Canterbury is a city steeped in history. An idyllic patchwork of winding cobbled streets, stuffed with crooked buildings and old pubs, overlooked by city walls dating back to Roman times. The city centre is a bustling hive of activity and a Christmas-themed brass band busk in the high street as I walk down it with Labour’s Rosie Duffield.
Rosie is stopped by several residents on our way to the street stall. One eagerly reports that he has 360 degree coverage of Labour posters on his house. Another two wish her luck for Thursday. Someone bibs their horn and waves to her. It all feels very positive as we reach a group of volunteers struggling to hold down a festively decked out street stall in the intense wind.
The picturesque city used to be part of a blue sea of Kent Tory seats – a solidly safe, true-blue bit of Conservative heartland. It consistently returned Conservative MPs for over 100 years. Until 2017, when Labour pulled off a huge electoral upset to overturn a near 10,000 vote majority and win it by a margin of just 187. And now this tight marginal must be held by a Labour Party reliant on the support of Remain areas.
Analysis of the surprise result at the last election largely focused on the student vote in the city. Students do make up a significant chunk of the population, with over 40,000 between the three universities that call Canterbury their home. But Rosie suggests this factor is overplayed: “Yeah it was important, but not quite as important as the press made out – it wasn’t the defining factor. I think Brexit had a much bigger part to play than anyone else understood.”
As someone not from Kent, the idea that Brexit worked in Rosie’s favour seems strange. The county is well-known as a UKIP heartland, having voted 59% to Leave in 2016 and with Nigel Farage having nearly won the nearby South Thanet seat in 2015. But Canterbury is different. Nearly 55% voted Remain in 2016, and Rosie says there is a strong connection to Europe felt in her constituency: “We’re closer to the continent than we are to many English cities. So they really are our friends and neighbours here. I’ve got constituents that commute over to France, for goodness’ sake. And our university is called the European university.”
The campaign here certainly has a strong Remain vibe to it: “We’ve got like two or three EU nationals in the office every day now,” Rosie says. As we chat by the street stall, she introduces me to one volunteer who has travelled from Germany to campaign for her. She also mentions other friends from Europe who’ve come to help, and tells me about the various Green, Lib Dem and even Tory residents backing her campaign as the pro-EU candidate.
“Some friends have set up Remainers for Rosie, a cross-party initiative. And there’s Lib Dems for Rosie badges, and Tories for Rosie badges. There’s been Greens… I think they’re supporting me mostly because really they know my Remain stance is consistent and, you know, I’ve marched with these guys for years for a People’s Vote.” Gina Miller is supporting her, and Lib Dem candidate Tim Walker stood down to back Rosie last month to avoid splitting the pro-EU vote. He’s since been replaced but Rosie explains to me that the local Lib Dems are largely either not campaigning or have chosen to back her.
But will this be enough? 4,561 people voted for the Lib Dems in 2017, and another 1,282 went with the Greens. If Rosie can garner some of this support while retaining what she gained in 2017, she should be safe. But with a majority of 187, anything can happen. A small dip in turnout among Labour supporters on the day would prove damning.
400 people came to the launch with Owen Jones last month, and she’s regularly been getting 30 people show up for campaigning sessions. A lot of Labour members seem to be coming from other areas as well – at least eight of the campaigners I met outside the station that morning when I arrived were from London. Rosie says people from various groups pro-EU groups are sending volunteers her way including More United, Labour for a Public Vote and People’s Vote. She also tells me about another group called Canterbury for Europe, a “cross-party activist group”, that is supporting her.
It’s clear that Rosie’s pro-EU stance and the Remain forces in the city have shaped her campaign. And they’ll be crucial on Thursday. Every little bit of support will be needed to turn out every last Labour vote in Canterbury. Rosie is hopeful. Tactical voting will be important and, as she says: “This is still a Remain constituency.”