What does Rochester mean for the three main parties?

According to Wikipedia the town of Rochester has been variously occupied by Celts, Romans, Jutes (missed that lot in history class) and Saxons. For the past fortnight it has been occupied by frantic media hacks, enthusiastic political researchers and bored Members of Parliament who have made up the latest wave of invaders.

Mark Reckless, the former Conservative MP and now UKIP MP knocked the Conservatives in second place with the result coming as no surprise to anyone with more than a passing interest in politics. Bookmakers – who are notoriously stingier with their money than people are with their votes, have consistently placed Reckless in front, and some even started paying-out on bets – well in advance of the count.

 The Faragists will also be delighted having taken a front bench scalp from Labour after Emily Thornbury was sacked as Shadow Attorney General following the ill-advised tweet of a picture of a constituent’s house bedecked in St George’s flags. Presumably in protest at the lack of decent branch of Whole Foods in Rochester.

However, the change in the respective fortunes since 2010 make for depressing reading not just for the Conservatives but also for Labour and the Lib Dems who came fifth behind the Greens and lost their deposit. Lib Dem vote share also decreased by a higher percentage that Conservative, with Labour not far behind.

Certainly the narrative that Farage will be peddling is that UKIP is a party of “all” not just a splinter movement of the Conservative right – somewhat out of hope rather than experience. According to the Times 47% of Kippers voted Conservative in 2010, with only 17% voting Lib Dem and 15% voting Labour.

To my mind therefore UKIP is a party of “two” rather than “all”. Those Conservative supporters to the right of centre – let’s call them the “discontents” – who have lost faith in Cameron, and others who are in search of a good old fashioned protest vote  – or “disinterested” – now that the Liberal Democrats have accidentally found themselves in Government.

It is this duality in UKIPs nature that I think will have Conservative Party strategists quietly content with the weekend headlines.

The “discontents” certainly have a reasonable grievance, but it is within the gift of Cameron to appease many of them with continued resolution on the deficit, a clearer (and more honest line) on Europe, and a renewed commitment to welfare reform. A bracing re-shuffle in the Spring that shifts to the right wouldn’t go amiss either.

Those “discontents” will also be painfully aware that whilst they may not like Cameron, or what he stands for, he is the nearest approximation of a conservative leader of the Conservative Party that the people of the UK are likely to elect as Prime Minister. Cameron therefore is what the Military would call the 80% solution, or what my mother would call “passable”.

If Tory strategists can convince waverers that voting UKIP becomes a proxy for voting Labour then 80% may be all the “discontents” need. Carswell and Reckless, however, allow Farage to claim (rather ingenuously) vote UKIP, get UKIP.

A much harder task will be faced by Labour and the Liberal Democrats – namely how to convince the “disinterested” within their respective parties, who feel failed by their parties in government, to come back into the fold.

Novelty is valuable, but neither Messrs Miliband nor Clegg have that new-car-smell about them. Normally a leadership election would do the trick, but as recent weeks have shown, I doubt either party has the courage of their convictions to see it through.

Alternatively Labour and the Lib Dems could retrench to core ideologies, shoring-up their faithful, but to do so would simultaneously haemorrhage support from the centre, making it a zero-sum game. Tragically for Labour, (or thankfully depending on which way you look at it) this would be the course steered by Comrade McCluskey on his way toward blanket re-nationalisation, souring taxes and epic levels of debt.

Much has been made of the prospect of further Conservative defections (and by-elections) coming out of Rochester, but as is apt for a mediaeval town, I would regard this as an opportunity for some good old-fashioned witch-dunking. Any Conservative MP who abandons their principles in place of a paycheque has no place in my party.

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Lauren Roden

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