Canterbury 2017: Why Labour Won
Max Stafford, PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University, sets the scene of Labour’s success in Canterbury in the 2017 general elections. For further discussion and analysis, come to our exciting public event featuring new MP Rosie Duffield and a panel of experts tomorrow, 5 October 2017, 5-7pm.
In the snap election of June 2017, there were a number of notable results which attracted considerable media attention. From Kensington to Mansfield, many of the results were as unexpected as the election itself. Perhaps, however, the most anomalous and surprising result was Labour’s win in Canterbury. New MP Rosie Duffield’s majority may be extremely slim (at just 187 votes) but this made the outcome no less notable.
In the months since, many commentators, politicians and academics have speculated as to precisely how this outcome was reached. From even a quite cursory review of these debates, one can pick out a range of alleged reasons and triggers.
First amongst these is (as with so many issues in contemporary British politics) a debate about the role that Brexit played in the campaign. When she shocked the political establishment by announcing the General Election, Theresa May justified her decision by saying that it was necessary in order to strengthen her hand in the forthcoming negotiations. This, alongside the United Kingdom being a country where the electorate still define one another as a Remainer or a Leaver, seemed to set the parameters for the election. Indeed, the choice in Canterbury itself was a stark one – a choice between three candidates (Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green) who campaigned for Remain and a forthright Leaver (Julian Brazier, the incumbent Conservative MP). This, then, gave a sense of distinct choice between alternative visions of Britain and the national future.
However, the Canterbury election proved that the 2017 General Election, despite how the Prime Minister pitched it, was about far more than Brexit. Perhaps the other most notable policy issue was about the future of the NHS in Canterbury, especially with regard to the fate of the local hospital. This issue was raised in hustings across the city, including at CCCU’s very own one just prior to Polling Day. In a country that is so beset by debates around large foreign policy questions, the flavour of the Canterbury election serves as a strong reminder that voters care passionately about the quality and future security of their local public services. On each Saturday of the General Election’s short campaign, Duffield’s team held a street stall on Canterbury High Street and voters were just as likely to see her wearing a badge asking them ‘I Care for the NHS! Do you?’ as they were one related to Brexit. Meanwhile, Brazier was left to try and defend a government whose response to the local NHS proposing closure of its urgent care centre seemed all-too-remote.
More person-specific issues were also a factor. The “rule-of-thumb” in British politics (and indeed other political systems) is that incumbency lends an advantage in an election. Brazier had successfully held the Canterbury seat since 1987 (when Margaret Thatcher fought her last campaign as Prime Minister). In that time, though his majority had fluctuated, Brazier held what was a strongly safe seat for the Conservatives. During this period, he managed to entrench a reputation as a very socially-conservative parliamentarian whose pro-Brexit and anti-abortion views were well-known.
In 2017, however, this reputation seemed to count very much against Brazier. One needed only to skim-read social media across a range of platforms to realise that Brazier’s record and seeming immovability had both alienated a wide cross-section of non-Conservative voters and also motivated these self-same citizens to poll for a different candidate. Added to this, the Conservative campaign in Canterbury seemed to double-down on people’s perceptions of the party as distant and taking the voters for granted. As someone who lived in a central Canterbury ward at the time of the election, I can personally recall seeing an ever-increasing sea of Labour posters but not a single one for Brazier. Likewise, whilst I received three leaflets from the Labour Party, the Conservatives delivered only their main General Election address. I was canvassed by Duffield’s campaign and frequently approached by members running their street stall. Not a single Conservative came to my door, nor did I ever see them out and about on the city’s busy High Street.
So, Duffield’s ability to tap into local political issues and use them to prick people’s passions, her campaign’s strong visibility and poor local Conservative organisation all combined to create a very localised set of circumstances that made the seemingly improbable possible. Yes, Brexit was an issue (with all parties addressing it as part of their national campaign, it could not fail to be). However, the Labour Party’s deliberate targeting of the so-called “progressive” (strongly Remain) vote, in a constituency that only narrowly backed Leave a year earlier, gave them a much wider appeal than in previous elections. UKIP’s pulling out of the race locally had been anticipated to hugely benefit the pro-Brexit Brazier. However, clearly, even with the increased electoral turnout, clearly a fair proportion of these voters (who, nationally, have often been Labour previously) gave their vote to Labour this time.
Questions remain, however. Some of them quite notable ones – and they will hopefully be addressed at our event this Thursday! Was the Labour victory more a product of Duffield’s appeal or a decaying of Brazier’s? How much did Labour benefit from a sizeable student population being resident at the time of the election (and did the party’s national rhetoric on tuition fees boost its appeal)? Can Labour hang on next time (whenever the election comes) and will the Liberal Democrats and Greens need to stand aside to enable this? Could a fresh Conservative candidate pull the rug out from under Labour? What does Duffield herself feel enabled her victory.
A shock election result. Many questions. Join us on Thursday to hear some answers!