Rochester by-election: Voters drift from main UK parties

By Michael Daventry


British Prime Minister David Cameron must rue the day in 2006 when, as the newish leader of his Conservative Party, he described members of the U.K. Independence Party as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly”.

That same party, commonly referred to as Ukip, comfortably defeated the Conservatives on Thursday to win a parliamentary seat in a special election in Rochester and Strood, a suburban district around 60 kilometers (38 miles) southeast of London.

The right-wing party favors Britain’s immediate withdrawal from the European Union and placing much stricter curbs on migration to the country.

What makes the defeat embarrassing for the British premier is that the winning candidate, Mark Reckless, was the second person in as many months to defect from Cameron’s party and successfully defend the seat for Ukip.

He told voters in an acceptance speech in the early hours of Friday morning: “You were my boss. I stepped down to ask your permission to join Ukip. You hired me again. You remain my boss. Don’t let me forget it.”

Remarkable victory

Reckless won 16,867 votes, nearly 3,000 more than the Conservative candidate’s 13,947.

He now joins Douglas Carswell, who took a seat early last month, to become the second elected member of parliament for his new party.

But while Carswell’s triumph could have been attributed to his strong personal popularity in his district, Reckless’s victory is all the more remarkable because it comes in a much more competitive seat.

This is a socially diverse area: the ancient cathedral and winding streets of Rochester have enchanted wealthy residents and tourists for generations, most famously Charles Dickens.

But a short walk away over the River Medway is the far less prosperous Strood.

Here, the High Street features not museums and cafes serving afternoon tea, but betting shops and discount stores.

‘Desperately disappointed’

Unlike the hordes of activists campaigning across the water in Rochester, there was just one woman carrying a Ukip banner down Strood’s busiest street.

Unemployment in both towns is above the national average, even though the vast majority of residents are under the age of 65.

Education rates are lower too and, unlike cosmopolitan London, the most recent population count in 2011 showed the town’s residents are overwhelmingly white.

“We do have a long-standing Italian population and some eastern Europeans working in the car wash, but there really aren’t that many immigrants here,” said Roy Wilkins, 80, cutting a lonely figure as he stood outside Ukip’s Rochester headquarters wearing a blue Conservative rosette.

“I’m desperately disappointed [with Ukip]. I have never met so many young people with such ignorant views,” he said after an animated discussion with a group of young Ukip activists about Adolf Hitler.

“They have brought in people from other parts of the country to campaign here. They’re all here wearing a uniform of tweed jackets and ties. They created the immigration issue here to make a political point. Can you think of any other party that wears the same uniform all the time?”

Domestic headache

But Ukip campaigner Tom Johnson, 52, said people in Britain felt immigration was “just too much”.

“There are too many people coming here and we need a government that can make the rules sensible and fix it. Ukip are the only party that will do that,” he said.

Reckless’s victory is a domestic headache not just for Cameron but for all the main political leaders in Britain: more and more people in the country are voting for smaller, special interest parties, saying the major parties do not understand them.

That argument is exemplified by the centre-left Labour Party, which came a poor third in Rochester and Strood with 6,713.

It controlled this seat as recently as 2010, when it had slightly different boundaries.

‘Pick n’ mix’ voters

But on Thursday one of its senior politicians, Emily Thornberry, was forced to resign after tweeting a photograph of a house in Rochester draped in three English flags with a white van parked outside the door – a typical image of the English working class.

Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said Thornberry was “sneering at the electorate of Rochester” and Labour was accused of no longer understanding the working class, from where it traces its origins.

But in fact all the main British political parties are struggling to appeal to a broad section of society, according to Strathclyde University’s John Curtice, an expert in electoral behavior.

“Fewer people these days have a strong emotional commitment to a political party that helps to ensure they vote Conservative or Labour through thick or thin. Voters to that extent are rather more of a “pick n’ mix” type.”