In which Alan Collins from Medway Elects looks at the third and final Medway constituency, Rochester and Strood, to see what the future may bring..
It’s November. It’s cold. And there’s another election looming. I have fired up my data projection model and already analysed the potential results in Chatham and Aylesford and Gillingham and Rainham. Now as I conclude this series it’s time to take a look at Medway’s third, and arguably most volatile, constituency.
For some voters in Rochester and Strood, this will be the tenth time they will have been called to vote since the European elections in May 2014. For those who will inevitably ask for evidence for such a bold claim, the nine constituency-wide elections are as follows:
Voters who live in Peninsula, Strood South or Rochester West will also have been called to vote in council by-elections in November 2014, October 2016 and March 2018, respectively, bringing the total number of elections in those three wards to ten in the space of just over five-and-a-half years. Fatigue doesn’t even come close to describe how some voters will be feeling by this point. After all, however important democracy is, it may just be possible to have too much of a good thing.
Whilst Kelly Tolhurst will be defending her seat for the second time, this is the only constituency in Medway which the Conservatives have lost since their clean sweep in 2010, when Mark Reckless defected to UKIP and won the 2014 by-election. The Conservatives might have won the constituency back in 2015, but they did so whilst losing four council seats to UKIP. So in a constituency which overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union and which has not shied away from voting for Eurosceptic parties in the past, could the Brexit party train its sights on the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility and, if not take the seat, at least steal enough votes to let Labour in through the middle? Well, no, because they’ve run away from the fight. Instead, it falls upon former UKIP councillor Roy Freshwater and independent upstart Chris Spalding to battle Tolhurst for the pro-Brexit votes. Will either garner enough support to concern the incumbent?
Cuxton and Halling, which saw a 64% vote in favour of Leave, suggests not. In 2015 the Conservatives polled a record low in the ward of 53.8%, with UKIP overtaking Labour for second place and winning 29.3% of the votes. Fast-forward to 2019, however, and whilst the Conservatives lost 1.7% of their vote share, UKIP’s collapsed to 10.9% as they were overtaken by Labour and an independent candidate. Labour themselves saw their vote share fall by 2.6% to 13.2% and were just held to third place by Spalding’s independent candidate, who won nine more votes. The Green party stood in the ward for the first time in 2019 polling a respectable 10.2%.
A good test for measuring the strength of the Eurosceptic vote in Rochester and Strood is Peninsula, where two of UKIP’s four councillors were elected in 2015. They topped the poll with 37.6%, narrowly beating the Conservatives, who held on to one seat and took 35.7% of the vote. While both the Conservatives and UKIP saw their vote fall in 2019, the drop was more defined for the latter. Although they still achieved 22.4% of the vote, this may arguably have been down to an incumbency boost for their last remaining councillor, who lost out to their former councillor-turned-independent by 123 votes. It was not all doom and gloom for the less-established challengers, however, as Medway’s only two independent councillors (indeed, the only councillors not from either the Conservatives or Labour) were elected here, topping the vote share with 31.6%. Less encouraging for Spalding, however, is the fact that he not only placed last in his own slate, but last among all of the independent candidates, with less than half the number of votes needed to claim one of the three available seats. The Green party fielded a full slate of candidates and earned 10% of the votes, but less cheer was found for Labour, who while not likely to be expecting to get a look-in in a ward which was already a three-way fight between the Conservatives, UKIP and two different sets of independents, saw their share of the vote fall by 5.6%.
Hopping over the river to, er, River, and we find another ward where repetitive voting is nothing new. When Bill Esterson stood down upon election to parliament in 2010, voters in the ward faced not one but two by-elections, as the winner of the first subsequently resigned when he realised that he could not be a councillor and a special constable. This ward has swung between Labour and the Conservatives, with the former losing considerably more votes when UKIP took 21.5% of the votes in 2015. There was some hope in some quarters that this was one ward which might fall from the Conservatives’ clutches in 2019, and indeed Labour did achieve a modest increase in their vote share of 3.7% while the Conservatives lost 8.3% of their own support. While UKIP also fell by 6.9%, the Green party’s 3.9% increase to a round 13% and the Liberal Democrats’ 9% vote share after not standing in 2015 meant that success was beyond Labour’s reach as voters looked to less-established alternatives.
Labour may well look for solace in Rochester East, their only real heartland in the constituency and home to their candidate Teresa Murray, but even here things might not be looking as rosy (sorry!) as they might hope. Whilst their vote share did rise to 48.1% in 2019 as the Conservatives and UKIP both saw losses, before 2015 they had been consistently polling above 50% and would be expected to have done so again if they were in with a reasonable chance of winning the constituency next month. Their failure to do so can again likely be attributed to the Green party’s strong showing of 14.2%, an increase of 3.3% from 2015 and enough to see them come in third ahead of UKIP, and the Liberal Democrats taking 6.3% of the vote. It’s not completely good news for the Conservatives, either, who polled a record low 19.6% in the ward, with UKIP staying in double figures.
