Why Corbyn took Canterbury

I’ve lived in Canterbury for the past 18 years, and in all that time the most radical thing that’s happened is Habitat closing down and being replaced by Aldi. The Canterbury constituency, formed almost a century ago, has only ever returned a Conservative member of parliament. But in yesterday’s election, Tory Sir Julian Brazier, MP for the last 30 years, lost his seat to Labour’s Rosie Duffield.

Astonished commentators are now talking of Canterbury as a hotbed of revolutionary socialism. But walking my daughter to school this morning, down leafy roads and through backed-up traffic, it seemed to be business as usual. So what explains the Canterbury swing to Labour?

Canterbury has three universities and a large student population that has expanded rapidly in recent years. The growth in student numbers has brought with it more academics and other university staff, along with their children. A recent poll in the Times Higher Education showed that 78 per cent of university staff nationally intended to vote for either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. And Labour, with its promise to scrap tuition fees, targeted students in this campaign.

This election crept into the end of the summer term, and some students are rumoured to have stayed on an extra few days after their exams in order to vote in Canterbury. Yesterday, for the first time I can recall, there were queues outside the campus polling station.

Canterbury now benefits from the fastest trains in the country, and the journey to central London takes less than hour. It is fast becoming a London commuter town and can seem to have more in more in common with the smart London suburbs than the rest of east Kent.

It’s not surprising, then, that Canterbury backed Remain in the EU referendum, albeit only narrowly, in contrast to the rest of Kent, which voted Leave. Brazier, who campaigned for Leave, was out of kilter with his constituents. Yesterday’s vote against him was undoubtedly a challenge to Brexit. Duffield, his replacement, backed Remain and talked blandly in her campaign literature of ensuring the best Brexit for everyone. Her public Facebook page shows her off to an anti-Brexit rally in a knitted EU hat.

Other distinctly local issues have also had an impact. When I first moved to Canterbury there was a large military barracks. Now, the soldiers – and their votes – have gone. The land has been used for council housing. Although, bizarrely, not for Canterbury residents but for families from east London.

The local hospital, Kent and Canterbury, is facing closure and this has been linked to Tory NHS cuts. There is a strong local campaign to save the hospital. Brazier became far more firmly associated with supporting austerity rather than the hospital. On local social-media sites he’s ridiculed for never being spotted in public.

So, Canterbury has witnessed some demographic shifts and it also faces some specifically local issues. But yesterday’s political upheaval speaks as much to the changing nature of the Labour Party as it does to changes in the city. Labour, with Corbyn in charge, is a safe bet for Canterbury’s middle-class Remainers. Labour will keep things as they are, perhaps quietly rolling back on Brexit, rather than instigating radical changes. Job done, Canterbury residents can go back to buying organic veg at the farmers’ market and tutting over traffic jams at the level crossing.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked and the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.

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