- Canterbury is one of the most talked about seats in this upcoming general election.
- Labour’s Rosie Duffield is defending a majority of just 187 after pulling off a shock win over the Conservatives in 2017.
- However, her mission to retain this cathedral city in the south-east of England has been made harder by the failure to agree a Remain alliance.
- Duffield expressed her frustration with Labour’s refusal to consider electoral pacts: “We are aligned in Parliament to other parties, so why can’t we do that in certain seats?”
- But she believes her local credentials could give her the edge on Thursday, December 12.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Rosie Duffield’s mission to be re-elected as the Labour Party’s member of Parliament for Canterbury has captured the interest of people across the United Kingdom.
Duffield defied the odds to take the seat from the governing Conservative party at the 2017 general election, by a slender majority of just 187 votes. In doing so she became the cathedral city’s first ever Labour MP.
A committed campaigner for a new referendum on Brexit, Duffield is a popular figure locally both among her own party activists and even those from the fellow pro-Remain Liberal Democrats.
The previous Liberal Democrat candidate Tim Walker stood aside for Duffield to make sure he did not “divide the Remainers” and help a pro-Brexit Conservative candidate to win back the seat.
However, to the consternation of pro-Remain campaigners countrywide and within the Lib Dems’ own constituency party in Canterbury, the national party intervened to replace Walker with another candidate.
The decision, which followed Labour’s refusal to join the Liberal Democrats in a nationwide electoral pact, means that Duffield faces a battle to hold onto the seat, with public support for Labour down across the country since 2017.
Speaking to Business Insider this week, Duffield said she was frustrated that the Labour Party did not at least consider entering an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats and other opposition parties in certain seats.
“It’s a real shame that we didn’t get around the table, especially after what happened at the snap election last time. We should have been a bit more prepared to at least talk about alliances,” she told Business Insider.
“Look at our First Past The Post system and a county like Kent, with a population of around 1.6 million and one opposition MP. Just one more opposition MP would be a bonus. Anyone opposed to Boris-Farage would be a bonus.”
Anti-Brexit campaigners were dismayed by the Liberal Democrats decision to challenge Duffield in Canterbury. However, Labour should take some of the blame too, Duffield told Business Insider.
“We are aligned in Parliament to other parties, so why can’t we do that in certain seats?”
The Liberal Democrats say they approached Labour earlier this year about the possibility of working together, but were swiftly rebuffed. Jo Swinson’s party is working together with the Greens and Plaid Cymru in 60 seats under an electoral deal brokered by Unite to Remain, with the aim of keeping Boris Johnson out of Downing Street and creating a parliamentary majority for a new referendum. Labour, however, is contesting every single constituency.
Duffield said: “There are certain seats where we [Labour] could have stood down and it is only right that we’d expect the Lib Dems to follow suit. But at the same time, why put pressure just on the Lib Dems?
“Especially locally, people always ask why we aren’t getting our act together.”
Duffield is clinging on doorstep by doorstep
Business Insider met Duffield in Whitstable, a seaside town on England’s south-east coast, around five miles from the city of Canterbury. Labour performed strongly here when Duffield caused a huge upset in 2017.
Whitstable has traditionally been a popular retreat for the retired, giving it an elderly population that is higher than the national average. However, in more recent years the harbour town has experienced an influx of young professionals, largely from London, significantly changing the demographics in the town. Local activists call them “DFLs” (down from Londons.) They are a key target group for the local Labour party.
Duffield and around half a dozen Labour activists canvassed a quiet residential area of Whitstable on Wednesday.
She told Business Insider that her campaign had been boosted by the help of local members of the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, who were putting party loyalties aside to ensure Canterbury elects an anti-Brexit MP.
“The local Lib Dems are my friends and people I’ve known for a long time… They don’t want [to elect] someone who doesn’t understand our feelings about why Brexit is so important to us as a community.”
Canterbury has attracted plenty of national attention but Duffield’s doorstep campaign focuses heavily on her local credentials. While canvassing Whitstable, she was keen to point out that she was “the only local candidate.”
Liberal Democrat candidate Claire Malcolmson lives over 70 miles away from Canterbury in the town of Dorking, where she is currently a councillor. Anna Firth, who hopes to win the seat back for Johnson’s Conservatives, lives over 40 miles away in Sevenoaks but is renting a cottage in Canterbury during the week.
“It does matter to people. They realise that those people don’t have a connection to here,” Duffield said.
“I’m disappointed because normally you’d have five candidates, all of them with local connections, and you’ll be fighting about policies. But if you genuinely don’t know how policies affect a community, it makes a huge difference.”
Firth, who describes herself as a moderate Brexiteer, has tried to be the Conservative candidate in four other seats since 2009. At the 2015 election she was the party’s candidate in Erith and Thamesmead but lost out to Labour.
“It’s one thing someone standing in a seat they’ve got no connection to, but to stand in several seats they’ve got no connection to and then tweet saying how much they love that area, it just doesn’t wash,” Duffield said.
“It doesn’t help politicians in general because it perpetuates the idea that they can’t be trusted and they must be liars.
“I have never considered standing in a seat other than my own. This is a place I know I love. I’ve lived here 22 years.”
Recent polling suggests Duffield could be on course to lose Canterbury in less than three weeks time. Her task has been made more dificult by the Brexit Party candidate’s decision to withdraw, likely handing more votes to Conservative candidate Firth.
The Labour candidate hopes her local profile will be enough to get her over the line on December 12.
On one doorstep, a Brexit voter said he intended to back Duffield, despite his reservations with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, partly because she helped his ill grandson retain the benefit payments he had stopped receiving. The man revealed he was once a neighbour of the father of Duffield’s parliamentary staffer who worked on the case.
Duffield’s team hopes local connections like this will give her the edge over her rivals in a contest of such fine margins.
Duffield admitted it was “really frustrating” to be having to scrap for her parliamentary life less than three years after first being elected to the House of Commons. “We have got so many cases that need dealing with which we are trying to manage while running an election. It’s really difficult,” she told Business Insider.
“In my dream way of thinking about this job, I’d have been here so much more.
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“We have been stuck in Parliament for so many more days than we imagined, and you end up cancelling lots of local things. It’s so annoying. I’d love it to be different — but we’ve got to sort Brexit out, one way or another.”
But she isn’t giving up Canterbury without a fight.
“Of course the Tories are trying really hard to get this back. But I don’t feel it’s a Conservative with a capital C area. I really don’t.”
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