Rosie Duffield’s victory over longstanding Conservative parliamentarian Julian Brazier in 2017 was momentous in a number of ways. Rosie was the first ever Labour candidate to win in Canterbury. As part of Jeremy Corbyn’s labour party her victory represented a small but significant vindication of the party’s move to the left. But it also showed that the Conservative’s pursuit of Brexit at all costs could end up costing them their majority in parliament.
Fast forward to 2019 and another election. This time the Conservatives enter the election with a Brexit deal on the table. They have tied their campaign very tightly to Brexit, arguing that a Conservative majority is now the only way to realise Brexit.
Exit polls suggest that this strategy has paid off handsomely across the country. As I write Workington in the north, regarded by many as a key bellweather has been taken by the Conservatives.
But not so in Canterbury. At around 2.35am, amid a hubbub of expectant voices, the result came in. Rosie Duffield had again defied the national picture to provide the left with a beacon of hope. She had left it late to arrive at the count but it was an amazing result – not only had she won but she had also increased her majority.
It had gone 3am when I asked Rosie what her main ambitions were for the forthcoming parliament. She explained that she would continue to fight against Brexit though she admitted that “that ship might have sailed!”. And she emphasised her commitment to the doctors and nurses of the East Kent Hospitals Trust. Rosie was understandably worried about the fate of her Labour friends and colleagues around the country as news of Conservative gains filtered in. “Parliament is like being at boarding school’, Rosie explained, “and good friends are important!”. I asked her why she had managed to go against the national swing towrds the Conservatives. “It seems like the Labour party is changing”, she said, “away from the Brexit-voting industrial heartlands and towards constituencies like Canterbury with a growing population of DFLs (Down from Londoners).” No doubt, she has a point but it will be interesting to see whether the north swings back to labour once Brexit gets done.
Liberal Democrats on the Retreat
One of the other plotlines that played out tonight is the strange position of the Liberal Democrats in Canterbury. In 2010 the Liberal Democrat candidate, Guy Voizey placed a creditable second behind Brazier. The party also consistently performs well at local government level here. However, the party’s share of the vote in national votes declined dramatically in both 2015 and 2017 and it is now widely accepted that Duffield and Labour now represent the best choice for those intent on keeping the Conservatives out and by extension stopping Brexit. It was hardly surprising, therefore, when local Lib Dem candidate Tim Walker decided to stand down in a bid to avoid splitting the “remain” (i.e. anti-Tory) vote. What did raise eyebrows was the subsequent decision of Liberal Democrat HQ to parachute in another candidate, Claire Malcomson, to stand in Walker’s stead.
Speaking to Claire in the Westgate Hall with the count in full swing behind us, I asked her how about the response of the local party to her candidacy. “Mixed!” was here honest reply, “but I think I won some of them over in the course of my speech at the local AGM”. As for her response to the exit polls, Claire echoed the disappointment that many progressives were feeling. She has a progressive political outlook and is, in her own words, “very green”. But, no doubt, Claire is in an awkward position – on the one hand, clearly very proud to be standing for the first time as a parliamentary candidate but on the other, very aware that, there is no room for a three horse race in a first past the post system.