Wednesday, 19 November 2014

By-election Previews: Rochester and Strood/20th November 2014

As well as the headline parliamentary by-election in Rochester and Strood this week, three local by-elections are also taking place. One is covered over on the Welsh Elections blog while the other two are below - including one in Medway within the Rochester and Strood constituency.

House of Commons and Medway Council, Kent
Caused respectively by the resignations of Conservative MP Mark Reckless and Conservative councillor Chris Irvine in order to seek re-election as UKIP candidates.

High Street, Rochester
Your columnist likes Rochester.  It's an attractive town on the east bank of the River Medway, with an old cathedral, a long, attractive and well-preserved High Street, a high-quality quiz organised each July by Ken Owen and held at the Vines United Reformed Church, and one of the longest histories of any town in England.  Lovers of second-hand books are recommended to look into Baggins' shop on the High Street, which advertises itself as England's largest secondhand bookshop; if you fancy eating out then the Grandma Thai restaurant, also on the High Street, is recommended.

Rochester is the lowest point at which the Medway can be bridged, and the Romans were the first to do so as part of Watling Street, the main road from the Kent Ports to Londinium.  In AD 604 Rochester became England's second bishopric.  The modern cathedral and Rochester Castle date from the Norman period, and the castle saw action during the Rebellion of 1088 (in which it was the headquarters for Robert Curthose), the two Barons' Wars of the thirteenth century, and most recently the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.  After 1381 the importance of Rochester Castle declined and the town's military focus switched from land to sea: Elizabeth I established a Royal Dockyard at Chatham which for many years was one of the UK's most important naval bases.

On the far side of Rochester Bridge can be found the satellite town of Strood, probably best known for the Strood Tunnel which was built in the 1800s to take the Thames and Medway Canal, and was the UK's second-longest canal tunnel.  It is now a railway tunnel used by the North Kent line, which runs from Charing Cross to Rochester via Dartford, and now also by Southeastern's high speed trains from St Pancras via Gravesend.

Charles Dickens knew Rochester well and many of his novels were set in the area.  However, we have turn to Ian Fleming for an indication of more modern problems with the area, specifically Rochester Bridge which was a major bottleneck on the main road from London to the Kent Ports.  The James Bond novel Goldfinger, written in 1959, talks of the inevitable traffic jams in Strood.  Four years later, the M2 motorway - one of the oldest of Britain's motorways - opened, taking through traffic out of the Medway Towns via a new Medway Viaduct.  Further improvement work in the early 2000s means that there are now three Medway Viaducts: two for the M2 and one for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

Away from the two towns, the Rochester and Strood constituency includes the villages of Cuxton and Halling to the south of Strood, and the Hoo Peninsula, which terminates in the industrial Isle of Grain, at which can be found the UK's third-largest container port and an large natural gas terminal; the oil-fired Grain Power Station is now being demolished.  One future development for Grain which looks unlikely to happen is a new Thames Estuary airport, as suggested a few years ago; one future development for the peninsula which has a better chance is a development of 5,000 houses at Lodge Hill, which is opposed by the defending Tory-turned-UKIP candidate in the council by-election.

The constituency based on Rochester has for many years been a crucial Tory/Labour marginal.  In the inter-war years Rochester formed part of the Chatham constituency, which was contested by none other than Hugh Gaitskell for Labour in 1935; he lost 59-41 to the new Tory candidate, radio pioneer Leonard Plugge.  Plugge served one term before losing his seat 55-45 in 1945 to the trade unionist Mayor of Walthamstow, Arthur Bottomley.  Serving as a junior minister in the Attlee government and moving in 1950 to the new Rochester and Chatham constituency, Bottomley survived a series of knife-edge results (his majority over the Tories was 477 in the 1950 election and 847 a year later) before finally losing his seat in 1959 to the Tories' Julian Critchley, who had a majority of 1,023.  Bottomley later returned to the Commons for a safe Labour seat in Middlesbrough; his parliamentary career peaked during the first Wilson administration, in which he was Commonwealth Secretary and had to deal with the fallout from Rhodesia's UDI.

Critchley served only one term as MP for Rochester and Chatham, losing in 1964 to Labour's Anne Kerr, an actress and TV interviewer.  The Labour majority in 1964 was 1,013, and a rematch between Kerr and Critchley in 1966 saw Kerr's majority increase to 2,246.  (Critchley later resurfaced in parliament as MP for Aldershot, where he had a long career on the Tory backbenches.)  Kerr, a campaigner on human rights issues, came to prominence in 1968 when she was arrested at the Democratic convention in Chicago and beaten by the police.  She lost badly in 1970 to the new Tory candidate, Peggy Fenner.

