Councillor Mick Pendergast resigns from UKIP, leaving party with one councillor in Medway

Peninsula Councillor Mick Pendergast has today resigned from UKIP, according to Medway Elects:

Although there has not yet been an official comment from Cllr Pendergast, it is understood he has already communicated his decision to council officials. His reasons for resigning from UKIP are not yet known.

Cllr Pendergast will see out the rest of his term as an independent councillor.

Analysis: Decline of Medway UKIP

Cllr Pendergast’s resignation is the latest in a series of blows for the local party, which just four years ago held the accolade of being home to one of only two members of parliament to be elected for UKIP.

What started as a fairytale coming top in a nationwide poll and beginning to take seats away from Labour and the Conservatives on Medway Council soon began to crumble and descend into farce, as their vote share disintegrated and attention turned to their increasingly unhealthy obsession with Islam and stories of former party officers suing them for unpaid expenses (including cream crackers).

UKIP’s first big success in Medway came in the European Parliament election in 2014. Whilst they topped the poll nationally, the UK-wide vote share of 26.6% and majority of 2.2% paled in comparison to the 41.9% vote share they achieved in Medway and their 18.1% lead over the second-placed Conservatives.

That election was the first in a dramatic shift of votes in UKIP’s favour. Four months later, Mark Reckless, then the Conservative MP for Rochester and Strood, took to the stage at the UKIP party conference to announce he was defecting – and that he would force a by-election to seek the approval of his change in party from his constituents.

His constituents duly assented. After a dramatic campaign which saw just about every famous face in British politics descend upon the former city (I passed Michael Gove in a Rochester car park, while just a few hundred yards away Nigel Farage and Hairy Knorm Davidson of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party stood side-by-side for photographs), Mark Reckless was returned as the UKIP MP for Rochester and Strood, with 42.1% of the votes. On the same day, his election agent Chris Irvine, also a former Conservative councillor who had resigned his Peninsula ward seat and stood for his new party, triumphed in his own by-election, winning 48.3% of the votes.

During the by-election campaign, Strood Rural councillor Peter Rodberg quit the Conservative party and joined UKIP. His ward colleague Tom Mason and Rainham North councillor Vaughan Hewett, a former Conservative turned independent, would join the UKIP group early in 2015, meaning the party had four councillors heading in to the all-important elections.

Although there was great interest in the 2015 local elections, the main focus was on the general election being held on the same day. For UKIP, there were some positives to take from the election: nationally they were the third largest party in terms of votes, polling at 12.6%, whilst across Medway’s three constituencies they came second, polling at 23.7%.

Unfortunately for UKIP, our first-past-the-post electoral system means that national and regional vote share are meaningless; what matters is performance in individual seats. In Chatham and Aylesford and Gillingham and Rainham, UKIP came third, whilst their success in Rochester and Strood was undone, as Kelly Tolhurst was able to regain the seat for the Conservatives. Nationally, only one MP was elected for UKIP.

In the 2015 local elections, UKIP won 22.8% of the votes across Medway, coming third behind Labour on 24.5%. Had they stood candidates in every ward in Medway, it is likely they would have come second overall. The party came second in many wards, but only took four seats: two in Peninsula and two in Strood South.

They lost their first councillor within days, as Mark Joy resigned from the party when Nigel Farage “un-resigned” as leader. Cllr Joy later joined the ruling Conservative Group.

Shortly before the EU referendum in 2016, voters in Medway had the chance to vote for Kent’s Police and Crime Commissioner. While the Conservatives topped the poll overall, in Medway it was UKIP which came first, with 29.9% of first preference votes.

Excitement over topping a Medway poll was short-lived. Later on in 2016, Catriona Brown-Reckless, wife of Mark Reckless, stood down from the council to take their two young children to live with Mr Reckless in Wales, where he had been elected as a member of the Welsh Assembly. Despite topping the poll in Strood South in 2015 and taking two of the ward’s three seats, they dropped into third place in the resulting by-election, their vote share falling from 38.6% to 25.5%.

The next by-election, just two weeks later, might have provided UKIP with some hope. Following the sad death of Councillor Mike O’Brien, they retained second place in Rainham Central, albeit with their vote share again dropping, this time from 21.6% to 16.4%.

If they did take heart from the result in Rainham Central, the 2017 general election must have brought them back down to Earth with an almighty crash. Their Medway-wide vote share dropped from 23.7% to just 4.9%, although with the squeeze on smaller parties that still left them in third place, and they even lost their deposit in Gillingham & Rainham. In Rochester & Strood, which they had won in 2014 with 42.1% of the vote and come a strong second in 2015 with 30.5% of the vote, their support plummeted to an abysmal 5.4%, barely enough to retain their deposit.

The Rochester West by-election in January did not bring much happier news. In 2015, UKIP came third in the ward achieving 20.3% of the vote, less than one percentage point behind second-placed Labour. Fast-forward to 2018, however, and the party found itself in last place, behind Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and even the Green Party, as their vote collapsed to a mere 4.1%.

Cllr Pendergast’s resignation today leaves UKIP with just one councillor in Medway: Cllr Roy Freshwater.

Cllr Freshwater, who also represents Peninsula ward, recently appealed for candidates to come forward for the party for May next year:

With Cllr Pendergast moving away from the party, Cllr Freshwater has one more space to fill if he wants a full slate of candidates. However, one would be forgiven for wondering whether it would make any difference.

After all, on their current trajectory, UKIP will be very lucky to retain the one councillor they have left. Any thoughts of increasing the size of the UKIP group on Medway Council must surely be pie in the sky.

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