Canterbury: the gritty electoral battleground in the Tory heartlands

The resignation of Tim Walker – Canterbury’s Liberal Democrat candidate for the 2019 general election – is just the tip of the iceberg of the complex political battle current raging in this historical city in the heart of the garden of England.

Canterbury voted in favour of remaining in the European Union in 2016. Over 60% of Canterbury’s population voted not to leave the EU and both of it’s Universities, including the University of Kent that boasts the moniker of being the UK’s ‘European university’, openly support remaining in the Union.

While this would appear to be an advantage to Rosie Duffield, who has always vocally supported remaining in the Union, her own party’s neutral position over Brexit could cost her votes. While Tim Walker has stepped down in Canterbury, the Liberal Democrats have told Channel 4 that they still plan to run a candidate in Canterbury, potentially leeching support from the Labour MP. They have  chosen an ex-councilor to run called Claire Malcolmson. Vote shares for Canterbury predict the Liberal Democrats to gain 23% of the City’s vote, giving the Conservatives a comfortable lead of 6% on Labour. However, if just 30% of Canterbury’s remain population voted ‘tactically’ – voting irrespective of party line and focusing on a candidate’s Brexit stance – then the scales could be tipped in favour of a Labour win.

However, understanding the difficult position Rosie Duffield is currently in requires context on Canterbury as a constituency, and what makes Canterbury such a difficult city to predict in the 2019 election.

Before 2017, most election polls predicted a comfortable win for the Conservatives, making Canterbury a certain ‘safe’ seat; one that has been held by a Conservative for almost it’s entire 100-year existence. In 2017, the Tory frontman Sir Julian Brazier was looking to shore up his considerable majority in the city – a majority he had held his entire 25-year career as an MP. In 2015, Sir Brazier won by a 42% majority, beating his nearest competitor by over 9000 votes.  

The Tories were confident, given the constituencies location in the heart of Kent, they were further reassured when Brazier’s opponent was announced: an ex-teaching assistant with no prior Parliamentary experience, Rosie Duffield. Duffield’s prior popularity in the Labour Party was scarce. Her political experience was limited to an unsuccessful run for the council in 2015, as well as her work as a political satire writer.

Labour’s gains in the 2017 election surprised pundits across the political spectrum, and Canterbury was no different. With a majority of just 187 votes, Rosie Duffield beat the incumbent Julien Brazier to become Canterbury’s MP. After conceding defeat, Mr Brazier blamed Canterbury’s invigorated student population for the shock win.

On a national scale, the student vote appeared to factor heavily into Labour’s success, with reports estimating that almost 90% of the student population eligible to vote registered in the election, with a further 55% of students backing Jeremy Corbyn’s Party.

Since 2017, Rosie Duffield has cemented her place in Labour Party politics, becoming the Secretary to the Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and serving on several Parliamentary committees. In 2018, Duffield demonstrated her commitment to staying in the European Union by being one of 6 frontbench MPs to resist a Labour whip to abstain from voting to remain in the EU single market after Brexit, precipitating her exit from the shadow cabinet.

In late 2019, she made further headlines after a speech on her experiences surviving and overcoming domestic abuse during a hearing on Theresa May’s domestic violence bill – a speech which moved the Commons to tears.

Duffield also took a very vocal stance on antisemitism in the party, admitting to reporters in 2018 that Labour did have a ‘problem’ with antisemitism, leading to condemnation from Canterbury Council’s Labour chairman. Ms Duffield has shored up her meteoric rise in leftwing politics and in just two years has made herself into one of the Labour Party’s rising stars.

But her competition this year will be difficult.

Sir Brazier’s favourite was elected his successor to become Canterbury’s Conservative candidate – a veteran of local politics, Anna Firth. Firth is an ex-barrister, Councilor, and ran for the European Parliament in 2017. The avowed Brexiteer gained local infamy in October when she shared a video with Boris Johnson, promising a new hospital was being created in Canterbury, a hospital that, it was later revealed, did not even appear in the government’s plans. Firth’s highly pro-Brexit stance has led to a deep affinity with Boris Johnson and other hardline Conservative Brexiteers – an affinity which may resonate with voters in the traditional Tory heartlands.

Canterbury will serve as an important litmus test for the 2019 general election, with all of the major frontrunning parties fielding hopeful MPs. Whether Canterbury remain supporters are willing to put party allegiance aside and vote strategically to stop Firth’s election, however, is beyond prediction.