Rochester reveals a left which lost its voice

You'd never know it, but we are living in left wing times. It's never been easier to talk about the malign influence of the financial sector on Britain's economy or the way privatisation is being used to remove people's control over public services.

That much was evident last night during the Rochester and Strood by-election debate on the BBC. In this contest, which is supposedly all about people's hatred for immigration and Europe, there were loud cheers for messages of support to migrants. The loudest applause was for the attacks on banks.

Labour candidate Naushabah Khan dutifully trotted out Ed Miliband's lines on immigration: longer transitional controls, no child benefits for those overseas, longer residency before qualifying for benefits – all policies which presumably have been focus grouped and polled into oblivion. She did so to a silent hall. Then she reminded the audience what immigrants had brought to our country and why we should treat the people we live alongside with respect. Suddenly her tone lost the mechanised patter of before and became confident and passionate. The audience clapped and cheered.

Khan, for what it's worth, is an excellent candidate. She speaks like something resembling a normal human, comes across as calm and reasonable and knows her facts. She was easily the most impressive person on stage.

Her reward is to be given no support by the Labour leadership, which has effectively allowed this seat to slide in the hope it will go Ukip and give David Cameron a headache. With as many as a third of Ukip voters in the by-election coming from the Labour ranks they are effectively validating their own supporters' decision to leave a sinking ship. It is cynical and pathetic. And it allows the right to own the national debate, with only the occasional whisper from Ed Miliband about how he doesn't like immigration either – a plain untruth which demeans him to say as much as it does us to have to hear it.

Kelly Tolhurst, right, the Tory candidate, debates with Naushabah Khan, left, the Labour candidate

Also on the panel was Clive Gregory, the Green candidate, who looked like he's strolled down from his living room wearing casual clothing. He was very good. When Mark Reckless attempted to blame immigrants for stagnant wages – the usual attempt by the hard-right to blame the weak for what the powerful have done to them – Gregory pointed out that wage stagnation began with the collapse of the banks. He's right. Median wages decoupled from productivity in around 2008. The audience erupted in support at the mere mention of banks. They were desperate for a political assessment which did not just ignore these titanic failures nor leave us to their mercy the next time it falls apart around us.

There was similar vocal support for attacks on the TTIP deal being negotiated secretly by the EU and the US, which would make it financially ruinous to get private providers out of the NHS. For those in Westminster – journalists, pressure groups and politicians alike – TTIP is a minority concern shared only by leftist campaigners. They are wrong. A union campaign and the widely-held quasi-religious devotion to the NHS make it a potent political issue for the public. It corresponds to the sense that corporate interests are insidiously taking control of public services, a concern which has been vindicated by the coalition's privatisation of anything it can get its hands on.

Of course, the Greens and Labour are not going to win, although Khan is good enough that she will probably be parachuted into a safer seat in 2020. Instead, Rochester and Strood is a battle between the Tories and Ukip. The Tory candidate is Kelly Tollhurst, a woman seemingly on the verge of a total emotional breakdown throughout the evening. Her every comment was angry, negative and spiteful. She competed with Reckless to be the most right-wing and she struggled to vocalise even basic facts or policies.

Beside her Reckless appeared like the very opposite of an insurgent. He is so dour he makes Gordon Brown look like a children's entertainer. He sat expressionless throughout, staring down, gulping down water and hating every minute of it. If this is the face of the people's army, it bears more than a passing resemblance to a boring Tory MP. He brought the stench of incumbency to a rebel ticket. His flip-flopping on Lodge Hill was brought up. His uselessness in fixing the disastrous failures at Medway hospital was mentioned. His support for Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms was highlighted, despite the fact he now apparently backs a private members bill by a Labour MP to prevent the privatisation of the NHS.

Mark Reckless shakes hands with party leader Nigel Farage after defecting to Ukip during the conference season

It is a testament to the confusion and surrender of the left that it cannot mount an effective campaign against such pitiful opponents.

At one point in the debate a middle-aged man in the audience angrily pointed out that the EU had never been audited. The host, clearly suspicious he was a Ukip stooge, asked if he supported any particular party. No, he replied, but after tonight he was most tempted to vote Green.

The public do not deal in politics in the left/right terms politicians and commentators prefer. For many people very right-wing policies on immigration and welfare sit comfortably with very left-wing ones on nationalisation and the financial services industry. But only one side ever gets heard. Only the frenzy over immigration and welfare is given a voice in the press and politicians' speeches.

Of course, the press leans heavily to the right, but that does not explain what has happened on its own. The left failed to make the case for its policies in a way people could understand and care about. It has not spoken clearly and simply or told emotionally engaging stories. That, in the most pernicious way imaginable, is what the right does on welfare and immigration.

The Tories have proved adept at this on welfare. Ukip proved adept at it on immigration. Miliband, for all his certainty of a social-democrat moment, has neither the bravery nor the determination to follow it through. Instead, he handed seats like Rochester and Strood to the right in a cheap political game. The local people deserved better.