In a monumental turn of events, the 2017 general election saw Canterbury elect Labour’s Rosie Duffield as its MP with a majority of 187, ending almost two centuries of Conservative and Conservative-allied rule. The campaign to hold the seat in 2019 has been built on the appeal of Duffield’s pro-Remain stance to a constituency that voted to stay in the EU at 54 percent. Should this strategy fail to peel away Europhilic Lib Dems in the numbers needed to deliver another majority, the question, come Friday morning, will be whether a broader alliance could have been formed by more heavily pitching the transformative policies of Labour’s manifesto at a local level.
Duffield’s success back in 2017 was attributed to Canterbury’s significant student population and draft of new voters, as well as the Corbyn insurgency with its activist base and Duffield’s position on Brexit. A similar confluence is possible again in 2019 but far from certain.
Both Duffield and members of the Constituency Labour Party’s Executive Committee have talked down the importance of the student vote, but it will undoubtedly play a major part on Thursday. The city’s three universities – Kent, Canterbury Christ Church and the University for the Creative Arts – contribute between 30,000 and 40,000 people to a constituency totalling 160,000. Both the institutions themselves and Labour Students, the official student wing of the party, have pushed voter registration and, despite initial fears over the timing of the election, polling day will fall within term-time and many students will be present to cast their ballot. Then there are over 2,700 younger voters stepping into the election booth for the first time and research by the Intergenerational Foundation suggests that just a ten percent increase in turnout between ages 18-34 will disproportionately favour Labour.
Many students have of course been drawn to the party by the Corbyn project, as has a raft of devoted activists who in 2017 pounded asphalt and earth alongside community and existing party campaigners. The Canterbury district includes not only the city itself but also the harbour-town of Whitstable, along with the Momentum-made inroads through historic urban rural divide, which came about through canvassing some of the long-held Tory villages for the first time. In a piece of mythology from the night of the count, witnesses recall that then MP for Canterbury Julian Brazier first began to fear for his 30-year-long rule when he was told he had lost Littlebourne, a parish in the ward of Little Stour and Adisham that forms part of a Conservative orbital around the city.
All about Brexit.
The leaflets and letters being distributed by campaigners in 2019 bill Duffield as the Remain candidate and reveal the wager made by her campaign team that Brexit is the constituency’s bankable electoral feature. It’s possible they are right. Canterbury did vote to stay in the EU in 2016 and, even though Conservative candidate Anna Firth is standing as the only Leave candidate (since the Brexit Party are not standing in the seat), there are signs that a coalition of Remainers might have been forged. A cross-party group called “Remainers for Duffield” has been campaigning in Canterbury for a tactical vote, with former Conservative candidate Joe Egerton vocally supporting Duffield (under the hashtag #ToriesForRosie).
Liberal Democrat candidate Tim Walker took the decision to stand down in mid-November to avoid dividing the Remain vote. “I don’t trust Corbyn on Brexit,” he explained in a piece in The Guardian, “but I share with many members of my party locally a visceral dread of the Commons being filled with people like Firth.” With such a small margin in Canterbury, “the nightmare that kept me awake was posing awkwardly at the count beside a vanquished Duffield as the Tory Brexiter raised her hands in triumph. I wanted no part in that.” Lib Dem HQ has unsurprisingly decided to field another candidate, Claire Malcolmson, but anecdotal evidence from the doorstep suggests their voters might be falling in behind Labour. Neither Malcolmson nor Firth are from Canterbury, leaving Duffield as the only local candidate from the major parties.
It’s worth pointing out that Duffield’s campaign has not focused exclusively on Brexit. Conversations on the doorstep do not follow a script and the reopening of Kent and Canterbury Hospital’s A&E, funding for schools and police, along with the protection of local green spaces are also on the agenda. Over the last few years, Duffield has spoken to concerns about homelessness and rent and at recent hustings made cases for the prioritisation of social care and mental health provision.
But it’s also clear that Labour has lost Brexit voters in Canterbury. As one canvasser describes it: “I’ve been told by many people that they were traditionally Labour supporters but for the first time they don’t know or will vote for the Tories because there is no Brexit party candidate in Canterbury.”
A missed opportunity?
A campaign that sought to utilise the manifesto’s offer of a new withdrawal agreement and option to Remain as well as proposing something more substantive could retain some of this traditional support while also speaking to concerns that go beyond Brexit. Between 2013 and 2017, Canterbury had the fifth highest rate of deaths among the homeless in England and Wales and there was traction amongst the CLP structure for a campaign that addressed the crises of homelessness and affordability in the city and Whitstable.
The decision to focus on Remain instead has left a pronounced distance between the campaign and the transformative vision of the party’s manifesto. On Friday we will know if the axis of students, Corbynites and Europhiles was enough.
Louis Matheou is a PhD student in Philosophy.