Rochester & Strood by-election: Ukip win, Lib Dems lose 11th deposit

by Stephen Tall on November 21, 2014

Mark Reckless won his bid to be re-elected an MP under the UKIP banner last night, following his eve-of-conference defection from the Conservatives. That this wasn’t at all a surprise — the swing from the Tories to UKIP was 28% — says something about the febrile dynamics of politics at the moment. Support for Labour in a seat they held until 2010 also slumped. Geoff Juby for the Lib Dems trailed in fifth place behind the Greens, having shed some nine-tenths of the party’s May 2010 vote. This was Lib Dems’ 11th lost deposit of the parliament.

Here are the votes:

    UKIP Mark Reckless 16,867, 42% (+42%)
    Conservative 13,947, 35% (-14%)
    Labour 6,713, 17% (-12%)
    Green 1,692, 4% (+3%)
    Liberal Democrat Geoff Juby 349, 1% (-16%)

    Majority 2,920 (7%)
    Turnout 40,065 51% (-14%)

It was a big night for UKIP. Rochester and Strood was low down their list of target seats and Nigel Farage’s party didn’t even contest it at the last election. They now have their second elected MP.

The margin of victory, though, was tighter than any of the four constituency by-election polls had indicated. UKIP’s 42% was at the lower end of expectations, while the Tories’ 35% exceeded all four of the polls conducted. The Tories will be hopeful-to-confident that in six months’ time they’ll be able to re-take the seat.

When Lord Ashcroft polled the seat a fortnight ago he found UKIP had a 12% lead for voting intentions in the by-election; but when asked about the general election, the Tories edged it by 1%. That finding, combined with the relative slenderness of their majority last night, suggests Mark Reckless should enjoy being an MP while he can.

For Labour it was a grim, if predictable, night. This was a seat which, under its former name of Medway, the pugnacious Bob Marshall-Andrews won in 1997 and held throughout the New Labour years. Yet Ed Miliband’s Labour was never in this contest, seemingly happy to let UKIP and the Tories slug it out.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Emily Thornberry’s spectacularly de haut en bas tweet — in which she took snarky aim at those people who drive white vans and drape the St George’s flag from their house — prompted even The Guardian to describe it as “the most devastating message Labour has managed to deliver in the past four years”. Over-the-top? Possibly, but Ed Miliband’s immediate decision to resign Ms Thornberry from her shadow cabinet post showed quite how aware he was of the damage it could do, while simultaneously amplifying the air-time one ill-judged tweet has been given.

For the Lib Dems… well, we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Ten times before, to be precise: that’s the number of lost deposits we’ve racked up so far. At £500 a pop it’s one other way the Lib Dems are slowly helping to slow down the spiralling national debt.

We were never serious players in this by-election. Everyone knew it, including our former voters who went elsewhere to send their message: whether UKIP to register their protest, Tory to register their anti-UKIP protest, Labour to register their anti-Coalition protest or Green to register their anti-All-of-the-Above protest.

Credit must go to Geoff Juby and his team. They knew from the start they were fighting a losing cause on this occasion, but did so with resolute pluck, aided by visits from folk such as Lib Dem chief executive Tim Gordon and peer Olly Grender. Nick Clegg’s breezy dismissal of the whole episode prompted my co-editor Caron Lindsay to have a well-deserved pop at him here.

Once again, though, we see the Lib Dem vote slump in a non-target seat. It’s a depressingly familiar story, no less so for the fact that we’ve seen it so many times before.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.