UK Politics

Rochester by-election: Rice, birds and immigration

Owen Sweeney
Image caption Owen Sweeney: One of the area's many bird enthusiasts who's opposing a planned housing development

Ferret about in the long grass and the woods on the Hoo Peninsula shortly after dawn, and there is a good chance you might bump into Owen Sweeney.

Mr Sweeney is one of life's enthusiasts. He has been walking the lanes and paths of Lodge Hill since the 1970s, hat on head, binoculars in hand.

For all the talk of immigration in this by-election campaign, protecting the rights of one migrant is commanding rather a lot of attention.

Not a person. But a bird.

Around 80 pairs of nightingales breed here each summer, in just the spot where there are plans for 5000 new houses.

Ornithological fervour

Mr Sweeney tells me: "It is a special bird. It has got a heritage, a cultural place in Britain's history. It has been lauded by poets, musicians and writers.

"If you hear it, you'll be enraptured by the nightingale."

You won't be surprised to hear the candidates in the by-election are flying around the constituency, expressing their ornithological fervour with gusto.

Mark Reckless, the former Conservative turned UKIP candidate, whose resignation from the Tories led to this contest, says only a vote for him will protect the birds.

You can trust us with the birds too, is the gist of his rivals' pitch, with Green candidate Clive Gregory rather bemused at what he sees as rapid conversion of his opponents to the environmental cause.

Image caption Rice production worker Dave Tattun, a UKIP supporter

A few miles down the road is one of the biggest employers around here, VeeTee Foods. If you eat rice, it has probably been processed here.

Two thirds of all the rice bought in the UK comes through this plant.

Workers zip around in fluorescent yellow jackets and blue hairnets.

Immigration concerns

Immigration matters to the workers here.

"They are just coming in and claiming benefits. Me and a lot of people think it is just wrong," Kerry Comber tells me.

Colleague Dave Tattun has his own reflections on the state of the political parties.

"All of them tell lies. The only one that is telling us what people really want to know and hear is UKIP," he says.

Image caption Boss Moni Varma, a defender of the Conservatives' record in government

But hang on, argues the boss, Moni Varma, with words that the Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst will be glad to hear.

"I think the Conservatives have done a good job turning the economy around, so far. Given the chance, they will negotiate with Europe and probably get what is right for the country."

In Rochester town centre, the bells of the cathedral strike midday.

Down below on the pedestrianised high street, an enterprising shop owner is having a crack at being an opinion pollster.

UKIP's sweet expectations

John Baldock has run Sweet Expectations for the last three and a half years.

No customer can nip in here for a bag of fudge without being asked to chew over their political views.

Once they are gone, John adds a sweet to a jar in the window to reflect how they are intending to vote.

UKIP will win, he's concluded; something the four rather more scientific opinion polls done in the constituency suggest too.

Image caption Customer Susan Bockelmann, originally from Germany, is uncomfortable with the focus on immigration

Labour's candidate, Naushabah Khan, is campaigning on how long local people have to wait for a doctors appointment and the state of Medway Maritime Hospital, a big concern to many locals.

Geoff Juby for the Liberal Democrats has reflected that stopping immigration is a "two way street" given the number of Britons living elsewhere in Europe.

And it is that very issue that provokes the strongest views here.

Susan Bockelmann is originally from Heidelberg in Germany, but now lives locally.

Does all this chat about immigrants leave her feeling uncomfortable?

"Yeah. I kind of think what is going on? But I don't put too much weight onto it, because I think the British in general are not like that."

The full list of candidates, in alphabetical order by surname, is:

  • Barker, Mike - Independent
  • Challis, Christopher - Independent
  • Davidson, Hairy Knorm - Official Monster Raving Loony Party
  • Fransen, Jayda - Britain First
  • Goldsbrough, Stephen William - Independent
  • Gregory, Clive - Green Party
  • Juby, Geoff - Liberal Democrats
  • Khan, Naushabah - Labour
  • Long, Nick - People Before Profit
  • Osborn, Dave - Patriotic Socialist Party
  • Reckless, Mark - UK Independence Party
  • Rose, Charlotte - Independent
  • Tolhurst, Kelly - Conservative

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