Political Figures: What next for Rochester and Strood?

In which Alan Collins from Medway Elects casts his eye over Rochester and Strood, and ponders what lies ahead for the constituency..

Ah, 2015, the year the World Health Organisation declared that rubella had been eradicated from the Americas, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge was born, and, awkwardly, I’ve run out of positive events to highlight (I really should have thought this intro through before writing the first article).

It was also the last time any of Medway’s parliamentary constituencies changed hands.

In recognition of this unbroken run of Conservative representation in parliament, Messrs Jennings and Keevil have asked me to look at what has changed between the three most recent general elections. So, for my latest three-part mini-series I’ll be looking at the results for each of Medway’s three constituencies in turn.

In 2014, Rochester and Strood’s member of parliament Mark Reckless resigned from the Conservative party, joined Ukip and triggered a by-election. In winning that by-election, Reckless became the first member of parliament in Medway to be elected from a party other than the Conservatives or Labour since Ernest Lamb, who gained Rochester as a Liberal in 1910.

In 2015, the Conservatives went all-out to regain the seat. Reckless’ successor as the Conservative party candidate (and as councillor for Rochester West), Kelly Tolhurst, managed to achieve a swing from Ukip to the Conservatives of 10.5%, taking 44.1% of the vote and leaving Reckless floundering in second on 30.5%. Just as in the by-election, Labour were a distant third, with a vote share of 19.8%. The Green party and Liberal Democrats took fourth and fifth place, with 2.9% and 2.4% respectively.

Two years later, in the snap general election of 2017, Tolhurst strengthened her grip on the constituency, increasing her share of the vote by 10.3 percentage points and polling 54.4%. Under the candidacy of Rochester East councillor Teresa Murray, Labour regained second place with 36% of the vote and the largest increase in vote share of any party in Medway at 16.2 percentage points. Ukip, who had won the constituency less than three years previously, saw their vote share plummet by 25.1 percentage points, barely retaining their deposit with 5.4%. The Liberal Democrats and Green party lost their deposits again, taking 2.2% and 1.5% respectively.

As with the rest of Medway, the result in the 2019 general election was without modern precedent. Tolhurst saw her share of the vote increase by 5.6 percentage points, just breaching 60%. Murray, standing again for Labour, saw her share of the vote drop by 8.9 points as she scraped 27.1%. The Liberal Democrats selected Graham Colley, a name not seen on a parliamentary ballot paper in Medway since 1992, who managed to secure their party’s highest increase in vote share (5 percentage points) and their highest share of the vote (7.2%) across Medway’s three constituencies. The Green party took 2.5%, while Ukip (remember them?) barely scraped 2.1%.

Tolhurst not only achieved her and her party’s best-ever result in Rochester and Strood, but she also managed the best result for any member of parliament in the area since Sir Irving Albery, whose Gravesend constituency included the rural districts of Hoo and Strood, took 64.2% of the vote in 1931. No candidate in either the Medway or Rochester and Chatham constituencies polled higher than 55%, while the last time a party took over 60% of the vote in Rochester was in 1874, when the constituency elected two members of parliament.

So where does that leave the prospects for the constituency in 2024? As with Medway’s other constituencies, it is almost unimaginable that the Conservatives could lost the seat. For Labour to take the seat at the next general election, they would need to secure a swing of at least 16.5%. Whilst such a swing would not be impossible, it would take a special set of circumstances for the constituency to turn red (or, indeed, any other colour).

Assuming, of course, the boundaries do not change between now and the next election…

Alan Collins is the creator of Medway Elects, which is committed to building a complete electoral history for Medway.

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