Why Labour won Canterbury and Whitstable in 2017

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Rosie Duffield was elected Canterbury and Whitstable MP in June

Exactly a year ago this week Labour’s Rosie Duffield pulled off one of the shock results of the 2017 general election. Canterbury Journal columnist and Labour Party member Dave Wilson explores how it happened.

There are 25,572 reasons why Rosie Duffield won the general election on June 8th last year. That’s not the size of her majority: just the number of people who made it to the polling station to put their cross down against her name.

Shock election results don’t yield to simple analysis. Indeed, if it was easy to explain then it might well have been foreseen, which it wasn’t.

Of course, like all successes this one has many fathers, all of whom want to share the glory, but if we are honest we know that nobody predicted that result.

Myths rapidly spread about this election. That’s not least because the losers, who had spent much of the election campaign elsewhere on the assumption that Sir Julian Brazier was safe, were looking for ways to excuse their inadvertent loss of the seat.

In the immediate aftermath of the election they decided it was the students that had swung it. There was no evidence for that at the time, and less now, but it gave them a nice alibi.

Former Canterbury MP Sir Julian Brazier

Crikey, they said, those pesky students might even have voted in two constituencies! Again, no proof was ever offered for this…well, to call it a hypothesis would be stretching it, so let’s just call it wishful thinking on their part.

Since jumping to conclusions isn’t going to reveal anything, perhaps we all ought to take a breath and think a bit more carefully about what did go on, and who made it happen.

To begin with, there was the candidate herself, as featured in an interview on this site a couple of weeks ago.

To describe Rosie Duffield merely as different to Sir Julian would be to miss several key elements of her attraction to voters: a genuine voice, a real person, approachable, affable, and in all respects not a politician as most people think of them.

Rosie was no party hack, and indeed apart from being a part of the Jo Cox mentorship programme, had little or no training prior to the election.

She was also the only woman on the ballot, and the youngest of the candidates. Thus she was immediately identifiable as not one of the usual suspects.

Sir Julian, on the other hand, was exactly the usual suspect. Well known for his views, at odds with his constituents over Europe in particular, but also with a range of opinions on social issues which, at best, can be described as illiberal.

It is in many ways odd that in this increasingly diverse district, with two universities and a rapidly changing demographic, he survived for so long.

James Flanagan stood for the Lib Dems in 2017

That alone doesn’t explain why people actually voted for Rosie Duffield though.

The Liberal Democrats, for example, had been running their usual evidence-free “only we can beat the Tories” campaign, as they had in the county elections only four weeks previously (and which they’ll doubtless give another run-out in 2019).

In those May elections for KCC they garnered more votes than Labour across the constituency.

While Labour came second in most of the County divisions it failed to win a single county council seat in the district, or grow its vote share much either.

Both the Lib Dems and Greens had good young candidates, with strong name recognition for ex-city councillor James Flanagan and a passionate advocate for green issues in Henry Stanton.

But for all that, both their shares of the vote fell sharply between May and June. What was going on?

The universities were therefore an obvious first place to look for those extra Labour votes. After all, both universities were in recess in May, but many students were back in the city by early June. Did they make the difference?

The Green Party’s Henry Stanton

To examine this we have to do something all political parties do, but which sounds quite odd.

Simply, when the ballot boxes are emptied at the count, the parties try to do sample counts of the votes as the papers tumble out and are sorted, to assess which polling boxes, and thus polling districts, were a good source of their votes.

That rough count data is useful for future campaigning.

On this occasion, though, it immediately revealed that something strange was happening: Labour was performing well across the whole constituency, not just in the city wards.

The first indication of what was happening came in Westgate, where there was a city by-election.

The swing to Labour there was huge, and the Tories at the count immediately broke out in a cold sweat. Indeed, this previously Tory and Lib Dem ward had gone massively for Labour’s Simon Warley.

When the Parliamentary count began, even Tory strongholds like Chartham and Littlebourne produced strong tranches of Labour votes.

So at that point we can discount the idea that this was just a student uprising. To further support the idea that this was much more widespread, you only had to look at the number of Labour placards and posters that were visible in the city. Whitstable was covered in them too, as were the main roads between there and the city, and out in the villages.

MP Rosie Duffield addresses the Pride throng after her victory last year

There is no single reason for this. There is no question that some of the enthusiasm for Labour was driven by the national campaign of Jeremy Corbyn and the return of real Labour policies to the manifesto – things that we’ve stood for since at least the mid-1980s were brought to the fore as commitments.

As a result, volunteers for the Labour cause poured out to support canvassing, leafleting and campaigning on our High Streets.

Labour people made direct personal contact with more voters than on any recent election, helped to flood the area with leaflets, worked on street stalls and in all sorts of other ways, including fund-raising.

So there was a surge of support based on national issues but embodied in Rosie Duffield’s candidacy. But for all that, remarkably the actual number of votes cast for Julian Brazier was higher than in the 2015 election. Therefore to win Rosie Duffield had an even higher hurdle to clear. How did she do that?

Firstly, she generated massive personal enthusiasm from Labour activists and supporters because she was local and known to the Party – she was “our” candidate.

In addition, she worked extraordinarily hard throughout the campaign and was evident at many meetings and events across the constituency.

She was well supported by a campaign team which built on the 2015 election experience which had established the party as the real local challenger to the Conservatives.

The social media campaign had a massive reach across the constituency backed up by the traditional leafleting and door-knocking campaigns.

This modern, multi-strand approach in support of a very likeable and approachable candidate made its impact. On polling day, there were unprecedented queues at polling stations, tons of volunteers to help with the day’s activities, and a real buzz of excitement in the air.

After running many elections I have never known such a large proportion of people who had promised to vote for Labour actually turning out.

By 9pm, with an hour still to go, we knew we’d won the Westgate by-election. What no-one knew was that we were winning the parliamentary seat as well. I went home, got a beer, and sat down to watch the results come in.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Alex Claridge’s analysis of last year’s Canterbury and Whitstable election will appear tomorrow.

1 COMMENT

  1. The next GE’s going to be great! Labour and Tories fighting to the limit over a tier 1 marginal seat. Big wigs and battle busses from both parties parachuting in. Everyone claiming the credit for a new hospital/medical school. And the rest of us get a free hit.

    We should use this as an opportunity to get some solid manifesto commitments from each party, all the way from the top, and specific to Canterbury. Affordable housing, sustainable social care, transport costs, they’ll have to promise the lot to get votes and will be expected to deliver.

    I’ll get the popcorn…

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