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13 June 2017

In Canterbury, a divided electorate shows the new rift in British politics

The city's students turned out to deliver an historic win for Labour.

By Felipe Araujo

In a region unashamedly proud of its blue pedigree, a tinge of red has come to make a splash on the political landscape. Labour’s Rosie Duffield is now the MP for Canterbury, a city of 50,000 people in the far-south east of England, after ending Sir Julian Brazier’s 30-year tenure by a margin of less than 200 votes. It is the end of an era.

On the cathedral city’s high street, old ladies wear their best attire on their way to afternoon tea; sitting outside pubs with Shakespearean facades, young couples hold hands while sharing a bottle of wine. As the working day comes to an end, residents flock to the city’s river Stour to bask in the afternoon sun.

A day after Thursday’s elections, the divisions here reflect those that have shaken up British politics. On one side is a young, ethnically-diverse electorate who, saddled with student debt, chose to vote for a Labour Party which promised to scrap tuition fees. Brazier was the first to admit how that was key to his demise. 

“I think the largest factor was the very large number of students,” he said when conceding defeat. “They voted in very large numbers and in a large part, I think, because of the (Brexit) referendum result.”

Young people here — mainly students from the town’s two main universities — failed to turn up en masse for the Brexit vote. They didn’t let this opportunity pass them by.

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“Labour said they [are] gonna get rid of our [student] debt so I voted for them,” said 20-year-old University of Kent student Hannah Clemett. “Theresa May should resign now, she’s awful. All of her policies are xenophobic and unpleasant.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the older, and often wealthier Tory faithful are equally afraid of a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. They see the left as a menace to their way of life, its policies nothing more than hubris. In contrast, their confidence in Theresa May is rock solid. 

“Theresa May reminds me of Margaret Thatcher, and Thatcher was brilliant,” said pensioner Robin Paxman. “Corbyn was asked the other day where he was going to find the money for all the these things he wants to do and he wouldn’t answer. Now it turns out he is going to borrow a lot of money, billions of pounds, so I don’t understand how people can vote for the bloke.” 

One explanation for why people here voted for “the bloke”, can be found on the short train journey from London to Canterbury. The two cities are connected by a high-speed rail link which takes less than an hour. Pushed out by the capital’s obscene housing prices, many young families have chosen to make Canterbury their home.

 “The demographics are changing, you can feel it,” said 37-year-old Jeremy Macleod, a Canterbury resident for the past 15 years. ”That brings with it people from different class backgrounds and that must have some sort of impact on voting patterns.”

Macleod, a boatman on the city’s famous river, was never an ardent Labour voter himself, always choosing to go with the Greens instead. Then Corbyn came along.

“Everyone I know has voted Labour for the first time in Canterbury,” he tells me. “There’s a vibrance in politics that just didn’t exist for most of the time I have been here.”

And yet, for all the new found excitement in politics, people here might get more than what they bargained for. Having failed to win an outright majority, the  Conservatives are set to form a coalition with the DUP.

“That’s crazy,” Jeremy exclaims while taking me for a punt ride on the river. “To go into a coalition with people who are against homosexuality, against abortion even for victims of rape. That’s the last thing I want.”

A  new government is still to be formed, and if Theresa May fails to win the confidence of her party, a new election looms. Excitement in Canterbury is slowly but surely giving way to fatigue. 

“I just want them to get on with it,” my taxi driver told me. “There is more to life than Brexit. Someone needs to run the country.”

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