A Sunday afternoon in Rochester. But no ordinary Sunday. The local MP, Mark Reckless, has declared his sudden defection from the Conservative Party to the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party. Today, he’s been joined by the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, and they’re going on a walkabout to meet the public in the centre of Rochester. Or maybe not.
After walking around Rochester Castle Gardens for a while, they’ve ensconced themselves in The Crown pub, at the very end of the High Street. There is, predictably, a herd of journalists trying to crowd around them. Even so, apparently some local Tories have managed to get close enough to barrack Reckless about his treachery. And a couple of politically-unaffiliated locals have succeeded in asking awkward questions, too.
“How come there’s money to bail out the banks, but no money for the NHS?”
Reckless claims he didn’t agree with bailing out the banks.
“Would you have just let millions of ordinary people lose all their money then? And why don’t you stop blaming the poor and the immigrants for all the problems caused by rich bankers?”
Reckless blusters. A member of the public tries to ask Nigel Farage a question, too, but is pushed away by one of his minders.
And then, quite suddenly, both Reckless and Farage leave. Farage heads off by car. Reckless does actually go down the High Street, but at an almost-run, pursued by microphones and cameras. Some small groups of disconsolate-looking UKIP supporters follow in his wake, but at a much slower pace, and heckled by some bystanders. “Get out of Rochester, bigots”, somebody shouts at them.
Thus ended, rather abruptly, the first foray by Mark Reckless as UKIP’s man in Rochester. It was, of course, only the beginning of the story, not its ignominious end. Since that Sunday afternoon, Rochester High Street has sprouted a UKIP shopfront – not an inexpensive thing, by any means, and perhaps one indication that UKIP’s newest millionaire donors are having an impact – and a recent poll has put Mark Reckless 12 points ahead of his nearest rival in the forthcoming by-election that his defection has precipitated.
The chances are very high indeed that in less than a weeks’ time, the Rochester and Strood constituency will be represented by a UKIP MP. The quality of that MP will be highly debateable.
Mark Reckless has gained something of a reputation as a rebel, under the Tory whip, having voted against the Government no less than 53 times. It’s been enough to even cover up the naked embarrassment of, notoriously, being too drunk to vote on the Budget, during his first year in Parliament. And his public opposition to the Lodge Hill development – a plan to build 5000 houses on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, home to Britain’s largest population of nightingales – has recently been cited as evidence that he’s a good constituency MP.
But local people with experience of Mark Reckless being involved with their interests has not been consistent. As I found out when I spoke with several women who had campaigned to prevent the closure of St Peters School, in Chatham, when Reckless was serving as a Medway councillor.
“We nicknamed him Mark Spineless”, said one, “He would change his position on our campaign when he realised that changing would win him more votes. He was just unprincipled”.
The nightingales might share that opinion. Reckless’ opposition to the development at Lodge Hill has also been a complete about-turn. Previously, according to Nick Boles who was Tory planning minister at the time, Mark Reckless “lobbied me repeatedly in favour of development at Lodge Hill”. As recently as March 2013, Reckless delivered a speech in the Commons that sang the praises of development and that at times verged on the Pythonesque in its dismissal of environmental concerns. Listening to it again, one rather expects Mark Reckless to utter the question, “What have the nightingales ever done for us?” That he didn’t, comes as something of a disappointment.
Still, Medway faces the prospect of not only Reckless continuing to “represent” part of the area as a UKIP politician, but more of Nigel Farage too.
That smug, self-satisfied expression that Farage has, like a frog that has just swallowed a particularly juicy fly, is liable to become even more familiar to Medway residents in the near future. While his personal fortunes are linked to the South Thanet parliamentary seat, he must now regard the three Medway constituencies as ripe pickings for UKIP’s particularly xenophobic brand of back-to-the-1930s conservatism.
As UKIP focus on us, so those of us who want to live in a modern, inclusive Britain are under growing pressure to put up some kind of resistance to their bigoted and regressive politics. A hastily formed Medway Stand Up To UKIP group, on Facebook, has at the last count gathered over 1200 supporters; an open letter from that group has been signed by hundreds of people While even such slight signs of opposition have been enough to set off complaints from UKIP members that a “hate group” has been set up to “persecute” them, the existence of a Facebook group in and of itself is obviously not going to even temporarily trip up their electoral victory march.
Meanwhile, the success of UKIP in dragging mainstream political discourse significantly to the right has opened a door for even more dangerous forces. Forces such as the loathsome, openly fascist, would-be paramilitaries of Britain First.
BF’s two attempts to march through the centre of Rochester have been stoutly and courageously opposed, and halted, by anti-fascists. Yet they, too, may become a more regular presence in the area, in the wake of UKIP. “Britain First on the streets, UKIP at the ballot box”, proclaimed BF deputy leader Jayda Fransen, their by-election candidate.
According to eyewitness reports from some Rochester residents, the relationship between UKIP and Britain First at the grassroots might be somewhat closer than the UKIP leadership would be openly comfortable with. When a photograph emerged of several UKIP activists posing alongside Fransen, in Rochester High Street, a UKIP spokesperson dismissed it as an instance of “photobombing” and categorically denied any link between the politics of the two organisations, while some UKIP supporters resorted to accusing opponents of manufacturing the pictures with the use of Photoshop. But, said one eyewitness, “There was a lot of fraternisation going on – handshakes, backslapping, that kind of thing”. At least one member of UKIP has openly stated that he was among the Britain First marchers in Rochester, on November 16th; while, again, eyewitnesses have suggested that at least some UKIP activists tried to advise BF marchers on how to outflank the counter-demonstration.
The same research by Lord Ashcroft that gives UKIP a substantial lead as polling day approaches, also suggests that Britain First are well on the way to losing their deposit. The point is, however, that the emergernce of UKIP as a significant factor in Medway politics leads such outright fascists to consider the area as a fertile breeding ground for their racism and thuggery.
As for the hold of UKIP themselves, Independent on Sunday journalist Cole Moreton has suggested that it may well slip at the General Election, in May 2015, and that Mark Reckless is likely to lose his seat then. Other pundits have made the same prediction. My own feeling is that it’s very hard to be sure of this. Anger at the other mainstream parties, and the desire to punish them for their perceived incompetence and lack of connection to “ordinary” people runs deep. While immigration has been turned into the central question of English politics, by right-wing media as much as by right-wing politicians, and that is terrain that will always favour reactionaries willing to exploit fears and stoke up tensions.
The big question then, accepting the widely held assumption that Mark Reckless is due to be crowned by-election victor on Thursday 20th and that Rochester and Strood will be “represented” by a UKIP MP for at least the next few months, must be, “What should opponents of UKIP do next?”
It would be very easy for those of us who want to see a more open, tolerant Britain to become demoralised by the apparent scale of a UKIP victory here. But I think there are good reasons for remaining optimistic. Independent polling suggests that the bulk of current support for UKIP is rather fragile. The majority of people appear to retain a generally pragmatic view of immigration, in spite of regular scare stories in the press, want the NHS to be improved but certainly not privatised, and are in favour of renationalising the railways.
The truth is that Thursday’s by-election in Rochester and Strood is one skirmish within a much wider struggle. Whether or not Mark Reckless wins it for UKIP, the background of austerity and instability will remain for the foreseeable future. As will the space for what the film maker Ken Loach recently described as “a UKIP of the Left” – a credible political alternative that can pull political discourse back to the left, leaving the likes of UKIP and Britain First stranded on the lonely margins of political life, where they belong.
Words and picture: Philip Kane