Returning to Conservative strongholds, Rochester South and Horsted has almost consistently returned Conservative councillors with a vote share above 40%, except for when a few upstarts from UKIP challenged their dominance in 2015, although they ultimately fell several hundred votes short of providing any real challenge. Four years later and their vote share fell by almost 10%, from 24.5% to 14.8%. The beneficiaries of this drop in support, however, appear to have been mixed. Whilst the Conservatives went from 38.9% in 2015 to 43.3% in 2019, the Green party and Liberal Democrats also made modest gains of 3.6% and 3% respectively. Labour, meanwhile, advanced a mere 0.2% between the two elections, suggesting they still have some way to go if in persuading voters they are a viable alternative to the Conservatives in this part of Rochester.
There are two wards where Labour have made gains since 2015, and the more surprising of the two is Rochester West. A former Conservative stronghold which had hosted both of the constituency’s members of parliament during their time on the council, their support in the ward fell below 50% for the first time in 2015 thanks to (you’ve guessed it) UKIP. However, that Labour managed to hold on to second place here should have been a sign to come. Fast-forward three years and the local MP is given a government role, resigns her council seat and in a result very few were expecting, Labour’s Alex Paterson comes along and takes this Conservative stronghold with 47.5% of the vote. The re-election campaign in 2019 is somewhat tighter, but Labour managed to hold on to their seat and ensure Rochester West is one of only four split wards across Medway. In terms of the shift in votes between 2015 and 2019, the Conservatives dropped from 43.5% to 34.5%, while Labour increased from 21% to 31.2%. Modest gains, too, for the Green party (1.6%) and the Liberal Democrats (3.1%), while UKIP collapsed from 20.3% to 9.3%. Overall, however, this may well be the ward which gives Labour their strongest hope that they can triumph against the Conservatives in Rochester and Strood.
Strood North has always been a Conservative/Labour marginal. Before 2015, the two parties achieved around 90% of the votes between them, with the Conservatives usually slightly out in front. The Conservatives have always held at least two of the three seats available here (if you exclude Steve Iles’ expulsion from the Conservative party last week), while Labour’s Stephen Hubbard held the third between 2007 and 2015. Ironically, whilst both of the parties lost ground to UKIP in 2015, Labour lost more votes than the Conservatives, allowing the latter to claim all three seats. In 2019, however, the result was much closer as the Conservatives went from 37.5% to 32%, while Labour climbed from 25.8% to 31.6% and regained Cllr Hubbard’s seat. Their gain partly came from UKIP, who finished a close third in 2015 on 25.1%, but a distant third in 2019 on 14.5%, while the Green party made another modest gain here of 3.2%. The independent candidates were the main benefactors of UKIP’s demise here claiming 9.9% of the vote share, although they still came last.
North of Strood North is Strood Rural, another seat the Conservatives have never lost (if you discount two defections to UKIP by Tom Mason and Peter Rodberg). Even incumbency wasn’t enough to help UKIP win here in 2015, with both even falling behind newcomer Ben Cook. They did, however, manage to come a strong second, matching the Conservatives’ 40.4% with 34.6% and leaving Labour trailing on 17.1%. In 2019, however, the Conservatives, whilst seeing another drop in vote share to 32.4%, maintained a much more comfortable lead as the “also-rans” battled it out. UKIP managed to hold on to second place with a much more modest 17.7%, narrowly beating Spalding’s slate of independent candidates headed by the aforementioned Ben Cook (not to be confused with UKIP’s candidate Martin Cook), who came in with 16.7%. Labour took fourth place on 13.5%, a slight drop from the 17.1% they enjoyed in 2015, while the Green party took fifth place with 11.5%, having not stood here in 2015. The Liberal Democrats came in last on 8.1%, which was a modest increase on the 5.6% they took in 2015. Overall, though, there is little in the results in Strood Rural which would bring cheer to Labour, and while the Conservatives did win all three seats, they, too, should be slightly concerned at their drop in votes. The larger drop for UKIP suggest their influence here is wavering, while Spalding may take heart at the 724 votes his top candidate here earned, which, on a good day, could give him a starting boost to retaining his deposit.
Finally we travel to Strood South, another seat which saw success for UKIP in 2015 and another seat which saw a by-election before 2019. Like its counterpart north of the A2, this was also a traditional Labour/Conservative marginal, where the Conservatives held at least two seats until 2015, while Labour held one between 2003 and 2007, and again between 2011 and 2015. UKIP took two of the seats here in 2015, topping the poll with 38.6%. However, one of their councillors resigned almost immediately, while the other stood down just over a year later, prompting a by-election in which they were pushed into third place. In 2019, they were held to third place, although they still maintained a respectable 19.9% of the vote. Labour were the bigger losers to UKIP, however, as they had gone from polling around 40% or more to a mere 24.2% in 2015. Their vote share picked up by 3.5% in the by-election, but then dropped again to 24.7% in 2019. The Conservatives, meanwhile, may have only won one seat in 2015, but they still came a strong second with 35% of the vote. Like Labour, their polling picked up in 2016, but dropped down to 30.5% in 2019. The Green party surged from 3.9% in 2015 to 12.5% in 2019, while Spalding’s independents came two votes behind them and polled 12.4%. Strood South is another ward where the Conservatives dropped slightly, but regained their dominance, while both the Conservatives and Labour were squeezed by the smaller parties.
