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.
Did you hear the one about the Conservative activist turned UKIP councillor, who went independent, tried to rejoin the Tories, failed to do, tried to join Labour instead, and was turned down but still kind of managed to join anyway?
Allow us to introduce you to Strood South councillor, Mark Joy.
Mark Joy rose to prominence in Medway politics when he was part of Medway’s own gang of four, defecting to UKIP from the Conservatives in 2014 along with Mark Reckless, Chris Irvine, and Paul Monck. Medway UKIP was riding high at the time, winning by-elections for both parliament and the local council, but the good times came to a crashing halt on May 7 2015. Mark Reckless lost the Rochester & Strood constituency, while Chris Irvine lost his council seat, and Paul Monck failed to gain his. In the middle of this though, Mark Joy just about won a council seat in Strood South.
All of which left Joy in a slightly strange position. His ties always seemed closer to Reckless and Irvine personally rather than to the UKIP party, and now he sat with the three other untested UKIP councillors in the chamber. Within a month, Joy resigned from the UKIP group, choosing to sit as an independent in the chamber.
In the time since, he’s proved to be an interesting voice in the chamber. He often inserts himself into debates, sometimes to raise small issues, sometimes to ask questions. His voting record, untethered from party whips, sees him voting both with and against the ruling Conservative administration in roughly equal measure.
In the time since becoming an independent, Joy approached the Conservative group about the potential of rejoining their ranks, and was told in no uncertain terms that it would not be happening. Which meant the only options to Joy were to remain as an independent, or attempt to join the Labour group. Given Joy won his seat from a sitting Labour councillor, this would surely be impossible. At least it seemed so until this week, when Labour councillor Tristan Osborne tweeted the following:
The accompanying picture (as seen at the top of this article) shows Joy out campaigning for London Mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan with both Osborne and Medway Labour Deputy Leader Teresa Murray. Given how critical Medway Labour Leader Vince Maple was of Joy following his resignation from UKIP, the sudden about turn is all the more curious.
Requesting comment from Joy, he told us that he “decided to help with London Mayor elections, as I think that Sadiq Khan is the best candidate”, but declined to offer any further comment.
Our own investigation discovered that Joy approached Maple to join the party, but was turned down on the basis that no one can join who has stood against the party within the last 12 months. That period is up in June, which means there will be nothing to stop him joining the party then. Sources within the party told us of ferocious opposition to this, with more than one councillor threatening to quit the group if that happens.
By way of a compromise, Joy has since been told that he can campaign with Labour, and attend local meetings, but will not be able to become to officially join the party for now. As one angry activist put it to us though, “he’s joined without a card”.
Other activists have raised serious concerns about Joy within the party, arguing that there is “massive opposition to any move for him to join”. Some have cited his past views, his closeness to Mark Reckless et al, and how it would make the group “a laughing stock”. Others have raised questions over his opportunistic jumping between parties, and his conduct in parish council meetings. Despite this, Maple and Murray seem to be actively encouraging him to join the party, against the will of their own group.
The Political Medway asked Medway Labour group leader Vince Maple, but made it clear he had no comment to make on the issue.
Turning up at a UKIP event leaves one with a strange feeling. The vitriol directed toward the party is so strong that you’re left with a nagging feeling of “what if someone sees me here and gets the wrong idea?”
This blog was invited in an independent capacity to a UKIP event with Nigel Farage and Mark Reckless at Rochester’s Corn Exchange last night to see how these things work on the inside. Not that there was much time to worry about perception. As I arrived at the venue, Nigel Farage was making his way in following a visit from a tea shop across the road, being pursued closely by camera crews and a young protestor repeatedly yelling “BOO!” as loud as he could. So there’s probably a clip of me awkwardly getting out of the way during all this doing the rounds on Sky News or something.
It’s worth noting that while UKIP never proclaimed this as being a public event, it was stressed that the audience was made up primarily of undecided voters. I don’t know how these people were invited to the event, as your name had to be on a list to get in, as one local with an interest in politics soon discovered:
@Ed_Jennings @centrewhatsleft How did you get in Ed?? It said it was an open event. Surly bouncers have told me it's not.
Surveying the crowd, I was somewhat surprised to find a wider demographic than the standard old angry white men one might expect at these events. There were some women and even some younger people too! Some of the younger people, particularly the ones sitting behind me, even seemed weirdly enthusiastic about the whole thing.
