While the Conservatives warn that voting for UKIP risks allowing in a Labour Government, the response from UKIP is robust: “So what? There is no difference between Labour and the Conservatives.”
So has a Conservative-led Government made a difference in Rochester and Strood?
Unemployment is sharply down. The number on the dole in the constituency, that is claiming JSA, was 2,425 in May 2010. Last month it was 1,491.
Conservative-run Medway Council has worked to make the constituency cleaner and greener. They have introduced weekly recycling collections. By making it easier the amount recycled increased by a quarter. An increased number of local parks have been awarded Green Flags – including Broomhill Park and The Vines in Rochester. There has been a successful effort to reduce fly-tipping with tough enforcement action.
Another achievement is that Medway Action for Families is looking to turn around the lives of 560 families up to June 2015 under the Government’s ‘troubled families’ initiative.
One of the biggest challenges has been in education.
The poor performance of local primary schools was ignored under Labour. But last year Medway saw the number of children achieving Level 4 in reading, writing and maths increase from 68 per cent to 71 per cent.
That is still behind the national average – but it is closing the gap. The good schools have become better under the Gove Revolution with the greater freedom they have been allowed. But the real point has been the bad schools feeling the heat. That means that Medway has particularly benefited. Under Labour they were just allowed to drift along.
Rather perversely an invaluable source of Conservative success stories for Rochester and Strood comes from the website of the UKIP candidate in the forthcoming by-election there Mark Reckless.
So far as the fall in unemployment is concerned, Mr Reckless says:
“These figures show that the Conservatives’ long-term economic plan is working. We need to stick to the plan, which is getting people off benefits and into work, and delivering a more secure future for people in Rochester and Strood who want to work hard and get on in life.”
He makes the point most cogently. In fairness, that comment was in April. At that stage the unemployment figure in his constituency was 1,809. So for him to have changed his view since, given that unemployment has fallen further, would seem rather perverse.
So far as housing is concerned he says:
“The announcement that, through the New Homes Bonus, Medway Council has been granted £2,317,239 this year to build much-needed housing in the local area is welcome. The New Homes Bonus, which will start being paid in March, is a multi-billion pound programme which rewards communities when they accept more housebuilding in their area and includes extra rewards for building new affordable homes, and for getting long-term empty homes back into use.
Medway Council, under the leadership of our excellent group of Conservative Councillors, will have ultimate oversight of any proposed building development, not central government. It will be the job of locally elected, and therefore accountable, representatives to decide on the benefits of building new affordable homes versus the human, environmental and economic impact of continuing with Labour’s failed housing policies.
Labour led Britain into a housing crisis – the number of affordable homes fell, waiting lists almost doubled and first-time buyer numbers collapsed to their lowest level for a generation.”
Another good point well made. But one difficult to reconcile with the notion that whether we have a Labour or Conservative Government is an irrelevance.
There is greater accountability in the NHS:
“Under the previous government and hospital management excuses were made for the extra deaths and, too often, they tried to explain away or cover up problems. That has now changed. This government asked Dr Keogh, the country’s Chief Medical Officer, to examine all hospitals with high death rates, and drive improvements at 14 hospitals with the worst problem, including Medway. Every death at Medway hospital is now reviewed and when mistakes are made, as they will be from time to time even in the best run large and complex organisation, lessons are learnt rather than excuses made”
On schools, Mr Reckless highlighted concern last year about All Faiths Children Academy primary school. It has since seen the percentage of its pupil reaching Level 4 increase from 53 per cent to 74 per cent. Another primary school that Mr Reckless mentioned with poor achievement was Cuxton Junior school – that has just become a sponsored academy.
Other local schools have make great progress as sponsored academies as part of the Williamson Trust. Let us consider the Hundred of Hoo Comprehensive School. In 2009 there were were 25 per cent of pupils getting five or more good GCSEs including English and maths. It’s now 48 per cent.
Then there is Strood Academy, a sponsored academy formed from the merger of two secondary schools. At the Chapter School in 2009 there were 23 per cent getting good GCSEs. There was also the Temple School that was on 18 per cent. Strood Academy is on 43 per cent.
The message for local schools is that they will not be able to drift along, failing their pupils.
Does Mr Reckless really believe that these improvements would have taken place had Ed Balls remained the Education Secretary?
Of course the anti-politics message that Labour and the Conservatives are the same has an easy populism. That is not a verdict that is consistent with the previous statements Mr Reckless has made. It is also quite at odds with evidence locally, as well as nationally.