Inside Labour’s energetic, well-drilled campaign to win back Kent targets

Morgan Jones
Photo: @Keir_Starmer

Keir Starmer is hoping his general election campaign ends in Downing Street. It started, however, last Thursday morning at Priestfield’s Football stadium in Gillingham, Kent. There with the Labour leader was Naushabah Khan, the woman hoping to be the area’s next MP. She tells LabourList that she “grew up around the corner from the club”, and describes having the launch on home turf as “so exciting”.

Starmer didn’t stick a pin in a map at random: last year Labour took Medway council for the first time since the authority’s creation in 1998. Starmer visited in the run-up to those elections, and on the day after polling day was back again, congratulating the Medway Labour team for blowing the bloody doors off (they took 33 of 59 seats). Now the local party has turned its eyes to the area’s three parliamentary seats.

All are currently Conservative-held, and in an area that voted for Brexit, Labour has seen its vote share decline precipitously since 2010. But the seats have been Labour before, and two are now battlegrounds for the party. In Gillingham and Rainham, Khan is hoping to overturn Rehman Chishti’s 15,119-vote majority, and in Rochester and Strood, Lauren Edwards is looking to unseat Kelly Tolhurst, who has a 17,072-vote majority.

On the doorstep, people ‘feel like there’s no hope’

Naushabah Khan.

Khan has been a councillor since 2015, and since Labour came to power last year has been cabinet member for housing. This isn’t her first tilt at parliament: she was Labour’s candidate in the 2014 Rochester and Strood by-election that saw Mark Reckless elected, briefly, as the area’s UKIP MP (he went on to lose to Tolhurst at the 2015 general election).

She tells LabourList that she has “seen the area decline over the years, after 14 years of the Tories in power people are desperate for change. The phrase I hear most often on the doorstep is that ‘we feel like there’s no hope.’”

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Out campaigning in Gillingham and Rainham last bank holiday weekend, the response I get matches Khan’s assessment. While most people I speak with say they’ll probably be voting Labour, it’s out of unhappiness with the current situation, not great enthusiasm for the party.

One element of the campaign is clearly paying dividends, however: four people tell me that they know who Naushabah Khan is and like what she has to say because they’ve seen her content on social media.

The decline of Gillingham high street – on which Khan has launched a taskforce – comes up again and again, as do concerns about increasing crime and fewer police. As we campaign, the councillors I’m with are constantly picking up casework and taking note of rubbish dumped on the streets, and letting residents know about the council’s free bulky rubbish removal, a service reinstated by the new Labour administration.

‘Very optimistic… but not complacent’ in Rochester

Councillors, volunteers, and the author, at Gillingham Labour Club

On my second day in Medway, I hit the doorstep in Rochester for Lauren Edwards. Originally from Australia, Edwards has been a councillor representing Rochester East and Warren Wood ward since 2021, and since Labour took the council she’s been the cabinet member for economic and social regeneration and inward investment.

Like some other Labour notables one could name, Edwards spent years working at the Bank of England, but before that worked for Labour MPs including Lisa Nandy, and was a researcher for the CWU trade union.

Edwards was selected as the area’s candidate in 2023, and is hoping to unseat Tolhurst, of whom she’s said: “I don’t think the current MP can point to things they’ve achieved during their time in parliament.”

Out with me doorknocking in picturesque central Rochester – along with a vibrant high street, it boasts a castle and a cathedral; we canvas one block of flats in what is obviously a converted stable yard – is councillor Simon Curry, the new Labour council’s portfolio holder for climate change and strategic regeneration. He tells me he’s feeling “very optimistic…. confident that things are going our way, but we’re not complacent”.

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His optimism would seem to be borne out: the response on the doors on a quiet Tuesday afternoon is extremely positive, with one member of our team handing out no less than six posters in a single session.

The local party has been working the area hard; one man tells me he’d been canvassed by Labour once already since the election announcement, but hasn’t heard from any other parties. “The big issues on our doorsteps are cost of living and the NHS,” Curry tells me. “People are genuinely fed up of the Tory administration and they want change.”

“We’ve had huge support from our twinned CLPs”

Distributing posters on the doorstep

The Medway seats designated as battlegrounds have one distinct advantage: they are a short train ride from London, and as at last year’s council elections, the local party has been receiving support from activists in the capital.

“The campaign has been energetic and well organised,” Gillingham South councillor Louwella Prenter tells me. “We’ve had huge support from our twinned CLPs and they’re continuing to turn out for us.”

When I visit, Gillingham Labour club – one of just two Labour clubs in Kent with a working bar, I’m told – is buzzing with volunteers and councillors from all over the county and beyond.

There are four target seats in Kent, alongside Canterbury, which Labour has held since 2017. The targets are Gillingham and Rainham and Rochester and Strood, and out of Medway and further down the coast, there is East Thanet, and further still, Dover and Deal.

While the central party will be looking to concentrate resources in these seats, that doesn’t mean Labour couldn’t make surprise gains. Some polls predict that the party will take the third, and most securely Conservative, Medway seat, Chatham and Aylesford.

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Central Rochester

The seat was Labour between 1997 and 2010, and it’s being fought this time by Edwards’ ward colleague Tris Osborne, who is council cabinet member for community safety and enforcement.

The incumbent Tory Tracey Crouch, who had a majority of 18,540 in 2019,  is standing down, and when I was in Medway a few days ago, there was not yet a Tory candidate in place: we now know that the Centre for Social Justice Foundation’s managing director Nathan Gamester will fight the seat for the Conservatives.

Strood North and Frindsbury councillor David Field strikes an optimistic note, telling LabourList that while “it won’t be easy given the size of the majorities”, he was “hopeful of positive results across Medway”.

 “We’ve got three great candidates who are all delivering in the cabinet of our historic first Labour and Co-operative administration in Medway,” he says. He notes that Medway is “always on [Labour’s] path to power”, adding: “Rochester and Chatham have voted for the party who won the general election in 100 of the last 108 years.”

Field’s buoyancy is representative: there’s clear optimism on the ground amongst councillors and members that Medway can return Labour MPs in July, but it’s tempered by years of experience and the hard graft it took to flip the council last year.

“The one thing I’m clear of is that we cannot take anything for granted,” Khan tells me. “Winning seats like this one is not going to be easy, but we are approaching this campaign with the same energy, enthusiasm and perseverance as we did during the locals.”


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