How the Rochester and Strood by-election is a symbol of Labour's wider problems

Tories will frame the by-election as a Labour failure, the press thinks Ed Miliband's written it off, and local party activists have their own problems to contend with.

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Rochester High Street on polling day is a middle-aged, white harrumph of bouyant Ukip devotees and stiff Tory optimism. It's sort of like West Side Story if it were directed by Mary Berry and the Hamiltons and set in a National Trust property. Blue-badged Kelly Tolhurst supporters walk briskly past the triumphantly Tudor Ukip HQ, averting their eyes, while the gaudy warning coloration of purple and yellow stripes the entire thoroughfare.

So what is Labour up to here? The narrative in the press, something the Conservative party is also keen to emphasise, is that the party has written off this by-election completely. However, as I find out from speaking to activists, MPs, other insiders, and some constituents in a Labour ward, the situation is more complicated than that – though still not necessarily good news for Ed Miliband.

First, there has been a significant attempt by the party to get out the vote. As far as I can tell, all of the shadow cabinet have visited at some point (a better effort than the Tories, who, in spite of instructing their MPs to visit at least three times, had yet to see the Foreign Secretary and Transport Secretary, among many other ministers, take the train down only a couple of weeks ago, as I revealed at the time). And when I visited earlier this month, I came across at least three Labour MPs down for the day. However, there are some Labour MPs who are reticent about putting their energies into Rochester. One tells me: "Everyone's blaming Tory MPs for only turning up for a couple of hours, but to be fair a lot of us are doing that too!"

There are also many Labour voters in Rochester, in spite of it appearing a lot like Ukipland these days. Door after door in Labour wards with significant Indian as well as White British populations around the outskirts of the town centre give replies along the lines of "I'm Labour through and through" and "we've got to keep the other two out". There is as much vitriol voiced towards David Cameron as there is towards Mark Reckless; it is a lesser-told story that much of this Medway constituency, which used to be in Labour's hands before the 2010 boundary change, remains Labour to the core.

And Labour's rival to Reckless, Naushabah Khan, is an impressive, down-to-earth candidate. She even received Rod Liddle's approval in a column he wrote for the Spectator comparing the Rochester candidates.

On the surface, this all looks good for Labour, but this by-election and its build-up have caused deeper problems for the party: namely, a widening gulf between its national centre and local activists.

There is the obvious problem of Ed Miliband's appeal when doorknocking. Going around with a Labour canvas fronted by former minister and respected Labour MP Alan Johnson earlier this month, there were repeated remarks on the doorstep from Labour voters who were unsure about Ed Miliband. "I don't really get Ed," said one man who was otherwise eagerly excited to greet Johnson and the other Labour activists. I have heard a few similar remarks while reporting here. Although a bearded, well-spoken young campaigner told me today, "I had someone earlier who said they really like Ed Miliband, which was wonderful!" the fact that this is notable reinforces the idea that Labour activists on the doorstep are a little hamstrung by Miliband's lack of personal appeal.

However, a perhaps more damaging distance between the centre and its ground troops is the idea that Labour hasn't done much in this seat since it fell into Tory hands in the last general election. Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway in 1997-2010, losing the seat to Reckless due to a boundary change. I spoke to him about Ukip taking hold, and he insisted: "Medway people have always been anti-racists and open-hearted. I hope they don’t vote Ukip in." However, it is thought by insiders sceptical of Labour's approach to the by-election that the party has done itself a lot of damage by ignoring such constituencies for so long, meaning Ukip has been able to creep into the vacuum the party left. “We should be doing much better there than we are, to be honest,” one Labour adviser lamented to me. “There’s a feeling that when we lost it in 2010, we washed our hands of it and walked away, which is a sign of the party’s bigger problem really.”

This "bigger problem" is both Labour being slow on the uptake when it came to Ukip chipping into its vote, and apathy on behalf of its erstwhile voters. One Labour activist, from nearby Faversham, canvassing around the northern point of Rochester reveals that their "big obstacle is apathy". "There is a distance between what the party is doing and what's happening on the ground," they told me this morning. "In Medway, apathy is a big challenge for Labour. Farage's lot have managed to come at this by joining disenchantment with a Little Englander mentality, and it's difficult to get our voters out. We are saying to them that the wealthy and the disaffected have little in common, but the wealthy vote for themselves, so who votes for you?" "The message is slowly getting through," added a fellow campaigner, who lives locally, though they all look rather disheartened.

And what has exacerbated this problem is Labour placing too much hope in party politics and Westminster speculation. "The party thinks its only hope of getting anything good out of Rochester is if the Tories lose – we need a blow to Cameron," a source close to the shadow frontbench told me. "I think everyone's pretty much agreed now that the only way we're going to win in 2015 is from a crisis in the Tory party, so we'll be hoping for Reckless to win and for more to defect."

Apathy, party politics and difficulties with the national image on the doorstep have for a while been Labour's stumbling blocks. It looks like this by-election is a symbol of the party's wider problems.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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