Parliamentary by-elections

Five reasons Mark Reckless will struggle to win Rochester & Strood for Ukip

1. This is not going to be a duplicate of Clacton. For one thing, as Mark Wallace says on the ConservativeHome website, “Reckless is no Carswell”. He does not have as distinctive a media profile, nor (judging by his turn at today’s Ukip conference) as articulate a turn-of-phrase or as rounded a political philosophy. In the less forgiving description of Alastair Campbell, he looks and sounds “like a Monty Python sketch”. Like it or not, presentation is more than half the secret of being successful in contemporary politics – as Ed Miliband has spent much of the past week being reminded.

2. Rochester & Strood isn’t self-evidently ripe Ukip territory. Matthew Goodwin ranks it as number 271 on his list of Ukip-friendly seats – 270 behind Clacton (and 15 behind Newark, which the Tories held in a by-election earlier this year). The party didn’t field a candidate in 2010, so we’ve nothing with which to compare their performance in a parliamentary election:

Rochester & Strood 2010 resultThe most recent local elections for Medway council, which covers the constituency of Rochester & Strood, took place in 2011 – and Ukip failed to win a single seat. The party fielded candidates in only eight of the 22 wards.

3. The Tories will almost certainly mount a far more aggressive and bitter by-election campaign here than the one that has taken place in Clacton. The party will be absolutely desperate to hold the seat. There will be none of the grudging personal respect towards Reckless that seems to have been extended towards Carswell. As James Forsyth says on the Spectator website, Carswell didn’t regularly deny that he was going to defect in the way Reckless did. There is also the way this defection smacks of calculation and malice – in the words of Forsyth: “Reckless’s timing is also far more clearly designed to hurt the Tory party.”

4. This by-election will not be a novelty – and the voters may respond accordingly. Clacton has been a bit of a circus with more than a whiff of an end-of-the-pier show. The contest in Strood & Rochester may well have its similarly shambolic moments, but will be treated both by political parties and the media as more of a narrative than a one-off. This might help cool tempers a little and lend the by-election a sense of substance instead of frippery. Minds will be concentrated on all sides.

5. Lessons will have been learned by the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems from their respective performances in Clacton. Maybe the Conservatives will pick a candidate who isn’t quite so Eurosceptic and to whom Labour and Lib Dem supporters may be more inclined to “lend” their vote, as reportedly happened in Newark. Rochester & Strood has only been a constituency since 2010; the previous seat of Medway was held by Bob Marshall-Andrews for Labour from 1997-2010, including at the 2005 election when he defeated none other than Mark Reckless. Are there Labour votes in this seat that a right-winger such as Reckless may repel rather than attract? And what about the 16% who voted Lib Dem – or the 5% who voted for the English Democrats?

2010 Rochester & Strood resultForthcoming opinion polls may prove me wrong, but I get the feeling this by-election will be much more a close-run thing than Clacton.

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