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Could Remain pain in Canterbury cost Labour its only seat in Kent?

After one of the biggest election night surprises in 2017, the constituency in which Labour’s Rosie Duffield ended a century of Tory rule hangs in the balance.

With its mighty cathedral, abbey ruins and remnants of a Norman castle, the cobbled streets of Canterbury have historically paved the way for political upheaval. Within its Roman walls, rebuilt in the Middle Ages, the Kent city has seen the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in its cathedral in 1170, the scandals and squabbles of Geoffrey Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales that followed, and – two years ago – Labour ending a century of Tory rule.

Kent is a true-blue corner of England’s south-east, and, before the last election, Canterbury was no different. Kent’s MPs, its county council, and Canterbury city council were all Tory. Until 2017, that is, when a former teaching assistant called Rosie Duffield unexpectedly nabbed the constituency from the Conservative MP Julian Brazier, who had represented it for 30 years. 

While Kent had overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union, Canterbury city centre, along with the harbour town of Whitstable and the surrounding villages that make up the Canterbury constituency, voted Remain. Duffield is known for her anti-Brexit credentials, while Brazier, in contrast, was one of the leading Brexit campaigners. He was also known for his socially conservative views, particularly his opposition to equal marriage. It is thought that, along with an absent Tory campaign, it was a combination of Canterbury’s Remain supporters, younger voters, and local issues that delivered Duffield’s surprise victory.

Remainia

On the night of their surprise defeat, Conservative campaigners partly attributed the result to Canterbury’s student population. There are three universities in the city – Kent, Canterbury Christ Church, and the University of Creative Arts – and between 30,000 and 40,000 students live there.

“Everyone says ‘the students!’ as if they did something terrible,” laughs Rosie Duffield, who’s preparing for a day of doorknocking at the local Labour HQ.

Although she says students campaigning for her were “invaluable” and notes “queues around the block of uni to vote”, that “wasn’t the only story”.

“I stood as a Remain candidate – I think that we’re unique because we’re so close to the continent, Brexit’s going to affect us in ways it's not going to affect anyone else in the country,” she says.

Duffield used this rare stance in the context of Kentish politics to build “a coalition” of Lib Dem, soft Tory and Green votes – the people who found Brazier “out of step with the city and its growing diversity, with more and more people now who won’t tolerate homophobia and intolerance”.

Still, Duffield, who has lived in Canterbury for 22 years, never thought she’d actually win – telling her two sons it was impossible at the time. A wafer-thin majority of 187 means different conditions this time could change her fortunes. For example, the Brexit Party candidate decided to stand aside at the last minute, and there’s a Remain divide. The Liberal Democrats are still fielding a candidate even after their original choice, the journalist Tim Walker, stood down to avoid “dividing Remainers”.

“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,” he said of his decision. “I wanted no part in that.”

The Green Party has stood aside, however. When asked what her biggest challenge will be, Duffield says “the Remain vote possibly being split”, and communicating to Leave voters that “it isn’t just about Brexit”.

“It’s a big ask asking people to vote a different way, a different party, and I owe those people who did that last time an awful lot of gratitude,” she says. “Also it’s a democratic thing, isn’t it, that all parties should stand? So I’m not really in favour of forcing anyone to stand down.”

Labour pains

Yet Labour support appears precarious when I visit. “I’m not sure who I’ll vote for, because I voted Remain, and Labour’s policy on Brexit is a dog’s dinner,” says Kate Lovell, 65, a Labour member and retired council officer who’s lived in Canterbury for 30 years and is walking her schnauzer Cara along the bank of the river.

“They want another referendum, and another deal might not even happen – the policy is not attractive. Brexit and the election shouldn’t be joined up together like this,” she says. “It should be about austerity cuts, homelessness, and public services.”

She says the city is increasingly “geared towards young people and students”, which brings a “positive” culture to the city, but also “pressure on housing, massive rents and shitty landlords”.

Although Lovell is worried about rising homelessness and the cost of housing in the city, and agrees with “everything” Jeremy Corbyn says on such issues, she tells me “he ain’t going to win”.

“He doesn’t have the sufficient leadership or gravitas – he’s a backbencher and a fantastic campaigner but he’s not going to get elected – a lot of traditional Labour voters like me feel like that.”

