By-Election Special: Rochester and Strood

by Jackie_South on November 19, 2014

Rochester&Strood iconUntil 1999, it had been the convention that Prime Ministers did not visit a by-election campaign. Yesterday has marked David Cameron’s fifth visit during this by-election to Rochester and Strood – a clear indication of the level of panic and desperation in the Conservative Party caused by this Thursday’s looming by-election.

When Mark Reckless first announced his defection from the Conservatives to UKIP, many dismissed it as nominative determinism: Reckless by name, reckless by nature. And indeed, that may still be the verdict come May’s general election. But what is increasingly clear is that he will win on Thursday and continue to serve at least until then under his new colours.

There have been four polls in the constituency, all suggesting that Reckless will win comfortably, if not by the same sort of margin as Douglas Carswell achieved in Clacton. The consensus appears to be that he is not that loved as a local MP but that his support is for his new party: voters disenchanted by the major parties turning to UKIP. The chart below shows the average polling for the parties from those polls.

Rochester&Strood poll

The constituency

Despite a name change in 2010, the constituency has been little altered since 1983, when Rochester and Strood were separated from neighbouring Chatham to form a seat called Medway. By 2010, it was decided that this caused confusion with the unitary borough of Medway, created in 1998, which covers a much larger area. That borough includes the entirety of this seat and neighbouring Gillingham and Rainham, and 60% of the Chatham and Aylesford constituency.

As the former name suggests, the constituency spans the River Medway. On the east bank is ancient Rochester, capital of west Kent in Saxon times and one of England’s oldest cities. It lost its city status in 1998, not by design but by accident: it could have remained a city within the new unitary authority (as both Bath and Hereford have done) if only they had appointed charter trustees to enable this. Instead, almost 800 years of that historic status were wiped out through and administrative oversight.

There is still much of note in the former city: its cathedral, castle and links to Dickens. The old Chatham naval yard is in the constituency and a number of important events in the tale of the latter Stuart kings were played out there: Charles II stayed there on his way to London for the Restoration, his brother James II left England for the last time from there in the Glorious Revolution 28 years later. In between, England suffered one of its most embarrassing military debacles here when the Dutch Navy set fire to the naval yard and captured three warships.

Most of the land, and a small majority of the voters, are on the west bank of the Medway, both in Strood (across the bridge from Rochester) and a swathe of rural land stretching south to the villages of Cuxton and Halling and north to the marshy Hoo Peninsula. Those marshes were where Dickens had Pip first meeting Magwitch, and where Boris Johnson planned to build the Boris Island airport.

Rochester&Strood map

Labour does best in Rochester East ward, near the heart of the Medway conurbation and also currently has some councillors in Strood itself. But the Conservatives have far greater strength: the rural areas west of the river vote are very Tory. The other areas of Rochester are closest to average in the seat. The map below shows Electoral Calculus estimation of how each ward voted in 2010.

Rochester&Strood 2010 wards

Whilst Labour took control of neighbouring Gravesham in 2011, they failed to make much impact in Medway in the same elections. Of the 55 seats on the council, 35 were won by the Conservatives in that election, Labour 17 and Lib Dems 3 (all in the Gillingham and Rainham constituency). The Rochester and Strood wards were slightly more Conservative than the rest of the borough overall, due to those rural areas in the west. Labour’s strongest showing in the borough was in neighbouring Chatham.

Medway cllrs 2011

In fact, Labour could feel a little aggrieved by the Boundary Commission in Medway: if it had opted to link Rochester to Chatham (which it merges into) instead of those areas west of the river, the seat would currently be a lot tighter between them and the Conservatives: the electorate sizes of that seat and a perfectly reasonable (and safe Conservative) Strood and Aylesford would have met the criteria. In fact up until 1983 there was a Rochester and Chatham constituency that tended to vote for whichever party won nationally.

Election results

In 2010, Mark Reckless won the seat for the Conservatives with a majority just short of 10,000 (almost 21% of the votes cast) on a high swing of 9.8%. The scale of that victory means that, without the UKIP factor, the Conservatives would probably have bene able to hold Rochester and Strood even if Labour took an outright majority at next year’s general election.

Rochester&Strood 2010

Despite this, and those unhelpful boundaries, Labour’s Bob Marshall-Andrews represented the constituency between 1997 and 2010, albeit only scraping home by 213 votes in 2005: Marshall-Andrews thought he had lost at the count until the final result, upon which he declared “I am Lazarus”.

Before Marshall-Andrews, the Conservatives’ Dame Peggy Fenner was the MP from the seat’s 1983 creation, having also served as MP for the Rochester and Chatham seat from 1979 as well as between 1970 and 1974.

Rochester&Strood 83-10

The outcome?

Despite all the Prime Ministerial visits, it seems unlikely that the Conservatives can close that 12% average gap in the polls: they have not been helped in the last ten days by the government being caught with its pants down on its portrayal of its deal on the European bill and from its “early warning” of an economic downturn being on its way.

The Conservatives have run a poor campaign: early on they issued a leaflet putting Rochester on the wrong side of the Medway on a map. On Sunday, their candidate Kelly Tolhurst won our Prat of the Week award for her latest leaflet. The cost of her selection in the first place, by an expensive open primary ballot, means that even if the Conservatives did win the result might be overturned in court for busting campaign expense limits.

Depsite all this and Labour regaining its poll lead last week, they will do considerably worse on Thursday than the Conservatives. Whilst they were always unlikely to win the election, under different circumstances they could have tried to run a strong enough campaign to embarrass the Conservatives by pushing them into third place. But Labour have put a lacklustre effort into this campaign and Ed Miliband’s travails of late have robbed them of any potential momentum.

The Greens and Liberal Democrats look likely to run each other close for fourth place. It looks unlikely that either will save their deposits.

Conclusion

It looks like this has not been such a Reckless gamble after all.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Julian Ware-Lane November 19, 2014 at 7:07 pm

This is likely to be the second by-election running where the result is no change. MP forces by-election to get himself re-elected – costing the tax-payer something like £1/4 million in the process.

This is a vanity by-election that gifts a lot of publicity to UKIP care of the tax-payers.

Reply

Mike Killingworth November 20, 2014 at 11:22 am

Would you prefer him to have continued to sit, despite having changed his political allegiance? I’m afraid your comment brings to mind the phrase “the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

Reply

Ray_North November 20, 2014 at 12:28 pm

I’m interested Jackie that you think that Cameron’s declaration of ‘bad times ahead’ is going to be bad for the Tories – I’m not sure, but I think that they think that it will play in their favour.

Reply

George_East November 20, 2014 at 7:18 pm

I agree with that. It’s designed to elicit a cling to nanny response among a fearful electorate. Given the Tories massive poll lead on economic competence that is, if anything, likely to play in their favour.

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John Lett November 22, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Hell of a history lesson but very interesting. It is clear that the fearful electorate conservative or otherwise are turning to UKIP for change. I do not know the answer. I think at the end of the day the Green Party will take the No, Protest or Unsure votes. As will members of the armed forces, police and fire services. It was nice to see
my old pal Bob Marshall-Andrews name a lovely man.

Reply

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