On 5 October, 2017, the Politics and IR programme at Canterbury Christ Church University held its first Making Politics Matter event of the academic year, looking at one of the most surprising and interesting outcomes of the June 2017 UK General Election: The Labour victory in Canterbury. To find an answer to the question why Labour won Canterbury, we invited a panel of experts, featuring first and foremost the newly elected Rosie Duffield, MP for Canterbury and Whitstable. She was joined by Paul Francis (political editor Kent Online), Clare Connerton (Canterbury Not Conservative) and Ben Hickman (Momentum). Dr Ben Worthy (Birkbeck, University of London), expert on British politics and Canterbury resident, chaired the discussion.
As pointed out by Max Stafford in his blog post introducing the puzzle of Labour’s victory as well as by others, multiple factors can be put forward to explain this remarkable election result. Our panel discussion and Q&A with an audience of students, Labour (and non-Labour) supporters and the Canterbury and Whitstable public corroborated some of these but also provided interesting additional points:
- Politics is personal. In the GE 2017 battle of Canterbury, newcomer Rosie Duffield outfought her more experienced rival, Julian Brazier, who appeared to take the constituency for granted. In fact, we learnt from the audience that Brazier had ignored advice to step down in advance of the election. Duffield on the other hand was popular and visible, and presented herself as a distinctly different type of candidate from Brazier. By stressing LGBT rights, student finance, her pro-European stance and local healthcare needs she placed herself more in tune with a socially more diverse and demographically changed constituency.
- No one saw it coming. In an act of mea culpa, Paul Francis admitted the media did not see the result coming and had assumed Canterbury would remain solidly Conservative. Yet as Clare Connerton highlighted, there were signs and evidence on social media of a progressive stirring across the constituency – something was certainly going on at grassroots level. Labour may have noticed this as Emily Thornberry visited the constituency just before the election. Much of this may have been sparked by the preelection Yougov poll that showed a Labour surge in Canterbury and made it clear where the anti-Brazier vote should go.
- Boots on the ground. Labour, led by the local organising power of Momentum, campaigned vigorously and in areas such as the villages that previously received little or no Labour attention. Rosie was visible and active in the campaign, while Julian Brazier was largely absent and often deployed elsewhere in the region.
- Local is national. Focusing on healthcare and local issues hit a nerve in Canterbury and the national solutions in the Labour manifesto were utilised locally. In a wide range of policy areas, there was a very clear difference between the leading candidates, e.g. on LGBT issues, Brexit, student finance, education, housing, etc etc. This presented voters with a clear choice at local as well as at national level.
- Vote swapping. A successful progressive anti Conservative and anti-Brazier mobilisation played to Labour’s strengths. Hereby, social media appeared crucial in filtering information and networking from outside established party mechanisms.
- Brexit. Canterbury and Whitstable had a strong remain vote in the referendum. The choice was between a Remainer and a hard Brexiteer. UKIP not running a candidate to support Brazier actually harmed the Conservatives, rather than benefitted the local party, as it is likely to have driven Remainer Tories to the younger and more dynamic Remain candidate Rosie Duffield. With the Remain-supporting Liberal Democrats out of the picture, one clear Remain candidate could lead the charge in the constituency.
- A perfect storm. All of the above combined got Labour over the line, even though the total Tory vote went up the constituency. Turnout at 72 per cent was high by national and local standards and can certainly be attributed to the higher student vote. Yet as the debate showed, there were a range of other factors beyond the increased student vote led by a strong voter registration campaign and a favourable election date – during term time. The student vote alone cannot explain the 20 per cent jump in the Labour vote.
As always, we therefore have multiple factors in explaining a political phenomenon. But are there lessons we can learn from this result? Although Rosie Duffield has become a sought-after speaker for Labour groups across the country, the Canterbury story may not be easily replicated elsewhere, particularly in Kent as the Medway towns and Dover have strong Leave supporters to be wooed. Canterbury shows that well-organised and targeted local campaigns can be decisive. Voters are less attached to partisan loyalties and more volatile – likely to switch and swap votes. The Labour victory in Canterbury provided one of the defining moments of the June 2017 general election, demonstrating the highly unpredictable nature of our politics at present.
You can read tweets from the event via the hashtag #CCCUGE17
You can view a recording of the event’s livestream via our Facebook page and YouTube channel (see below):