Rochester, Strood and Sturgeon

North and South on the British island, new leaders are emerging from hope and fear.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
20 November 2014
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Two events, at either end of the UK and either end of today, mark a significant shift in British politics. This morning, Nicola Sturgeon was sworn in as First Minister of Scotland. Tonight, Mark Reckless will almost certainly be declared MP for Rochester and Strood.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about both of these events is that they don't come as a surprise at all. British politics has changed so much in recent months that things which once would have seemed out of the question can now tick past with the pomp and ritual of the banal.

But they are, both of them, in their own way, extraordinary. Sturgeon's elevation is remarkable because it is a quick and clean hand-over from one party leader to the next, from one of the UK's most talented politicians to another. At a time when the UK Labour Party can barely muster one credible leader, the fact that the SNP produced (at least) two is telling.

Whilst the media is obsessed with how leaders shape parties, the opposite is equally true: parties produce, or fail to produce, leaders. They build people up or they cut them down, they teach them to stand in front or to follow. And at a time when Labour MPs have largely accepted their role as middle managers for global capital, it's no wonder that they look like an drone of automatons, promising a strategic pathway which is 85% likely to secure the next SMART target.

And it's no wonder, in this context, that the SNP - a party which actually believes in something other than management - can produce people capable of persuading their fellow citizens (as well, as it happens, as being pretty efficient managers). The fact that that person is a working class woman, and is a good way to the left of anyone who's had their hands on the rudder of the Labour Party in two decades, makes this even more remarkable.

The Conservative Party is perhaps better at covering up for its lack of leadership. The British people have been trained over centuries to believe that the kinds of mannerisms produced by public schools are what make someone plausible. But ultimately, they too are just functionaries of the city. And so when someone with some actual ideas emerges, someone who believes what they say, it's no wonder that the most talented new Tory MPs (Rory Stewart, Zac Goldsmith) aren't climbing the ministerial ladder to leadership, but instead make trouble from the back benches and committees - and it's not very surprising that Douglas Carswell walked. Why would anyone with their own ideas stay in a party designed to deliver someone elses?

Big men and big women aren't so much the agents of history as its harbingers. And Rochester isn't interesting because Reckless is the first, but because he's the second. He's the follower who makes Carswell a leader – and, if rumours are to believed, he may well not be the last. Like Sturgeon (though she is a leader in her own right) he helps show that this isn't about a maverick with some bombast. It's a trend. UKIP isn't a product of Farage anymore than the SNP is a product of Salmond. Both are the products of the ebbs and flows of our societies.

There, though, the analogy breaks down. The SNP is a left, multicultural, progressive party. UKIP is none of those things. In Scotland before the referendum, I met hundreds of people who were excited about the vote, and deeply engaged. In Rochester and Strood today, I mostly only met people who were upset and alienated.

There was the posty, who said of Reckless “he's just trying to divide people from each other, it's really horrible”. He probably wasn't going to have time to get to the polling station. There was the Asian shop keeper, who told me that UKIP were “basically the National Front”, and that he is now scared to go out on his own, because of the atmosphere he says they've created. There were the sixth formers who told me that “UKIP are cunts” and “I don't know much about it, but I've heard UKIP are racist”.

Then there were the UKIP voters themselves, who weren't happy either. In central Strood, a retired man told me that the National Front were basically right (although he didn't like the violence). He talked through each major wave of immigration throughout his lifetime, and said that as far as he was concerned, they (people who arrived up to, perhaps, the mid 90s) were “as British as you or I”, and he had no problem with them staying. But now, he thinks, the country is full.

He didn't say it with passion, though. He said it with shame. He said he felt awful: a granddad, who loves his grandkids, talking about such things. But it was what he thought. It's a conversation I've had hundreds of times over the years: I've met many, many people who blame immigration for a whole range of socioeconomic problems. I've almost never met anyone who seems happy about doing it. And so, just as the first group of people were upset and afraid because of the attitude of the man in the street in Strood (and many more like him), so too was the man in the street in Strood upset and afraid – both of his own opinions, and of the world as it has become.

Other reactions were interesting. I saw locals in the High Street in Rochester peer into the Tory campaign office and spit, in thick Kent accent “they're just a bunch of hoorays”. I managed to get perhaps fifteen people in the centres of the two towns to tell me how they were planning to vote. The most common reaction was “Green” or “Green or Labour”. The next most common was “UKIP”. I only met two certain Labour voters, and one Lib Dem – and not one Tory who had a vote.

In fact, the only person who had been going to vote Tory was the aforementioned Asian shop-keeper. But he switched to Labour after the Conservative candidate articulated the concerns of some of their would-be constituents about multiculturalism. “People say lots of things to you if you're an MP.” he said, “you don't need to repeat them”.

When I asked why Greens were Greens, they largely told me that they're fed up with all of the other parties blaming immigrants and the poor for the mistakes of the rich. Though one 16 year old said he would vote Green because he has Aspergers', and Greens have the best policies for disabled people. Another said they'd seen the debate, and thought the Green candidate, Clive Gregory, was the most impressive on various local issues. All who were old enough to have voted in the past said they had been Labour voters.

It wasn't just me who noticed a surprising level of support for Greens. As I stood on the train platform at Rochester, two middled aged men in suits were talking nearby about the election – and about the Labour party. One was explaining to the other that Labour (“we”) couldn't say anything too bigoted, because lots of people were thinking of voting Green. If Labour ran to the right, they might.

None of this, of course, is a prediction of the result tonight. I suspect the polls are right – UKIP will win, with Tories second, and Labour third. It does seem likely that Greens will beat the Lib Dems, and may even save their deposit, but I suspect that many of those who flirted with the idea will go back to Labour in the polling booth – old habits die hard.

However, it does all tell us something we already knew. In 2010, Rochester and Strood was 9th on the national Labour target list. In the context of the Tory vote fracturing, the fact that they aren't walking into the seat is a disaster for them. The fact of Reckless following Carswell – and potentially taking more Tories with him – is a disaster for the Conservatives. The utter absence of the Lib Dems in exactly the sort of by-election they'd have loved five years ago shows how far they've fallen.

British politics is opening up fast. The agenda will be set by people who can provide leadership – and, left and right, North and South that's not the people whose hands are bound by the City of London.

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