Rochester by-election: The gloves are off as the Tories and Ukip do battle by the Medway

The Kentish town has always gone its own way, and this week's ballot is its chance to scoff at the establishment
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Indy Politics

She had come to stand up to the fascists, but when Kirsten Dwight clapped eyes on them yesterday she laughed out loud. "Is that it? Is that all you've got?" Gathered in a side street by the station were the forces of Britain First, the far-right group attempting to steal the limelight from Ukip in the battle for Rochester and Strood. Stirring music was playing; huge Union flags were flying and there, underneath them, was a tiny and pathetic group.

Kirsten, a university teacher from nearby Shorne who had come with hundreds of others to oppose the march, could not believe her eyes.

The Britain First boys wore green hoodies with a logo that looked like a regimental badge, and combat trousers that sagged beneath beer bellies. There were 30 of them, maybe. No more than 40. They waited in the rain to start their march, surely aware of being outnumbered 10 to one by the activists, trade unionists, students and locals who would try to stop them.

"Geeks Against Hate" said one placard, while another showed the Britain First leader Jayda Fransen with a Hitler moustache. Noisy and colourful as all this was, though, it felt like a diversion. A minor skirmish in the real battle for control of this constituency, where people go to the polls on Thursday.

The Conservative MP Mark Reckless stood down after defecting to Ukip in September. Now he is trying to win the seat under a new flag. The Tories are throwing everything they have at him, so far to little effect. Some have characterised this as a civil war on the right, but they forget that Labour returned an MP from here for 13 years, until boundary changes in 2010. So what is really going on in Rochester, and what does it mean for the rest of us?

The first thing to know is that people here are feisty. They always have been, since the days of the Norman Conquest. The yards along the river Medway built the ships that made the Royal Navy great. Look beyond all the ham-fisted attempts to cash in on a connection with Charles Dickens and there are signs of the martial past everywhere, from the beautifully kept castle keep to the vintage tea rooms on the high street, where a poster says: "Do not stand about in crowds and do not touch unexploded bombs."

Nigel Farage is poking the political bomb of immigration with a bloody great stick right now, and his party's publicity material keeps up the wartime theme with a mug that says "Keep Calm Ukip is Coming". There is a company on the high street that re-enacts medieval fights: what is happening here could be one of its events. Gathered at the top end of the town, almost forgotten, are the bedraggled and demoralised forces of the Labour Party. Their champion is Naushabah Khan, born and bred in Rochester, who commutes to London every day to work in public affairs. She is eloquent, personable and up for the fight, being a kickboxer. But she's way behind, with only 17 per cent of the vote, according to a poll carried out for Lord Ashcroft last week.

A lady coming out of a newsagent with a clutch of lottery tickets in her hand thinks she knows why. "I don't want to say anything, and it doesn't apply to me, but there might be a bit of racism in it for some people." But the Labour vote collapsed long before Ms Khan was selected, and disgruntled activists accuse the party leadership of giving up on this campaign already. Ed Miliband and the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, have both been down, but the party is focusing time and money on other fights elsewhere that might deliver a general election victory.

 

The forces of the Conservative Party are at the other end of town in this battle. They've got more money and posher armour than anyone else. They were swaggering until the unexpected loss of their champion Mark Reckless, but have quickly selected another in Kelly Tolhurst, who runs a local marine surveyors business. Unfortunately, she is floundering after a disastrous performance in a BBC television debate.

Looking for a metaphor to describe her campaign, it is all too easy to settle on an empty former bakery in the high street where dozens of posters in the window show her face. The building is very old and – I kid you not – leans alarmingly to the right. But help is at hand. The Prime Minister has been here several times, and so many MPs have joined the fight that some have apparently found themselves with nothing to do but stuff envelopes.

Tory support is running at 32 per cent, according to Lord Ashcroft's poll, and the candidate does have the kind of attitude that people like: "I'm not a career politician and would never want to represent anywhere else in Parliament."

People here are sick of politicians. Four out of five voters have already had a visit, a call, a leaflet or an email and some are calling it harassment. This is certainly not Scotland. Covering the referendum in the summer, I was struck by how willing people were to talk about their hopes for the future. Here, nobody wants to stop to talk. "Sorry," they say, "I don't do politics."

The exceptions all seem to be scared. They are scared of what immigration is doing to this country, so they plan to protest at the ballot box. Or they are scared of the rise of the right, so they protest in the high street on a Saturday morning. The rest are prepared to let them get on with it, which until recently meant low turnouts – but in Rochester, the bookies say, more than 50 per cent of people are likely to vote. This has to do with the rowdy forces riding in to join our imaginary battle from the right, led by a chap in a fedora with a pint in his hand.

Nigel Farage's Ukip is out in front with 44 per cent, says Lord Ashcroft. However, the same research shows that Labour and Tory supporters alike intend to vote Ukip as a protest this time and to switch back when it comes to a general election.

For now, though, Ukip seems to be persuading the people of Rochester that it offers a new kind of politics – even though the candidate is the same man in different colours. Mark Reckless says he defected in order to stick by his promises to "end the control we have from the Westminster political class that has held our country back for too long". But a look at his CV reveals that he has been educated, trained and groomed to be part of that class.

Mr Reckless went to Marlborough College, which has produced a long line of MPs and cabinet ministers, including Rab Butler. He studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, as did both David Cameron and Ed Miliband. He trained as a barrister, as so many modern politicians do.

After working in the City, he joined the policy unit at Conservative Central Office, the test tube in which the party grows future leaders. Yes, he quickly became a rebel after being elected in 2010, but not always on purpose. Within months he confessed to being too drunk to vote on the Budget, after drinking all afternoon and evening at a party on the Commons terrace. "I feel very embarrassed. It was a mistake I will not be repeating," he said afterwards. "I have learnt my lesson."

Perhaps. But that sort of behaviour – and his background – makes him look very like a member of the class he affects to despise. Still, he has upset the Prime Minister and that counts for a lot in Rochester, where they like a bit of cheek. "It comes from being in the Navy or the shipyards, sticking two fingers up at authority whenever you can," says Philip Kane, a poet and author who illustrates this by telling the story of Brief Encounter.

David Lean's masterpiece is a tale of love thwarted by duty and self-denial, but when the director chose to put on a test screening for the dockers here in 1945 he made a big mistake. "A woman in the front started laughing at the first love scene," said Lean. "Pretty soon the laughter spread right through the cinema." One man even called out: "When is he going to have it off with her?"

Lean lay in his hotel bed that night in tears, wondering how to burn the negative so the film could never be released. The reaction of the folk of Rochester had convinced him that the mood of the nation had changed dramatically, but it turned out he was wrong. Everyone else loved the film. The point is that only a fool would predict the mood of the nation on the basis of what Rochester does. So it goes for Thursday.

Mark Reckless may well win, but it doesn't mean Ukip will sweep the nation. And the polls suggest that when real life kicks in at a general election, this brief romance will be over and he will find himself dumped.

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