The Tory and Ukip candidates in the Rochester by-election were accused of pandering to racist voters as the campaign turned into a slanging match over immigration.
The row started after the Ukip candidate and former Tory MP Mark Reckless appeared to suggest he favoured repatriating European workers who had settled in Britain. Labour jumped on his comments and accused Mr Reckless of using language “straight out of the BNP manifesto”.
But the Tory candidate, Kelly Tolhurst – who has talked herself about “uncontrolled immigration” in Rochester – refused to condemn the comments and merely accused Mr Reckless of changing his tune. Ukip then accused the Tories of running a “BNP-lite campaign”.
The row reveals the extent to which the campaign has become dominated by the issue of immigration. The dispute blew up during an ITV hustings debate in which Mr Reckless was asked what he thought should happen to a Polish plumber who lived in the area and whose children went to school there.
He responded: “I think in the near term we’d have to have a transitional period; we should probably allow people who are here to have a work permit at least for a fixed period,” he said. “People who have been here a long time and integrated in that way, I think we’d want to look sympathetically at.”
After Mr Reckless was cut short by jeering, the Labour candidate, Naushabah Khan, said: “Where would you stop, Mark? My family are migrants. Are we going to say they need to go back as well?”
The Tory MP Damian Green said Mr Reckless had come “dangerously close” to advocating a repatriation policy. But Mr Reckless told BBC Radio Kent that his words had been “twisted”.
“What will happen is that anyone who is lawfully in this country, if they are from the EU, under EU rules they will be able to stay with a work permit,” he said. “We don’t want any mass movements of people… I’m absolutely astonished that the Tories are twisting this the way they are.”
In pictures: Rochester by-election
In pictures: Rochester by-election
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Counting gets under way for the Rochester and Strood constituency by-election held at Medway Park, Gillingham, Kent
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Nigel Farage and members of the UKIP team celebrate after Mark Reckless won the Rochester and Strood by-election at Medway Park, Gillingham near Rochester, Kent
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Howling Laud Hope, leader of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (R) awaits for the by election results in Medway, Gillingham Rochester, Kent
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Kelly Tolhurst, the Conservative Party's candidate in the Rochester's by-election, walks down the town's high street on polling day, in southern England
5/15 Rochester by-election
Gulpreet Baines (18) sets fire to a United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) rosette, on polling day in Rochester's by-election
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Naushabah Khan, Labour Candidate for the Rochester and Strood by-election is joined by shadow transport secretary Michael Dugher in Rochester on the final day of campaigning ahead of by-election
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UKIP supporter Graham Harper and his dog Roquie carry a electoral poster supporting UK Independence Party (UKIP) parliamentary candidate Mark Reckless in Rochester, Kent ahead of the by-election poll
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A customer poll of sweets purchased in favour of the party's contesting the Rochester and Strood by-elecction on display in the Sweet Expectations Sweet Shop in Rochester, Kent, on the final day of campaigning before the by-election later this week
9/15 Rochester by-election
David Cameron and Conservative Party candidate for Rochester and Strood, Kelly Tolhurst, talk to Mick Parks, Workshop Foreman at MCL Mechanical near Rochester, Kent, southern England, during a visit ahead of the by-election
10/15 Rochester by-election
People stand holding placards against the Britain First party who held a march in Rochester, southeastern England
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Britain First march through Rochester
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UKIP parliamentary candidate Mark Reckless campaigns in Rochester on November 4, 2014
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
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Ed Miliband campaigns with Yvette Cooper (left) and Naushabah Khan before the Rochester and Strood by-election
Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
14/15 Rochester by-election
The Britain First march was met by vociferous counter protest
15/15 Rochester by-election
A UKIP office in Rochester. Rochester and Strood will hold a by-election on November 20th following the defection of Conservative Party Member of Parliament, Mark Reckless to UKIP
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
He added: “What we would do is provide work permits to the people who are here. People who are integrated… We would expect those people to be able to stay.”
Mr Reckless also condemned as “disgraceful” Conservative by-election literature that apparently blamed “uncontrolled immigration” for people not feeling safe walking down the street. “I call on the Conservatives to disassociate themselves from this BNP-lite campaign,” he said.
Mr Reckless sought to distance himself from the reports, staying that his words had been twisted by the Tories.
A Ukip spokesman also dismissed the criticism, saying that the party's position on migrants was that “those who are in this country lawfully, such as those from EU nations, would have the right to remain”.
But Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said Mr Reckless had “let the mask slip” on Ukip’s “nasty and divisive views”.
“To hear the language of repatriation coming from someone they hope will be their second MP is shameful. It’s a policy straight out of the last BNP manifesto and it does not reflect British values.
“Be it Mark Reckless talking about repatriation, council candidates who attack Lenny Henry for the colour of his skin, or party thugs who overturn other parties’ street stalls, nasty views are not far below the surface.”
The leader of Ukip, Nigel Farage, told the BBC that Mr Reckless had been referring to the negotiations that would take place during a “transitional period” between a vote to leave the EU and actual withdrawal. “During our divorce negotiations, even if the EU was to behave badly and say [British] people living in Spain were to be threatened with not being there, we would maintain the line that we believe in the rule of law, we believe in British justice and we believe that anyone who has come to Britain legally has the right to remain.”
The polls suggest Mr Reckless is the clear favourite to win, despite Mr Cameron’s best efforts to hold on to it.
A vote winner? Ukip’s policies
- Cut the foreign-aid budget by £9bn a year
- Abolish the Department of Energy & Climate Change, scrap green subsidies and repeal the Climate Change Act 2008
- Scrap the HS2 high-speed rail link between London and the North
- Bring back grammar schools and allow schools to select according to ability and aptitude
- Guarantee all those who have served in the armed forces a job in the police force, prison service or border force
- Repeal the Human Rights Act and ensure the interests of “law-abiding citizens and victims” always take precedence over those of criminals
- Review the BBC licence fee with a view to its “reduction”. Prosecution of non-payments would be taken out of the criminal sphere
- Oppose ‘plain-paper packaging’ for tobacco products and minimum pricing of alcohol
- Allow businesses to discriminate in favour of young British workers