The Tories have clearly decided that they have to win the Rochester and Strood by-election, and are willing to throw everything they have at ensuring they get their victory. As happened with Newark, they’ve told all MPs they have to pay a number of visits to the constituency, and David Cameron may well go there for five campaign trips. (Another sign of my advancing age is that I can remember when Tony Blair’s one visit to the 1997 Uxbridge by-election was regarded as a major change in protocol for a Prime Minister)
Throwing the kitchen sink at trying to hold a seat in a by-election from UKIP isn’t a rare event any more, but some of the news that’s coming out is making me wonder if the Tories are so focused on the short-term gain of holding the seat, they’re not seeing the potential damage they’re doing in the long run.
First up, there are already rumours floating around that someone is doing push-polling that’s attacking Tory MP turned UKIP candidate Mark Reckless. (‘Push-polling’ is a practice common in US elections where negative messages about a candidate are spread by means of purported phone polling) Whether this is happening or not, the idea that it is has caught traction amongst UKIP supporters, as I discovered when I mentioned it on Twitter on Sunday. Now, there may well be nothing in these rumours, but they fit in with the mindset and narrative of UKIP supporters that they’ve got ‘the establishment’ frightened, and the only way it can stop them is to fight dirty.
As part of the Tory campaign to hold Rochester and turn back UKIP, they’ve used an open primary to select their candidate, giving everyone in the constituency a postal vote to choose between the final two contenders on the Tory shortlist. As you might expect, mailing every voter in a constituency (and paying for their freepost return envelopes) costs a lot of money. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, as Tories tend to have (or be able to get) a lot of money and election spending limits don’t usually apply to candidate selection. However, that might not be the case in Rochester. As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reports here, the Tories are working under advice from the Electoral Commission that this spending doesn’t count towards the £100,000 spending limit for the by-election, but other lawyers aren’t so sure that’s the case. As Crick points out, this raises the prospect of the Tories winning the by-election, but then having that victory invalidated in an election court. Given the time it would take for a complaint to be filed and an election court to sit, it’s unlikely there’d have to be a second by-election before the General Election, but I don’t think that’s the important point.
The key about the push-polling story isn’t whether or not it’s happening, it’s that it feeds into the existing UKIP narrative. We’ve all seen the way they rant about ‘the LibLabCon’ and complain about how they’re excluded by the metropolitan elite consensus. Now, I’m quite sure that the regular media commentators would probably dismiss a challenge in an election court as just some arcane quibbling over the rules, but imagine how that story would play out amongst UKIP members and supporters? Cries of ‘they had to break the law to beat us!’ and ‘we played by the rules, they didn’t!’ would be rife amongst them and what’s more, it would feed into the narrative they give to their voters. We’re proper hard-working people who believe in doing the right thing and playing by the rules, but those politicians up in Westminster don’t think the laws should apply to them. They broke the law to stop us winning in Rochester, what makes you think they’re going to listen to you? and so on. As with Matthew Parris’s comments on Clacton, media commentators dismissing any legal challenge would be portrayed as out of touch and ignoring the concerns of the ‘real people’. It’s the perfect way for UKIP to show that they’re the victims of an Establishment stitch-up. It might not appear that way amongst the commentariat, but it would play well on the social media grapevine.
For their sake, I hope the Tories aren’t just relying on the Electoral Commission’s advice that their spending on the primary doesn’t count towards the by-election, and have taken some other legal advice. If they win in Rochester and Strood, they need to do it fairly and be above challenge, otherwise the short-term anti-UKIP firewall it creates could be buried beneath the greater costs they’ll pay for winning it.