GILLINGHAM, United Kingdom – UKIP won an historic second by-election in Rochester and Strood today after one of the hardest fought campaigns the party has ever been through. Initial projections had suggested the so-called People’s Army would storm the election but a last minute push by the Conservatives left the result tighter than expected.
Tory defector Mark Reckless polled 16,867 votes compared to 13,974 for Conservative Councillor Kelly Tolhurst. Initial assessments suggest UKIP did eat into the Tory vote as expected but the Labour vote also held up.
The 11th hour Conservative surge left UKIP party managers worried: an estimated thousand activists flooded the streets, in a team that included dozens of MPs. Before polling day the Tory campaign also included an unprecedented five Prime Ministerial visits. The strength of the campaign had left UKIP officials worried that Reckless had fallen short, but in the end their worries proved to be ill-founded.
The Conservatives were determined to fight the by-election to the end because of the message it would send to potential future defectors. Westminster insiders have claimed they were right to be worried as UKIP are polling well in seats where Conservative MPs have indicated they might defect. UKIP then intend to use the data to push for those MPs to switch sides, a move that is expected to lead to more defections in the dying days of this parliament.
A number of Conservative MPs are considering defecting but have agreed with the UKIP leadership that they will only do so if they have a chance of winning in 2015. Conservative HQ is determined to prove they are wasting their time, but in the end it was Cameron who wasted his time with his multiple visits, only to lose anyway.
In contrast to the Conservative leader UKIP’s Nigel Farage adopted a much more relaxed approach by going for a drink in the Chequers Pub in the village of Hoo yesterday. Shortly after he encouraged Tory defectors by saying: “If it goes our way I’m sure a number of MPs will sit back and ask themselves whether they are better with us.”
Farage did not make clear which MPs were considering moving, but it is clear the party are hungry for new members. They are likely to redouble their efforts in the House of Commons when Mark Reckless swears his oath later today.
After being declared the winner Reckless said: “Thank you to the people of Rochester and Strood I stood down to submit myself to you. You remain my boss and I am pleased that you have kept me aware of that… The radical tradition of the working class has found a new home in UKIP.”
“Rochester and Strood was our 271st target, if we can win here we can win anywhere. The message is if you vote UKIP you get UKIP.”
On his arrival at the count in Gillingham Nigel Farage described the election as a: “David versus Goliath battle, where little UKIP beat the might of the Conservative machine”.
But the election was not entirely serious. In addition to UKIP bringing a kitchen sink with them in honour of David Cameron’s efforts to win the seat there were a series of minority candidates to entertain the press core through the long count night.
The Loonies brought a strong group, who spent most of the night getting drunk at a local bar before the result was called. Another colourful character was Charlotte Rose, a sex worker, who has run in a number of elections. She was backed by former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik who endorsed her by saying: “She may have screwed a lot of men but the political class have screwed way more.”
Medway Council were criticised for the length of time they took to count the votes, after a lacklustre effort by their elections team. Nigel Farage complained that the slow count had “wrecked a good party”.
Mark Reckless now joins Douglas Carswell in the House of Commons. Carswell was elected in a similar by-election in Clacton at the start of October.