Fenner was appointed by Heath to a junior position in the Ministry of Agriculture, and held it until the Heath government lost office in February 1974.  Fenner herself held her seat by 843 votes that February, but was not so lucky in the October election which she lost to Labour's Robert Bean, a polytechnic lecturer, by 2,418.  A rematch between Bean and Fenner saw Fenner get her seat back in 1979 by 2,688 votes, and Bean's attempt in 1983 to get his seat back - in the new Medway constituency following boundary changes - saw Fenner increase her majority to 8,656 and turn Medway into a safe Tory seat for the first time since the Second World War.  That was Bean's last contest; he died in 1987 at the early age of 52.

Fenner returned to the Ministry of Agriculture under Thatcher, and upon going back to the backbenches in 1986 was appointed DBE.  Dame Peggy kept her parliamentary seat safe right up until the Labour landslide of 1997, when a 15-point swing saw Labour's Bob Marshall-Andrews, a barrister who had fought the seat in 1992 and Richmond (Surrey) in October 1974, defeat Fenner.  Overnight Medway had turned from a safe Tory seat into a safe Labour seat.

In a thirteen-year parliamentary career Marshall-Andrews became a high-profile backbencher and a thorn in the side of the Blair and Brown governments.  He had little trouble being re-elected in 2001 against new Conservative candidate Mark Reckless, who at the time was working in financial services.  Further down the ballot that year, polling 2.5% and losing her deposit, was the UKIP candidate Nikki Sinclaire, who would later serve from 2009 to May this year as an MEP for the West Midlands.  The 2005 Medway election was a more close-run thing; Marshall-Andrews actually conceded defeat to Reckless in an early election night interview, but when the declaration finally came he had held on to his seat by 213 votes.

Marshall-Andrews was eventually done for by the Boundary Commission, which redrew his seat as Rochester and Strood for the 2010 election.  Reckless would have won in 2005 on the present boundaries, and when Marshall-Andrews retired in 2010 Reckless had little trouble getting elected at the third attempt, finishing with a majority of 21 points over Labour.  By now having been called to the Bar, Reckless' parliamentary career has been less than stellar: he got off on the wrong foot by failing to vote on the 2010 budget because he was drunk, and since then has followed the Marshall-Andrews path of being a backbencher with a rebellious reputation.

2011 Medway Council Results in the Rochester and Strood Constituency

The Medway council itself goes back only to 1998 when the various borough councils covering the Medway Towns merged into one local government unit; an action which was not without consequences, as the new council failed to appoint Charter Trustees which resulted in Rochester losing its city status.  Since 2000 the area covered by the modern Rochester and Strood constituency has been trending towards the Tories: Labour carried three wards in 2003 (River ward - which covers part of the centres of both Rochester and Chatham and the Dockyard - Rochester West and Strood South), but only topped the poll in Rochester East at the most recent council election in 2011, although they did hold one of the three seats in Strood North and gained a seat in Strood South.  In the 2007-2011 council there was a series of bizarre council by-elections in Rochester: the Tories held Rochester South and Horsted ward in 2008 after the Tory councillor resigned over a controversial blog post; the Tories gained River ward from Labour in August 2010 after the Labour councillor was elected to Parliament for a seat two hundred miles away in Merseyside, but Labour won that seat straight back in a second by-election in October after the new Tory councillor resigned on being (wrongly) advised that being a special constable made him ineligible to be a councillor.

Main Road, Hoo St. Werburgh
The Peninsula by-election this week is, however, the first and only council by-election in Medway in the 2011-15 term.   A rural ward covering seven parishes on the Hoo peninsula, despite all the industry on the Isle of Grain this is (at least in 2011 cirumstances) a very safe Tory ward.  Outgoing councillor Christopher Irvine is, as stated above, standing for re-election as UKIP.  The official Tory candidate is Ron Sands, from Hoo; also on the ballot are Labour's Pete Tungate, the Greens' Clive Gregory and the Lib Dems' Christopher Sams.

