Reflections on Rochester and Strood

There is an enormous gulf between what the media thinks this election is about and what the local people want it to be about.

Frances Coppola
18 November 2014

In the post this morning: three communications from UKIP, two from the Conservatives, one from Labour. This is a pretty typical day. Every day brings more confetti through the letterbox, most of it from UKIP and the Conservatives. All of it goes straight in the bin.

I also get emails from the Conservatives, phone calls from the Conservatives, visits from the Conservatives.....I told an opinion pollster who rang recently (yes, I get lots of those too) that the Conservatives look desperate to me. I'm utterly sick of their flood tactics.  But now UKIP have adopted the same tactics. Spam, spam, spam. They are nearly as bad as the PPI leeches.

Spamming my letterbox, mailbox and voicemail merely annoys me. I don't need more information. I know what all of the main candidates are offering. Heaven knows, they've told me enough times.

I've read Kelly Tolhurst's six-point plan, headed up by the biggest non-issue of this by-election - immigration. I've read Mark Reckless's insane claim that a party that has no plan for reducing the deficit is somehow more likely to achieve it than one that has spelled it out in gory detail. I've also read Naushabah Khan's sensible local plans which have been unfortunately hijacked by her party's insistence that she must fight the other parties on their own ground.

I'm much less clear about what the other parties are offering. I think during this campaign I have had one leaflet from the Lib Dems, occasional leaflets from independent candidates and none at all from the Greens. Maybe it's because of where I live - the outskirts of Strood are not where the main battle lies. Or maybe it is just that the other parties have all given up prematurely. Whatever. I'm bored with it all anyway. Roll on Thursday.

Oddly enough, given it is only three days until the vote, the media have gone a bit quiet this week. Maybe they are bored with it too. A week ago, the BBC was busy promoting the idea that this by-election was all about immigration. Here is Louise Stewart, in an article promisingly named "Issues Beyond Immigration":

Perhaps the Rochester and Strood by-election campaign could also be summed up in three words - Immigration, Immigration, Immigration.

It was always going to be a big issue, given this vote was triggered by the local MP's defection from the Conservatives to UKIP.

And the headline for BBC South East's televised "Rochester and Strood Debate" announced that although local issues did feature, the debate "really heated up" when immigration was discussed. Apparently this "proved" that this by-election is about immigration, really.

I was in the audience for that debate (if you want to watch it, the iPlayer link is here). Immigration was indeed discussed, and there was a heated debate between Kelly Tolhurst and Naushabah Khan about the Coalition's record on controlling immigration. But as they were arguing, the audience went quiet. I looked around. They were mostly disengaged. The energy from the audience had dissipated. Suddenly what had been a lively discussion of local issues had become a national media circus.

I thought maybe it was just the impression I gained at the time, so I watched the broadcast as well. The same impression remained. Politicians were arguing about the issues their head offices had told them to discuss (and the media liked) while local voters looked on, disengaged and unimpressed.

A few days later I discussed the programme with one of my students who had been in the row behind me in the debate. 

"Was it just me, or was the audience really bored during the discussion of immigration?" I asked.

"Not bored, exactly," said my student. "It just seemed pointless. It's not what we are interested in".

Other people I spoke to echoed this. And the lady who asked the question in the broadcast itself summed it up:

"I don't think immigration is the big issue it is being made out to be", she said. "And I think the real concerns of local people are not being heard".

Indeed they are not. Recent reports on the by-election have focused entirely on how awful it will be for David Cameron if UKIP wins. The Telegraph wrote a piece called "Rochester and Strood by-election explained" which completely omitted any mention of local concerns in Rochester and Strood. And a nice piece in the Guardian about a local shop's straw (or rather sweet) poll degenerated into party politics. No wonder people in Rochester and Strood are cross.

To her credit, Louise Stewart did say that her own impression was that immigration wasn't the main issue:

And it's not a scientific poll, but when I've spoken to voters on the streets of Rochester and Strood the crisis which has engulfed the Medway Maritime Hospital (which was taken into special measures over a year ago) seems to be the area of most concern for residents.

Slightly further out residents in Hoo are worried about plans to build 5,000 homes at Lodge Hill - on a Site of Special Scientific Interest - and the Green Party and Liberal Democrats have made fighting it one of their key policies.

The other big bugbear seems to be traffic management - businesses say they're suffering due to the long-standing traffic hold-ups on Medway's biggest trading estate, worsened by what they describe as "incompetent" highways management of roadworks nearby.

Yup, that's more like it. Medway Hospital, the Lodge Hill development and traffic jams. Had this by-election been six months earlier, the list would have included the Estuary Airport proposal, which was - and remains - unbelievably unpopular with local people. It's not about immigration. Really, it isn't. It's about this area being a dumping ground for all sorts of political pet projects that can't go anywhere else because of the insane London greenbelt. It's about stupid political ideology that deprives schools and hospitals of resources, squeezes people's incomes and hurts the poor. It's about failure to reform the banks, failure to mend the roads, failure to fix the health service. It is, in short, about the everyday things that affect the lives of ordinary people.

Although I'm not going to vote for him, I have to say that Mark Reckless actually addresses these local concerns well. And if he wins it will be more because of this than the ridiculous UKIP policies. As a Westminster politician he has been something of a joke, but he has been a good constituency MP. He has more personal support than perhaps the media appreciate.

But one thing that came across clearly in the BBC debate was how close Tolhurst and Reckless are. As far as policies are concerned, they are almost indistinguishable. And the Labour candidate wants to play them at their own game. Three parties, all offering pretty much the same menu. Do we vote for posh Mark, chavvy Kelly or clever Naushabah, or waste our votes on a fringe party?

In the end it all comes down to this.We, the voters of Rochester and Strood, are being drowned out by the noise from the media circus and the political Punch and Judy show. If we kick the main parties by re-electing Mark Reckless, it will not be because we are a bunch of racist, sexist xenophobes. It will be because we are angry that what really concerns us is apparently of so little importance to the Westminster elite. They should take note.


This article first appeared at Coppola Comment.

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