Whilst is must be acknowledged that people vote differently in local elections, which is why my data model takes both local and national polling into consideration, there is also some hope for the smaller parties in this election. UKIP, the party which won Rochester and Strood in the 2014 by-election, were the third largest party in the local elections, and whilst it may be difficult to imagine people voting for them with quite the same enthusiasm next month, they still managed to hold onto their deposit in Rochester and Strood in 2017 when all parties were squeezed out by the Conservatives and Labour, so their £500 may not be lost yet. Whilst they barely managed 5% of the votes across the constituency in the local elections, the Liberal Democrats did not stand in four of the nine wards and did not campaign in three of them. An active candidate, coupled with a national surge, could see them into double figures, and there does not seem to be much danger of them losing their deposit. Whilst 6% may seem a little high for the Green party, they did receive over 3,500 votes in the local elections which was 6.6% of the votes cast in 2017. They may lose some of that support to tactical voting next month, but retaining their deposit here is not an impossible feat. Finally, the great pretender, Chris Spalding, is lumped in with UKIP in the projection model under “other”, but again it would not be a complete surprise if he managed to achieve 5% of the vote. His crack team of upstart independents achieved just over 2,800 votes in May, despite not standing in four wards, which would have equated to 5.2% of the vote in 2017. Again, he may risk losing votes, particularly where some of those in May were votes for individual candidates rather than his platform, but if he works hard, he may be able to get his £500 back.
The only contest, though, will be between Labour and the Conservatives, and in truth it is not likely to be much of a contest. The incumbent party may have wobbled here back in UKIP’s glory days, but they still took 54.4% of the vote in 2017 and, even on the strictest margin of error, based on the data projection they could easily take over 50% again. Both they and Labour may lose some ground to smaller parties, but it probably not be enough to challenge either of their positions in the constituency, or place Kelly Tolhurst at risk of losing her seat.
Some final thoughts…
So the data suggests nothing will have changed in Medway come 13 December save for the actual share of the votes. All three Conservative members of parliament are standing for re-election, which will provide them with an incumbency boost, although the fact that Labour have selected three sitting councillors as their candidates should at least partially spare their blushes. The Green party and Liberal Democrats will be aiming to retain their deposits, which is neither unreasonable nor insurmountable, particularly for the latter, who have been riding on a high nationally (compared to 2015 and 2017, at least). Meanwhile, the Brexit party’s decision not to stand will only inflate the Conservative’s majority in each of Medway’s constituencies, where, on the data at least, the “other” candidates, comprising Ukip, the Christian Peoples Alliance and the independents, will each struggle to win their deposits back.
Going back to the opening paragraph of my first article, however much anger may echo around Medway’s cyberspace in respect of the Conservatives and our three members of parliament, it is worth remembering that the internet is not the real world. However much people (particularly our local Labour councillors and activists) may vent their anger at the government, and whether it is reasonable criticism or not, there are still a significant number of people in Medway willing to lend the Conservatives their support, as was evident in the local elections in May.
When all three MPs secured over 50% of the vote in 2017, sitting on majorities of between 18.3% and 23.3%, the question is whether Labour (or, indeed, any other party) can do enough to unseat any of them, particularly in such a short election campaign. My gut, backed up by my data modelling, suggests probably not. Sure, they may lose vote share and their majorities may shrink, but their current majorities are such that they are almost insurmountable to overcome this time round.
Given the previous caveats regarding my data model and the general volatility of the current political situation, the figures could vary considerably by the time the election comes around. However, even if we adopted a wide margin of error for the data model, the projection still presently indicates three Conservative wins in Medway.
So, going back to the original question posed by Messrs Jennings and Keevil, what would it take for any of Medway’s members of parliament to lose their seat? Well, if you are not a Conservative supporter, the honest answer is probably a miracle. And if you are a Conservative supporter, you probably have very little to be concerned about.
But, opinion polls and data modelling aside, as the cliché goes, there’s only one poll which matters. And it’s all up to you. Whichever constituency you live in and whichever party you want to win, deck the halls, wrap the tree in tinsel and make sure you remember to vote on 12 December. And however you may feel about the festive season being tainted by politics, just remember that a Christmas election means it is considerably more likely that 2020 will be the first year since 2013 in which no one in Medway will be called upon to vote.
What’s that? There’s a police and crime commissioner election next year? Oh, b-
Alan Collins is the creator of Medway Elects, which is committed to building a complete electoral history for Medway.