VIDEO: From single mum to MP: The astonishing ascent of Rosie Duffield

Canterbury and Whitstable MP Rosie Duffield speaking in the House of Commons (stock image)

In the run-up to the 2015 general election, Labour candidate Hugh Lanning took to the stage in a public speaking event at Canterbury Christ Church University.

A 1980s-style union bruiser straight out of central casting, Hugh used the evening to drone on about Palestine and told anyone concerned about immigration that they were racists.

It was uninspiring stuff.

A slide beamed on to a screen behind him carried the words: “Hugh Lanning: Canterbury’s first Labour MP?”

Was that so inconceivable – even if the constituency had been Conservative since the mid-19th century?

2015 candidate Hugh Lanning

The 2015 election, after all, was the one we were told would return a Labour government. It didn’t – and instead the Conservatives were able to ditch their erstwhile Lib Dem coalition colleagues.

Two years later and we were at it again, the political landscape of the country having been transformed by the vote to leave the European Union.

Theresa May’s snap June 8 election, we were told, would strengthen the Conservatives’ grip on power.

It didn’t as Labour made key gains – one of which was right here in Canterbury and Whitstable.

It was an extraordinary and historic occasion, unforeseen by virtually everyone – including the bookmakers and pollsters. They believed that Sir Julian Brazier, the sitting Conservative MP with 30 years under his belt, would ease to victory – especially as this ardent Brexiteer faced no challenge from Ukip which had decided not to stand.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the victory of Labour’s Rosie Duffield is one of the most extraordinary episodes of the entire 2017 election.

The Rosie Duffield story, however, does not start when she was elected on June 8, 2017. It starts when she was selected as Labour’s candidate precisely a year ago.

“No one expected the snap election, obviously” Rosie tells me as we meet in the Willows Secret Kitchen in Stour Street.

“I was planning to stand in 2020 just to see how that went. Canterbury was regarded as never winnable anyway so I thought this would be good practice for the future.

“Then the election was called quite a lot earlier so I thought I might as well do what I was thinking of doing anyway. I might as well have a go now.”

Canterbury and Whitstable Labour MP Rosie Duffield

With only about 20 hours left to go before the deadline for putting herself forward, Rosie applied to be the candidate. Another five other people also went for it.

The announcement she had been selected came and Rosie took to the campaign trail.

Unfamiliar with her, we soon learned she was a petite single mum to two boys who had been a teaching assistant, done some tv work and was pursuing a career in writing political comedy.

She looked and sounded very different to forgettable Labour candidates who had stood before her, to Hugh Lanning, to an oily tick called Alex Hilton parachuted in from London in 2005 and to the 2010 candidate Jean Samuel (who?).

Rosie injected tonic to a campaign pundits were nevertheless still convinced was a foregone conclusion. She was charming, funny, easy to talk to and looked younger than her 45 years. Never guarded, she sounded honest about everything. She talked – and still talks – like a human being, not a politician.

Midway through the campaign a shock poll emerged which suggested that far from being a one-horse race, Rosie was very much in with a shout.

We had got used to pollsters’ miscalculations in the past, but the bookies who are rarely wrong hadn’t changed their minds. I called Rosie up and asked her about the poll.

“This might actually be doable,” she told me. It wasn’t an arrogant boast. Rosie was out pounding the streets, she was talking to people, she sensed something was in the Canterbury air.

“People kept telling they were going to vote for me,” she says looking back to the campaign.

“They were telling me they were really excited there was a woman standing. They were happy there was someone younger. They were fed up and needed a change.

“I kept hearing that on the doorstep. I was thinking that they were just being really nice. But it was all really encouraging.

“Then there came a point towards the end of the campaign that I said to my boys ‘look, this is beginning to look possible’. They were really excited.

“I had to tell them not to get carried away. It’s never happened here, I said. It isn’t going to happen here. I said people are just saying that on social media and the polls are good, but it still isn’t going to happen.

“I just thought I really wanted to narrow the gap between us and the Conservatives, that we could mix things up and even scare Julian a bit, that’s what I really thought I’d be able to do. But then, well, something else happened.”

On June 9, 2017 Canterbury and Whitstable awoke to discover that it had its first Labour MP and its first female parliamentarian.

Rosie, ably helped by her campaign mastermind Mike Bland, had pulled off an unthinkable 187-vote victory.

MP Rosie Duffield addresses the Pride throng

So a year on how does she think this happened? Rosie muses and blows out her cheeks: “That’s the million dollar question.

“I think people really did notice there was a woman standing. I didn’t expect it to make that much of a difference, but it did.

“We also reached out to people in the villages and I think people just thought they were voting for change, for something different.

“I think the fact that I was from an ordinary background, that I was a single mum, helped. I’ve been in this area for 20 years so I knew a lot of the families in the schools I had taught in.”

By June 9 it wasn’t just the families, the people she had met campaigning and those who follow politics who knew her name: seemingly everyone did.

Amid scenes of raucous jubilation, she took to the stage of Canterbury Pride on June 10.

The thousands packed into the Dane John Gardens had just one thing on their lips: “Rosie! Rosie! Rosie! Rosie…!”

“It’s still fun, it’s still new and it’s still exciting and there’s all these things I want to do…but Westminster is weird…” Part 2 of the Rosie Duffield story will appear in the Canterbury Journal tomorrow when the MP reveals what local people’s number one issue is.


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