In the wider constituency, Mark Reckless is of course riding the UKIP wave following the party's win in the Clacton by-election last month.  The official Conservative candidate is Kelly Tolhurst, a local councillor representing Rochester West ward; she was selected by an all-postal primary with ballot papers being sent to all electors in the constituency.  Labour have selected Naushabah Khan, a PR consultant and kickboxer, while the Lib Dems' Geoff Juby is, like Reckless, fighting the seat for the fourth time.  Also on a crowded ballot paper are Clive Gregory, who doubles up as the Greens' parliamentary and council candidate; independents Mike Barker and Christopher Challis; Hairy Knorm Davidson of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party; the Britain First deputy leader Jayda Fransen (whose leaflets Royal Mail have refused to deliver, citing laws on the sending of threatening mail); independent Stephen Goldsbrough; Nick Long of the Lewisham-based group People Before Profit; Dave Osborn of the Patriotic Socialist Party, who polled two (2) votes in a council by-election in Colchester in July; and independent candidate and "high class courtesan" Charlotte Rose who also fought the Clacton by-election.

Four opinion polls of the constituency have shown Reckless leading by between 9 and 15 points; the most recent poll at the time of writing, taken by Lord Ashcroft from 7-10 November, showed Reckless on 44% to 32% for the Tories and 17% for Labour.  While readers should bear in mind that constituency polling in the UK has a poor record, it does appear that the Tories are going to have a problem holding on in what may the last parliamentary by-election before the 2015 general election.

Rochester and Strood
ONS Travel to Work Area: Maidstone and North Kent

Mike Baker (Ind)
Christopher Challis (Ind)
Hary Knorm Davidson (Loony)
Jayda Fransen (Britain First)
Stephen Goldsbrough (Ind)
Clive Gregory (Grn)
Geoff Juby (LD)
Naushabah Khan (Lab)
Nick Long (PBP)
Dave Osborn (PatSoc)
Mark Reckless (UKIP)
Charlotte Rose (Ind)
Kelly Tolhurst (C)

May 2010 result C 23604 Lab 13651 LD 7800 EDP 2182 Grn 734

Parliamentary constituency: Rochester and Strood
ONS Travel to Work Area: Maidstone and North Kent

Clive Gregory (Grn)
Christopher Irvine (UKIP)
Christopher Sams (LD)
Ron Sands (C)
Pete Tungate (Lab)

May 2011 result C 2557/2307/2125 Lab 975/898/879 EDP 535/476 Grn 351 LD 298/282
May 2007 result C 2396/2054/2036 Ind 1376 Lab 646/561/511 UKIP 427 LD 251/122/94
May 2003 result C 2640/2503/2451 Lab 776/658/621 LD 195/182/169 UKIP 159

Stockport metropolitan borough council, Greater Manchester
Caused by the resignation of Conservative councillor Anita Johnson due to ill-health.

Davenport Arms, Woodford
This is the most southerly ward in Greater Manchester, covering one of Manchester's most affluent suburbs.  Bramhall is the point where the housing ends and the Cheshire countryside begins.  The ward covers the village of Woodford, known for its recently-closed aerodrome and aircraft factory and for being the home of several famous Manchester United footballers; in recognition of Woodford, the ward was renamed in April this year having previously been called simply "Bramhall South".  Bramhall presently marks the eastern terminus of the A555 road, the only part that was ever built of an ambitious road scheme to link Hazel Grove to Manchester Airport; at present the A555 does neither, making it very much a road to nowhere.

Bramhall South's election results haven't seen much change over the last decade; it's a safe Tory ward with the Lib Dems in a strong second place but never quite polling well enough to win.  The ward forms part of the Lib Dem-held Cheadle constituency.

Defending for the Tories is John McGahan.  Jeremy Meal has been reselected by the Lib Dems after fighting the ward in May's ordinary election.  Also standing are Labour's Kathryn Priestley and the Greens' David McDonough.

Parliamentary constituency: Cheadle
ONS Travel to Work Area: Manchester

David McDonough (Grn)
John McGahan (C)
Jeremy Meal (LD)
Kathryn Priestley (Lab)

May 2014 result C 1862 LD 1373 UKIP 538 Lab 369
May 2012 result C 1900 LD 1007 Lab 389 UKIP 342 Grn 202
May 2011 result C 2791 LD 1489 Lab 480 UKIP 213 Grn 176
May 2010 result C 3775 LD 3195 Lab 387 UKIP 213 Grn 173
May 2008 result C 2762 LD 1554 Lab 170 UKIP 163
May 2007 result C 2713 LD 1787 UKIP 155 Lab 151
May 2006 result C 2606 LD 2044 UKIP 146 Lab 142
June 2004 result C 2673/2656/2620 LD 2507/2418/2085 UKIP 491 Lab 396/270/259

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