The leader of the Medway UKIP group, Chris Irvine, opened the proceedings with a pitch for UKIP taking more seats on Medway Council on May 7, before introducing “the man who beat both Labour and the Tories”, Mark Reckless. Reckless strode in to polite applause, and immediately got off to a bold start with the audience by opening with a bit about how nice the weather has been.
Reckless has never been the strongest performer when it comes to public events, but he moved deftly from policy to policy. Some of this was fairly agreeable, like reform of hospital car parking charges, or only building on brownfield land, and some of it was less so, like slicing a mere £11bn out of the aid budget. Not that it mattered much to this audience: for a group of undecided voters, they applauded just about everything.
I suspect much of the crowd was there just to see Farage. Indeed, toward the end of Reckless’ speech, some of the people at the back of the room were beginning to murmur. This led to a feeling of being at a gig where a support band has been told they have 20 minutes, but decide to play their whole album anyway. Still, Reckless brought things to a close with a robust defence of the personal attacks launched on him by the Tories, which was always a silly tactic, before introducing Farage, who entered to the loudest applause of the evening.
Farage in the room is exactly the same as the one you see on TV. He was typically rabble-rousing, describing the UKIP surge as a “purple rash”, swiftly jumping from issue to issue, with well practiced lines on each of the big issues. He even managed to throw some red meat to the locals too, promising to restore Rochester’s city status. He never explained how he’d do this, but it obviously went over well.
He proceeded to spend a reasonable amount of time attacking the SNP, suggesting the way the other parties deal with them as approaching “appeasement”. Fiery stuff, and comments that will definitely put the Scottish National Party in Rochester & Strood on the back foot. After that, it was a quick dash through a potential EU referendum (one held by the Tories would be a “stitch up”), and suggesting poll numbers are underestimating UKIP. I find that to be fairly unlikely, but it’s the way of keeping the dream alive.
The final section of the evening was dedicated to “public questions” that were already prepared and none were taken from the floor. Some interesting topic came up, from cutting the BBC “to the bone”, and the electoral reform policies that UKIP are actually pretty strong on, before it was all over and Farage left to a standing ovation from most of the crowd.
You may have noticed that a lot of this is off of the beaten UKIP track. The EU only came up periodically with the usual spiel, and immigration was barely mentioned, outside of one or two smaller references. This represents a change in tack for UKIP, an attempt to be a fully formed political party, with a range of party policies beyond the usual fare. How successful this will be is another matter, but Farage seems confident, predicting that Reckless will not only hold onto Rochester & Strood, but will increase his majority. Does anyone really fancy taking that bet?
We got through the entire night without it happening, but on the way out I finally heard my first “I’m not racist, but..” from one of the supporters. I guess it had to happen at some point.
Outside the venue, the lone protestor who had been shouting at Nigel Farage before the event was still waiting. Farage himself snuck out of another door, leaving it to security to break the news to the stubborn young man:
Security: He’s already gone mate.
Protestor: I don’t care.
The first in a series of posts, ‘inFrequently Answered Questions’ all Medway; parties, MPs and candidates, have been invited to answer and we will update should further answers be presented. The answers are presented here unedited. If you have an iFAQ then leave it as a comment and we will attempt to get it answered for you.
“Our MP Mark Reckless became increasingly disillusioned with the failed promises which had been made by David Cameron and his Conservative Party to the point where felt he had no other choice but to change parties.
Mark could have simply changed parties and continued on, but he felt it was imperative to seek a fresh mandate from the Rochester and Strood electorate so triggered the by-election. The rest is history.”
Cllr Chris Irvine – Leader of the Medway UKIP Group
“A by-election was triggered by the resignation of Mark Reckless MP on his defection to UKIP from the Conservatives in September 2014.”
Cllr Tristan Osborne – Labour PPC for Chatham and Aylesford
Because rats leave sinking ships.”
Jacqui Berry – TUSC PPC Gillingham and Rainham
“Mark Reckless wanted to guarantee he was the people’s choice and for ‘a referendum’ on Lodgehill” Chris Sams – Liberal Democrat Candidate for Medway Council
“There was a by-election in Rochester because the sitting MP decided to resign the Conservative Party whip and join UKIP.
He didn’t need to force a by-election but he was right to do so given that he was elected as a Conservative and therefore sought a mandate in his new party. It was unfortunate however that as a consequence it cost the Medway taxpayer a significant amount of money which could have been put to better use.”
Tracey Crouch – Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford