The Rochester and Strood by-election: A Reckless Legacy

Rochester sweets

Wandering along Rochester High Street one Saturday afternoon last year, someone stopped me in the street and asked “had I heard about Mark Reckless?”. This kind of question isn’t wholly unusual, as years of tweeting council meetings and tackling evasive politicians tends to lead to this kind of thing. Still, in this case, I hadn’t heard anything, and was told that the Rochester and Strood had MP had just defected to UKIP. I scrambled to my phone for more details, and found he’d appeared at the UKIP conference and announced his intention to fight a by-election, in the same way Douglas Carswell had recently done.

In retrospect, perhaps this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Reckless had always been in the awkward end of his party, and a Eurosceptic so staunch that UKIP wouldn’t even stand against him in 2010. The writing was likely on the wall once Carswell made his decision. Both were always close with each other, allies on a number of issues. Where one led, the other was likely to follow. Constitutionally, there was no requirement for Reckless to trigger a by-election – he would have been well within his rights to defect to UKIP and remain in office until May 2015. Whether or not triggering a costly by-election is the right thing to do is up for debate, but it gives his choice more of a democratic mandate.

So began a fraught by-election campaign for Rochester and Strood. Of the 2010 candidates, only Reckless and Lib Dem Geoff (or Goeff) Juby stood again. Labour selected Naushabah Khan, who works in public affairs, from the Progress wing of the party. The Green Party put forward one of their rare Medway members not named Marchant, and the Conservatives went with Kelly Tolhurst, a Rochester councillor with a local portfolio in improving educational standards (spoiler alert: she didn’t).

Then, as is natural for a by-election, the side show of minor candidates were rolled out. The Monster Raving Loony Party rolled into town, offering perhaps a more credible alternative than many of the major parties. Independent sex workers stood, and then more worryingly, Britain First stood.

Standing on a platform of opposing a mosque two constituencies away, Britain First attempted to hold two marches in Rochester before the election, which they were perfectly entitled to do. Thankfully though, the usual apathy of the masses was washed away as local residents blocked their path, and refused to let them through. They just had to settle with getting some photos with UKIP activists instead.

The election quickly settled into being a two-horse race between UKIP and the Conservatives, giving voters a choice between right and righter. Quite how this happened is slightly baffling as Labour held the seat until 2010, but didn’t seem particularly interested in trying to win it back this time around. In the end, UKIP managed to win it, albeit with a less than expected margin, but what was the state of each party following the campaign:

UKIP

Mark Reckless won the seat for UKIP with 42% of the vote. This was lower than the 49% he achieved as a Conservative in 2010, but still a respectable number for a seat they hadn’t even competed in in that election. There was some basis for this – UKIP did win Medway in the European elections earlier on this year – but this was their first parliamentary success in the area.

Conservatives

The Conservatives ended on 35% of the vote, higher than predicted by the polling in the run up to the election. Some of this number was likely made up of people who aren’t traditionally Conservative voters lending them their vote purely to keep UKIP out. Which means the party are still in a very difficult position for the repeat in May: If they can’t win when throwing every resource available to them at it, what more can they do while also fighting 631 other seats at the same time? In the meantime, they’ve decided to launch legal action against Mark Reckless, which definitely won’t backfire at all.

Labour

In the early days of the campaign, it felt like Labour might actually have a serious attempt at the seat. Ed Miliband even turned up and talked really awkwardly about immigration. After that, everything seemed to fall away. The party seemed to decline pouring resources in, which for a seat they held until 2010, seems like quite a strange choice. As such, they fell back to a final result of 17%, making the seat almost impossible for them to win in the coming elections.

Green Party

Other than UKIP, the Greens were the only party to increase their share of the vote from 2010. They nearly tripled their share of the vote to 4%, which doesn’t sound like much, but is their best electoral result in Medway. Their candidate, Clive Gregory, came across well whenever he got the opportunity to speak, and leaves the party well placed to pick up more of the traditional left vote as Labour back away from the seat.

Lib Dems

Recording the worst result for the Lib Dems in pretty much forever, the party received less than 1% of the vote. To put that into more pure numbers, they received 349 of the more than 40,000 votes cast. Showing that the Lib Dems are retreating back to their limited Gillingham heartlands in Medway, they didn’t seem to bother campaigning at all in this. In short, they put less effort into their campaign than I put into this paragraph.

The 2015 rerun

This year will see almost an exact repeat of the by-election, with UKIP, the Conservatives, Labour, and the Greens all fielding the same candidates. With the more limited resources of a general election, it’s likely the result won’t be all that different. Isn’t democracy grand?

Jennings

Cleaning Up Their Pledges

In politics, making a pledge to help you get elected is a fairly standard thing. Particularly for the challenging upstart trying to separate themselves from the tired incumbent. Some are fairly minor, some are fairly major, others (if you’re Liberal Democrat Independent Labour councillors) are made to be broken.

Going into the 2010 General Election, distrust in politicians was rife following the expenses scandal. This offered those candidates vying to become new MPs a great opportunity to make themselves seem like better, more open candidates. So it was, that all three Medway Conservative candidates signed up to Tracey Crouch’s Clean Campaign Pledge. Much of this was centred around fighting a good, clean campaign, but it also included a whole section on what all three (Crouch, along with Rehman Chishti and Mark Reckless) would do if elected to make themselves more transparent.

Well, all three were elected, so let’s see how they have done.

Pledge 1

To publish online details of all of personal expenses incurred as a Member of Parliament.

Pledge 2

To publish online details of all office expenses incurred as a Member of Parliament.

These should be the easiest ones for any candidate to comply with – all each of them had to do was publish their expenses. Not one of the candidates has managed to do this is in full. Tracey Crouch comes the closest, having an ‘Expenses’ page on her website, with some information on things she has claimed, along with her full expenses for the current financial year. It’s unfortunate that the data for the previous years isn’t also listed, but it’s better than nothing.

Nothing being exactly what we get from Rehman Chishti and Mark Reckless. Indeed, when you search for the word ‘expenses’ on Chishti’s website, this is what happens:

Chishti expenses

Now, if we could play devil’s advocate for a moment, the full expenses of all three MPs are available via IPSA – but that’s a bit of a pain in the balls, and not exactly meeting the pledge to publish their expenses online.

Pledge 3

To publish online details of all donations in line with Electoral Commission rules.

None of the three have seemingly met this particular target, at least not in terms of publishing the data themselves. Again, most like the expenses pledge above, the information is online, as the data is taken from the Register of Member’s Interests where they are published, and placed online by websites like They Work For You. These websites do a great job, but we’d suggest the average constituent probably wouldn’t know where to look to find this data, and would struggle to understand parts of it even if they found it.

Still, the data for each MP is here, so feel free to try and make what you can of it: Tracey Crouch / Rehman Chishti / Mark Reckless

Pledge 4

To appoint a local firm of auditors to approve expenses accounts at the end of every financial year.

Pledge 5

To open up the unedited expenses claims to local newspapers at the end of every financial year.

We have no idea if these pledges have been met or not. We couldn’t find any references to these local auditors on the websites for any of the MPs, nor anywhere else. The pledge regarding opening up expenses claims to local newspapers may or may not have been done, but those newspapers should have the sense to throughly trawl from the IPSA records regardless, so it doesn’t really matter.

Pledge 6

Never to claim for food, furniture or household goods.

This pledge has been absolutely met by Tracey Crouch – she has never claimed for any of these things during her nearly five years in office. Rehman Chishti and Mark Reckless haven’t claimed for furniture or households goods, but they have claimed for food, albeit to feed their interns. Which given they seem to be unpaid (Chishti for one advertises this fact), it seems fairly hard to begrudge.

Pledge 7

To meet all tax liabilities – such as stamp duty – without claiming them from the taxpayer.

This pledge has been met in full by Tracey Crouch and Rehman Chishti – neither of them have ever claimed  any kind of tax liability from the taxpayer.

The same can’t be said of Mark Reckless though, who has claimed £4,799.89 in council tax in his time in Parliament. Now, to be clear, he is perfectly entitled to do so, but it’s fairly difficult to square this with the above pledge.

Overall, none of our current MPs have done exceptionally well with their pledges – Tracey Crouch is definitely the closest, and if she had the full five years on her website, we’d basically be there. Rehman Chishti and Mark Reckless have come out of this less well. True, most of the information they promised to publish is publicly available in some way, but only if you know how to find it – they certainly haven’t made it easy for their constituents to find the information.

Jennings

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