There is an explosion that could hit the town of Sheerness soon.
No, this isn’t a clichéd political metaphor. A mile off the coast from the small Kent seaside town lies the submerged wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery, laden with explosives when it sank in 1944. If sea water seeps into the bombs, it could create one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and cause untold damage to Sheerness-on-Sea.
This is a part of the country that has its battle scars. Sheerness and the rest of the Isle of Sheppey hold the distinction of being the last part of England occupied by a foreign nation – the Dutch held it for five days in 1667. Perhaps this in part explains the Euro-skepticism of Sittingbourne and Sheppey, the fourth constituency in our series on the seats UKIP notionally won in May’s county council elections.
In some respects, this constituency is a mirror image of the last constituency I wrote about, Castle Point on the other side of the Thames Estuary further upstream. The Isle of Sheppey has a similar population to Canvey Island, whilst the majority of the electorate live in the part of the mainland both linked to the island and strung along the main arterial road for that part of the county, in this case the A2, the historic Watling Street.
Unlike Canvey though, Sheppey is far larger, less industrial and rather than one town is a collection of small towns along the Thames shore. The largest of those towns is Sheerness, where a third of the islanders live. The other small towns on the island are Queenborough, between Sheerness and the bridges to the mainland and Minster, founded in the seventh century. Further east are the villages of Leysdown-on-Sea and Eastchurch (site of Britain’s first airplane flight). Eastchurch is also home to Sheppey’s three prisons.
Across the channel of the Swale lies Sittingbourne: a town that grew up around the junction of the A2 and the road to Sheppey. The area’s clay and chalk spurred the town’s brick, cement and paper industries, although now it is a fast-growing commuter town for London. A number of Kentish villages nearby spread between the M2 and the coast are also included.
The map below shows the area covered by Swale district council, taking in the whole of the constituency as well as land to the east around the town of Faversham. The black line shows the constituency boundary, the white boundaries the six electoral divisions in the district for the county council elections.
The colours indicate which party won the county council seats – Swale Central, covering most of Sittingbourne, has two seats (one won by Labour, the other by UKIP) whilst the other divisions have one each. Swale East is split between this constituency and Faversham and Mid Kent, with just over half its voters in Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
Like the three constituencies previously covered in this series (Boston and Skegness, Great Yarmouth and Castle Point), Sittingbourne and Sheppey is a Conservative-held coastal seat where the contest has been between Tories and Labour, with the Liberal Democrats very much being also rans. Like Great Yarmouth, Labour held the seat between 1997 and 2010. Unlike Great Yarmouth though it is no longer really marginal: Tory Gordon Henderson had a majority of over 12,000 (25.5%).
Labour did well to hold it in 2005 with a microscopic majority of 79 votes, largely due to the popularity of its former England rugby player MP, Derek Wyatt. When Wyatt decided to stand down in 2010, defeat was inevitable.
The constituency was created in 1997, but it comprised the majority of the pre-1997 Faversham constituency which was held continuously by the Conservatives from 1970. Before that, Faversham had been held by Labour since 1945. It had seemed that this was a constituency that stuck with one party or another for long periods of time: UKIP perhaps throw a spanner in those works.
Labour’s vote is the most straight-forward to describe: it is strongest in the Sheerness section (covering both that town and Queenborough), where they had a 5% lead on UKIP. They also led in Swale Central, but by only 0.6% over UKIP.
The Conservative support is almost a reverse image. They led in Swale East, but by a sizable margin of 19%, taking 46% of the vote, and were second behind UKIP in both Sheppey and Swale West, although in both cases by a considerable distance (18% and 19% respectively). They were third in Sheerness and Swale Central.
UKIP won in the Sheppey division and Swale West by a sizable lead (18% and 19%), and were a close second (by 0.6%) to Labour in Swale Central. They were second also in the other two divisions. UKIP took an outright majority (51%) in Swale West. Their worst result was in Swale East, on 27%.
The constituency also has an interesting Monster Raving Loony Party vote: taking 319 votes in 2010, and having once held the mayoralty of Queenborough.
So, can UKIP win? Like the other constituencies in our series, turnout was far lower in May (28%) than in the last general election (64.5%), and it may be that it was Conservatives staying away. It may also be of course that UKIP was the recipient of Conservative protest votes this time that will return to the fold in 2015. The 2010 Conservative vote was three times the size of UKIP’s total vote in this year’s local elections in the constituency.