This week we are interrupting our regular schedule to bring you an examination of how each local political party appears to be preparing for the May 2019 elections.
Today we are looking at Medway UKIP.
The four years since the 2015 local elections have not been kind to Medway UKIP. Riding high on Rochester and Strood MP Mark Reckless’ defection to the party and subsequent by-election victory, the omens looked fairly good heading into the last set of elections. Yet, despite the results not being as strong as some faces within the party were expecting, they won a solid four seats on the council, immediately placing themselves as the third party in local politics.
This success lasted a matter of weeks, given two tactical errors that undercut them from day one. The leader of the group, Chris Irvine, a sitting councillor in Peninsula, decided to fight for a seat in Rochester East instead and lost. More devastating was the loss of Mark Reckless as an MP. These two issues immediately destroyed any momentum Medway UKIP had, and others in the party quickly began to fall away. One of their councillors, Mark Joy, declared independence from the party in no time at all, before eventually joining the Tories. A second, Catriona Brown-Reckless, resigned and moved to Wales. Most recently, Cllr Mick Pendergast resigned to sit as an independent, and has since formed his own group to fight the 2019 elections.
Ostensibly, this leaves only Cllr Roy Freshwater as both the leader and the entire membership of the Medway UKIP group.
Where can the party realistically go from here in Medway?
Since the relative success of the 2015 campaign, activity within the local party has pretty much dried up, with infighting over cream crackers winning more attention than any campaigning.
Sources close to the party tell a story of a party with barely any members, no resources, and little internal structures or will to turn things around. Indeed, Cllr Freshwater sent out a begging email to people who aren’t even members in attempt to find candidates for the upcoming elections. Despite this, he claims the party will offer a full slate of candidates in Medway. Given they could only achieved 32 candidates for 55 seats in the ‘glory days’ of 2015, we’re not optimistic on the chances of this happening.
Politically, the party in Medway seems to have retreated almost entirely onto the Hoo peninsula, where Cllr Freshwater regularly argues against development in his home village. His campaign doesn’t seem to offer any solutions to Medway’s housing crisis, but he’s apparently willing to blockade roads to get his way. Which is quite the campaign tactic.
While Freshwater may give the aura of a bumbling buffoon, there are some more troubling signs from other wings of the party. Gillingham and Rainham UKIP seem to be positioning themselves as a receptacle for the alt-right, while Chatham and Aylesford UKIP only seem to appear for a few weeks around General Elections.
So just what are the 2015 Medway UKIP candidates up to now? Many seem to have drifted away from politics, at least one somehow became a Liberal Democrat, but a small number have gone on to setup a new group to fight the 2019 elections.
As seen all over the country, ex-UKIP members have started setting up ‘independent’ political groups, presumably because the core brand has become so toxic thanks to the actions like those set out above in Gillingham and Rainham.
In Medway, Cllr Mick Pendergast and former Rochester and Strood chairman have set up something they are branding as ‘Medway People’s Voice’, which so far seems to involve them and a former English Democrat. The group is not off to a great start, with their logo immediately causing problems, and a launch that doesn’t seem to have been attended by anyone.
Whether or not this group can outperform UKIP is questionable, but regardless, it feels like the time of UKIP on Medway Council may well be coming to an end in May.
Tomorrow, we’ll be finishing up our series with a look at Medway Labour.