having represented the area for 13 years:

I had expected to find more evidence that this was a Ukip-caused by-election . . . [but that Ukip could win] makes me very angry and very sad. Ukip is a completely different type of party. It is a rather unpleasant and dangerous one. Medway people have always been anti-racists and open-hearted. I hope they don’t vote Ukip in.

So I set out to the section of Chatham represented by this constituency, where there seems to be a higher concentration of different cultures on its high street than in the heart of Rochester – though it is important to note that this seat has a lower non-White British population than the national and regional average. Here, there are Thai supermarkets alongside Moroccan restaurants, a Halal meat shop a few doors down from an Afro-Carribean barber; Chinese takeaways opposite Eastern European convenience stores; Middle Eastern traders watching over their fruit stalls; and all along the street you can catch snippets of Arabic, Urdu and Polish, among other languages.

Most of the people I speak to here are first- or second-generation immigrants. I try and find out how they feel about their home being on the brink of becoming Ukip territory. They give me a far more mixed reaction to Reckless and his troops' success than the White British people I have spoken to in Rochester town centre.

"I experience a lot of racism in particular here," one softly-spoken 27-year-old graphic designer tells me. "That was prior to Ukip but I expect it will only get worse [if they win]." He is Nigerian-Egyptian and has lived in Rochester for 12 years. He refuses to vote. "I have a vote but I won't use it because of my view on politics in general. I feel like it's not relevant. The most notable fact is that nothing seems to change around Medway." He is referring specifically to funding and financial help for young people, as he was thwarted in an attempt to set up his own business a few years back.

I find this odd mix of hostility towards Ukip but apathy towards politics among others I meet. Earlier this month when I was here, a young Polish painter-decorator who had only lived in the constituency for two months told me he would "maybe" consider moving out of the area if Reckless wins the seat. However, he caveated this by saying he cares more about going to parties than talking about politics.

"I don't vote, I'm non-political" smiles a woman in her 40s. She lives in Chatham and tells me she is of African heritage but won't specify which country. "They promise things and never achieve them. I've seen Ukip on the news, I listen to Radio 4, and to be honest, it just washes over me. I don't want to hear it. Whoever is in, life is hard anyway."

A 31-year-old man of Vietnamese-Chinese parentage working in a Chinese takeaway expresses a similar exasperation, but is concerned about Ukip: "I do vote every year, usually for one of the main parties, Labour or Conservative, but I'm not really into politics. I have little girls, so I worry about schools and stuff. I know this is going to be Ukip's second seat. They are stirring up trouble. There are a lot of immigrants coming through, but my parents were in the same boat coming here, so I've got nothing against people coming and getting a better life here."

A man from northern Iraq who has lived and worked here for six years is also positive about immigration, though from a different angle: "It's mixed wherever you go, you find immigrants and English people," he grins. "It's sometimes confusing and hard [for immigrants], if you don't understand the law, and I have friends here with no money who can't get help from anywhere. But everyone is confused and suffering, if they were born here or not. I've lived in Greece, Italy... everywhere it's difficult to make a living – the problem isn't immigrants, it's economic problems everywhere."

This sympathy with those arriving in Britain for a better quality of life and work is notable in all those I speak to. But it doesn't always translate into outright anti-Ukip views. "I'm registered to vote, but I haven't today," an Egyptian man working at a fruitstall tells me. "I don't really attach myself to political stuff, I'm busy here and with my family. But I hear about Ukip on the news and I'm not sure about them." I ask about their immigration policy. "My views are 50-50 to be honest," he replies. "On one hand, it's positive. I myself am an immigrant in this country and it's helped with my business, my family, and fitting into society – positive things. But the negative is that the system needs changing as new people come. There is a weakness in the system and people are taking advantage."

This same reservation is voiced by others. A man of Mauritian heritage who has owned a cornershop on the high street for two years says his parents, a doctor and nurse, worked hard when they came here and "contributed to the system. Positive immigration is all good. But when people come and sponge of benefits and don't contribute, that would piss any hardworking person off. So I think if Ukip wins here, it will give the Conservatives and Labour a kick up their arse." But when pressed on whether he would like to see Ukip gain more power, he backtracks: "I am quite worried about the general election," he admits. "Nigel Farage is not prime minister material, I wouldn't want to see that."

But there are those among Rochester and Strood's migrant population who are far less anxious about Ukip. A Turkish kebab shop worker, who is 44 and bringing up his family here, says he has his "fingers crossed" that Ukip get in. "I like them. I like their ideas." Interestingly, he doesn't mention immigration, and seems more concerned about EU membership. "The European Union is making it worse. The quality of life goes down. I used to be a taxi driver and make £800 a week, now it's less than half that. And the rent is always going up." In fact, he only moved to the area recently because he decided business would be better here.

And some remain unruffled by Reckless' chances. Beside the polling station at St John's Church, just off Chatham High Street, a Nigerian man reflects on Ukip's rise: "Their success [beyond the by-election] depends on their manifesto; people really have to think about the effect and after-effect of voting for them. But this generation who are voting for them now will eventually go, and the future will be different," he smiles.

It is crass to draw any wider conclusions from such a range of opinions, but also clear that among many constituents here, the "immigration concerns" dominating the news can be matched with "concerns about Ukip", and their views should not be overshadowed.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser