Campaigners of different hues are asking voters in the key marginal constituency of Canterbury to look beyond party politics and vote tactically in the general election this Thursday, writes Michael Clifford
Chris Hammond has the stall up and ready before Canterbury High St begins to thicken with Saturday tourists and townsfolk.
He stacks the leaflets on a shelf, pins the badges to the front of the portable stall. Nearby, the Salvation Army band is already blowing seasonal tunes into the crisp and clear morning.
The pitch being made by Mr Hammond and a half dozen other canvassers is unique in UK election history. He is actively asking people to vote tactically.
“This is a tactical voting stall,” he says. “We are from all different parties here, but what we want is a Remainer MP and the Labour Party’s Rosie Duffield is the person we’re backing.”
Hammond, a 63-year-old retired teacher, never canvassed for anything before Brexit came along. Now he can’t stop. He believes passionately that the UK should stay in the EU.
He’s travelled to London for four of the five national marches. His pitch to voters today is that if they are intent on voting ABC (Anybody But Conservative), yet not Labour, please lend their franchise to Ms Duffield to ensure that the anti-Tory, anti-Brexit vote is not split.
He points to one of his fellow canvassers, a tall chap with glasses.
“That man is or was a member of the Conservatives. We have all parties with us on this one.”
That man is Joe Egerton.
“I’m still a Tory, but I’m no longer a member of the Conservative party,” he says. “I left for the same reason as Ken Clarke and the rest of them.”
This being a refusal to travel with the party towards the rapids of a hard Brexit.
“I think I’d have gone along with something sensible in terms of Brexit, but we’ve seen Boris saying different things from what is in the agreement.”
Joe goes on to extrapolate on the problems for Northern Ireland in the event of a hard Brexit.
“I possibly could have gone along with something sensible, but I couldn’t support Boris Johnson,” he says. “That’s why all the others left the party too.”
Canterbury is a key marginal seat in this election — there are at least 30 — which will be crucial to the outcome nationally. The city sits in the heart of Kent in the south east of England.
Its fabled cathedral was where the local archbishop Thomas Beckett was hacked to death by agents of King Henry VIII. Later, Geoffrey Chaucer scribbled down his tales here, haunting unborn generations of Leaving Cert students.
Kent is a true blue bastion of the Conservatives, but while the region as a whole voted to leave in the 2016 referendum, the city of Canterbury and its few satellite villages bucked the trend. Then in 2017, one of the biggest shocks of that election. The incumbent Tory MP, Julian Brazier — who had held the seat for 30 years — lost out to Ms Duffield by 187 votes.
The country was stunned. Many reasons were forwarded for this outrageous coup. One prominent explanation was that the city hosts three universities and it was the students wot won it. However, there is little doubt but that Duffield’s Remain stance on Brexit, compared to Brazier’s very vocal advocacy for Leave, fed into the major volte-face.
This time around, Canterbury is a major target for the Tories. They have installed Anna Firth, a Londoner relocated to Kent, who was a barrister and stayed at home to raise her children before getting involved in politics.
Her website describes her as “the daughter of a teacher and engineer with a brother who is a doctor. I believe in working hard, aiming high and giving back.”
The campaigns for Duffield and Firth both refused requests to trail the candidates, explaining that, as a key marginal, they have been inundated with such requests. As for the voters in the city, you would have to search long and hard to find any who are thrilled to bits about their choices in this election.
Chris Mortimer runs his Dog Store business on one of the cobblestone streets nestling in the shadow of the cathedral. He says he wouldn’t vote Tory to save his life.
“But I’m not convinced that Labour are a good alternative,” he says. “I like the Greens, but they’re not going to get into power, so voting there would be a waste.
Mortimer voted to Remain in 2016.
“Brexit is a big one for me being a small business owner,” he says. “A hard Brexit will really hurt us. Now I voted Remain, but I do respect the result of the referendum. I would naturally go for the Liberal Democrats, but I don’t like the thought of revoking Article 50 [effectively reversing the Brexit vote]. As I say, I don’t like Labour’s policies. So I’m stuck.”
Mr Mortimer’s assertion that he doesn’t want to overturn the result of the referendum was echoed by other people in the city. An Irish electorate, which kept voting for European treaties until they gave the correct answers, might find it difficult to fathom, but many in England consider it a matter of honour.
The one party unequivocally pledging to overturn the referendum is the Lib Dems, but they’re having problems connecting with the electorate. In Canterbury, their original candidate, former Daily Telegraph journalist Tim Walker, stood down within days of the election being called. He said he did not want to split the vote and let Firth in through the gap.
“The thought of me standing at the count beside a vanquished Rosie [Duffield] as our common enemy raised her hands in triumph is what has been keeping me awake and eventually settled me upon this course of action,” he wrote after he quit.
“I don’t trust Corbyn on Brexit and I never will, but I believe very much that Rosie will do what is in the best interests of our country on this most defining issue of our times. I stand down not for her wretched party, but for her.”
While some in Canterbury admired Walker for his principled stand, his own Lib Dems were seriously put out that he had jumped ship. They promptly installed another candidate, albeit one who was, as one local said, “bussed in from Surrey”.
Penny Stephens, who runs a bookshop on Palace St, voted Leave but she’s certainly not voting for the Conservatives.
“This election campaign has been violent and it’s the nastiest that I can ever remember,” she says.
“That’s probably because of the polarisation caused by Brexit but also because of the ineffectiveness of the current government, which promised the Earth, but is doing nothing.”
She can’t stand Johnson.
“I’m pro-Corbyn,” she says. “I’m thrilled to see him taking us in a really good left-wing direction. I don’t agree with Labour in terms of Brexit, but I’m voting for them because of more important things.”
Richard Owen, who is also in the shop, believes the choices on offer “are dreadful, between a rock and a hard place”.
“I’m a remainer,” he says. “I would normally vote Lib Dem, but this time I’m voting Rosie Duffield. The Lib Dems have brought somebody in, but there’s no sense of a canvass. My hope is that the Lib Dems do badly and Labour get in.”
Along the banks of the river that runs through Canterbury, Roger and Joy Dean wish it was all over.
“It’s dreadful,” Roger says.
Joy doesn’t know what to make of it all.
“I’m just as confused as everybody else,” she says.
The polls are showing that Rosie Duffield has a good chance of holding this marginal, despite the general trend in the direction of the Tories taking most of these vital seats. That’s not much consolation to Chris Hammond, who is having trouble connecting with some voters.
Just before he packs in, he hands a leaflet to another passer-by, asking the standard “are you going to vote?” question.
“You must be joking,” comes the reply.
He begins to fold away the pop-up stand.
“It’s been a fairly depressing day because the feedback from the people today has been much more negative than usual,” he says.
“A lot are just saying they’re sick and tired of the whole thing. If there’s a low turnout it should suit us, but maybe I’m looking at that too much through my own spectacles.”
Chris will not be deterred yet. He intends to return during the week wearing a sandwich board with slogans like ‘Danger Ahead — Think Behind The Slogans’ to warn of the dark spin being used by the Johnson camp.
And with that, he shakes hands and melts off into the crowd, hopeful where others are now confused, still eager where so many are fed up of the whole election/Brexit saga.