The Labour leadership and its Brexit position can be an obstacle on the doorstep. When voters express uncertainty about Corbyn’s leadership, Duffield simply says, “he isn’t a candidate in Canterbury, you’re not voting for Jeremy in the area, you have to vote for your best local candidate – and he’s not that bad, really! He’s really not that bad a chap!”

She tells me, frankly: “I don’t want to spend hours on the doorstep talking about someone who isn't standing in Canterbury… He’s a nice guy, you know. But I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, so I don’t want to try and ram him down people’s throats.”

Healthy debate

Other voters in the seat are in flux. Rose Hillier, 32, is a primary school teacher who’s been teaching here for ten years. She doesn’t know who she’ll be voting for.

Pushing her eight-month-old on a swing at a playground called Toddlers Cove, watched carefully by a fat seagull, she says her school is becoming increasingly mixed with pupils from families hailing from outer London, bringing “different attitudes politically” to the area, which she welcomes.

She is also concerned about local services. Urgent care provision was scaled back at Kent and Canterbury hospital, with the nearest A&E departments only available further away in Ashford and Margate. “When I had a baby, I had to go all the way to Ashford, so that is a negative change to the area,” she says.

“The hospital is the big thing people fight for – it’s really run down.”

Boris Johnson caused confusion and disappointment in October when he falsely promised Canterbury a new hospital – he had to row back after it turned out the city was not on the Tories’ list of new sites after all. Hillier also tells me the foodbank is busy, and that she has noticed more rough sleeping on Canterbury high street over the past five years. Yet her whole family “benefited from the grammar school system”, which she feels is close to voters’ hearts in Kent. The county still maintains the selective education regime – something the Conservatives are more sympathetic to than Labour.

“I don’t really know who to vote for, it’s got off to a bad start,” says Elizabeth Mulvaney, 59, who lived in Whitstable – the coastal part of the constituency – since 1985 and has just moved down to Canterbury.

While Canterbury is more student-focused, Mulvaney observes that the Whitstable area may be changing demographically in Labour’s favour too. “All of it is busier, Whitstable has changed with people coming from London, property prices are going up, there are fancy restaurants.”

She voted Conservative last time but is impressed with Duffield, having seen her speak about her own experience of domestic abuse in the Commons (Duffield says people mention this moment “every single day”). She would also like the option to vote Green and doesn’t understand why the party won’t appear on the ballot paper – electoral pacts and Remain/Brexit alliances can potentially be confusing to voters.

“Julian Brazier is a fairly foggy idiot,” she says. “My perception of him is he didn’t do very much.”

“It’s like he felt he owned it and he’d just keep winning,” adds Hillier.

The Tory candidate, Anna Firth, tells me part of the problem for her party last time was that the Conservative campaigners in Canterbury “were all sent elsewhere in 2017 – they were sent to neighbouring seats”.

She’s “not convinced” the student vote made the difference either, and blames a chaotic campaign and unpopular manifesto – which “changed the reception we were receiving overnight on the doorstop to people shouting at us that we were taking away their houses”.

Feeling “upbeat” that the Lib Dems are standing, and benefiting from a reversal of what she calls the “absolutely crazy, totally illogical” decision for the Brexit Party to stand its only Kent candidate here, she says her biggest challenge will be getting around enough doors.

Firth’s big pitch is to make Canterbury a “centre for medical innovation”. A new medical school is opening next year. But this means drawing attention to Johnson’s “slip of the tongue” about that mythical new hospital, and to the state of the hospital after nearly a decade of Conservative government.

“There’s buckets in the corridors and they have electrical faults from time to time, the air conditioning breaks down,” she says. “Obviously it’s unacceptable for the medical practitioners who are working so hard not to have good facilities, but it's also a risk to patient care.”

Rosie Duffield, meanwhile, keeps fighting the sometimes lonely fight of the only Labour MP in Kent.

“In parliament, I hear MP after MP talking about the prosperous southeast and how we’re really well-off – god, we’re not,” she says, describing child poverty in the deprived ward where she used to work at a school.

“We’ve got pockets of wealth like everywhere else, but there aren’t that many great jobs in the city, people have to commute to London, they have to weigh up whether they can afford their train fare, housing is very expensive here,” she says. “People are moving out from London to live here, but also being priced out.”

Views beyond Brexit will determine what kind of tale Canterbury tells on election night. “There is all to play for,” says Duffield. “You cannot predict what’s going to happen, and I like that because it is a challenge.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.