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In polarised Canterbury, Labour hopes for another anti-Brexit student wave

The River Stour runs through the centre of Canterbury which hosts three universities and a student population largely responsible for unseating the town's former Tory MP.
The River Stour runs through the centre of Canterbury which hosts three universities and a student population largely responsible for unseating the town's former Tory MP. Tom Wheeldon

Canterbury was the archetypal safe Tory seat until 2017, when a tsunami of student votes elected a Labour MP here for the first time ever. But it seems she will have a fight on her hands ahead of the December 12 elections, as a split in the anti-Brexit vote threatens to give the Conservatives the upper hand.

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Centred on its majestic cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Church, this ancient city is the most well-known town in Kent, the south-eastern corner of England where Tory MPs sail to re-election with huge majorities.

However, it is also a student city – and in the 2016 referendum young people voted overwhelmingly against Brexit, the flagship policy of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

Canterbury hosts three universities, including that of Kent, which styles itself as “the UK’s European university”; 35,000 students live there for most of the year. In the previous few elections, turnout was low among young people. Then in the first polls after the 2016 Brexit referendum, the sleeping giant of the student vote awoke, unseating Sir Julian Brazier – arch-Brexiteer and Canterbury’s Tory MP for three decades – and putting Labour’s Rosie Duffield in his place with a majority of just 187.

‘We feel European’

Since becoming Canterbury’s first-ever Labour MP, Duffield has shown her stripes as a pro-European. While the party’s hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, was maintaining an ambiguous stance on Brexit, Duffield resigned from his shadow ministerial team in June 2018 to try to force Theresa May’s government to keep Britain in the single market – the softest Brexit option –  in defiance of Corbyn’s insistence that MPs abstain on the issue.

A supporter of Labour's Rosie Duffield brandishing a 'Remainers for Rosie' badge.
A supporter of Labour's Rosie Duffield brandishing a 'Remainers for Rosie' badge. Tom Wheeldon


For some, Duffield’s anti-Brexit stance and independence from Corbyn play exceedingly well. “Rosie just wants to us to remain in the EU,” enthused one Canterbury resident wearing a “Remainers for Rosie” badge, who preferred to remain anonymous because she is on the committee of a local civic society organisation, alongside many ardent Conservatives. “Rosie does what she thinks, and has very reasonable policies, not like the wilder fringes of Labour,” she said.

Also wearing an EU flag badge, this avid Duffield supporter was keen to add that, in a city located much closer to the continent than it is to most parts of the UK, “there are lots of us here who take the train across to France for lunch or dinner and come back the same day, so of course we feel European just as much as we feel British”.

Kate Docking, a PhD student at the University of Kent, expressed a similar view of Duffield as a Europhile who won’t take orders from Jeremy Corbyn.

“For me, Brexit is probably the biggest priority, even though some politicians keep saying this election’s about other issues. My personal beliefs do align more with the Lib Dems, especially their policy on Brexit,” Docking said.

“But I intend to vote Labour because I’m quite adamant not to have a Tory MP here, and because there’s not really much point in voting Lib Dem in Canterbury – and also because I tend to see it more in terms of what Rosie Duffield thinks, as opposed to the broader Labour party,” she added.

Lib Dem ‘disgusted’ by Labour tactical voting drive

The centrist Liberal Democrats have a forthright anti-Brexit policy: to revoke Article 50 and thereby stay in the EU without a second referendum.

For his part, Corbyn committed Labour to another plebiscite on the issue after months of pressure from senior shadow cabinet members. But he added to suspicions that he is a closet Brexiteer by announcing that he would be “neutral” in any such vote.

The majestic Canterbury Cathedral is the seat of the Anglican Church.
The majestic Canterbury Cathedral is the seat of the Anglican Church. Tom Wheeldon


“I’ll be voting Liberal Democrat,” said Adam, a young former district councillor. “I was frankly disgusted by Labour being out in Canterbury saying if you’re thinking about voting Lib Dem vote for us. That’s someone trying to keep their seat because they know they only marginally got it last time because of a student push, which they could easily lose if people actually vote with their heart.”

“People say you should vote for the party, not the man, but how can you when Corbyn has been a Eurosceptic his whole life?” he added.

Other would-be Lib Dem supporters have argued that it is necessary to vote for Duffield in Canterbury to ensure that a pro-European wins the seat. None other than the Liberal Democrat candidate, Tim Walker, voiced such a concern. Consequently, he stood down, writing in The Guardian newspaper that “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” – although the Lib Dems have since put up another candidate.

‘We want our country back’

Indeed, there are many Conservative voters in Canterbury who are determined to push their candidate over the line.

One woman out for lunch out in the city – living in one of the deeply Tory villages outside the city but within the constituency – said passionately: “I’m voting Conservative because Jeremy Corbyn is a communist who loves terrorists. And because of Brexit: we need to get out (of the EU) so we can make our own decisions and cut immigration. We want our country back.”

Another Conservative voter put forward a more nuanced argument for Brexit, but was no less forthright about his desire for a Tory majority. “I think we need to leave the EU because it’s a sclerotic organisation that is incapable of being reformed from within,” said the retired journalist and lifelong Canterbury resident. “We need a clear mandate at this election, otherwise the Brexit issue will drag on and on.”

Docking described this divide between progressive, pro-EU students and traditional Tory voters as a “massive problem” in Canterbury, with “people resenting the fact that students are here”.

When Duffield won in 2017, “there was a backlash because the election was held in term time, so students could vote in Canterbury”, she said.

However, the 2016 Brexit referendum took place outside of term time, meaning that the overwhelming majority of students were back at home and therefore couldn’t vote in Canterbury. The seat voted Leave by 51 percent.

In light of that, Duffield may well be thankful that the University of Kent’s term ends on December 13, as she campaigns for the December 12 vote.

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