Published: 10:57, 09 December 2019
| Updated: 10:57, 09 December 2019
With just days to go until the General Election, the leading candidates in Kent's most marginal seat are neck-and-neck - with bookmakers giving them identical 5/6 odds of winning the Canterbury and Whitstable seat. We sat down with incumbent Labour MP Rosie Duffield and her Conservative rival Anna Firth, as they make their final pitches to readers...
First up was Rosie Duffield...
I’m sitting in a chilly boardroom in Rosie Duffield’s city centre offices.
In the dark street outside, where shoppers bustle about and festive strings of lights adorn the shop fronts, it’s hard to ignore that Christmas is just around the corner.
But here, behind a shiny red front door in a room strewn with “re-elect Rosie Duffield” posters, there’s another big day on everybody’s minds.
Instead of an advent calendar, a large sign pinned to a whiteboard is counting down the days until December 12.
The door opens, and in comes Ms Duffield, looking cheery but pinched from the cold after a long day’s canvassing.
Warming her hands over a heater, the Labour candidate says she is feeling confident.
'I'm the only local candidate'
“I think if it was a popularity contest, I’d be fine,” she says.
“But it’s about people coming out in horrible, horrible weather and thinking that there’s a point in voting.
It has been more than 900 days since Ms Duffield was announced as MP for Canterbury and Whitstable, marking the unexpected end of Tory stalwart Sir Julian Brazier’s 30-year tenure, and breaking the Conservatives’ hold on the seat for the first time in more than a century.
She is proud of what she has accomplished.
“Julian Brazier mentioned a figure in 2017 like, ‘we’ve done X-hundred of cases’. My office manager came to me after six weeks, and said to me, ‘You know that figure? We’ve done that ages ago’.
“We’ve done thousands of cases and seen hundreds and hundreds of people.
“But in two-and-a-half years, of course you can’t achieve what you expect to in five. I’ve only just started.”
Asked why she feels people should vote for her, she immediately responds: “Because I’m the only local candidate. Because I’ve worked six days a week for the last two-and-a half years, as much as I possibly can, and I haven’t finished yet.”
Referring to rival Anna Firth, who ran unsuccessfully for the Tories elsewhere in 2015, she says: “She’s never lived or worked here.
“I think the reason people are able to say politicians are dishonest is because if you stand in a different seat every two or five years and say ‘I love this city’ and erase all the references you made to the last city you stood in, that is profoundly dishonest.
“She just isn’t local - she’s not someone I would want as my MP here at all.”
'The council just seem to have waved through lots of developments'
The staunch Remainer regrets that her progress over the past couple of years has been hampered by Brexit, and is keen to get cracking on issues such as the welfare system, housing, and the NHS.
Ms Duffield says there are “obvious issues” with plans for a new super hospital in the city.
“What we’re actually looking at is one private developer offering a share of a hospital so far,” she says. “That is not a panacea.
“I’ve been hearing we’re closer to a solution for two years now. I think everyone in Canterbury is rightfully very, very fed up with the whole thing, including me.”
She expresses concern over the impact 2,500 new homes on the hospital site, alongside 4,000 already green-lighted for nearby Mountfield Park, could have on the city’s already heaving roads.
“The council just seem to have waved through lots of developments,” she says.
I ask what she thinks about allegations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party, which are being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
“What we’ll find out when the EHRC report comes out is whether they find us institutionally racist and anti-semitic,” she says.
“And I suspect that’s probably going to be the case.”
Pressed on whether she thinks Jeremy Corbyn should have apologised for this in a recent interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, she adds: “Absolutely. Without question, yup.”
'Brexit could potentially turn it into a hideous car park'
Would Mr Corbyn make a good prime minister?
“I think he’s what, 72 or 71 or something? I don’t expect he necessarily intends to stay around for much longer, to be honest,” she says. “I don’t know, I haven’t had that discussion with him personally.”
Asked if she feels her party would stand a better chance with another leader, she responds: “I don’t know...Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, they are like Marmite.”
If re-elected, Ms Duffield pledges to “carry on fighting for the victims of austerity”, and to work towards staying in the EU, claiming this “would be the best thing for this area”.
“Brexit could potentially turn it into a hideous car park basically - really hamper local business, the NHS, absolutely damage the universities, the tourist industry,” she says.
“Pretty much everything we do here as a community and as a business area and the gateway to Britain from Europe is going to be affected, in a way that no other area in the country is.”
But the former teaching assistant says she hasn’t considered what she will do if she is beaten.
“I haven’t thought that far - I want to be re-elected,” she says. “But there are loads of other things I could do - spend some time with my children would be a start. And then who knows?
“But yeah, hopefully I won’t have to make that decision.”
Next up was Anna Firth...
It’s lunchtime, and wintry sunlight streams through the windows of the cosy Chestfield Barn.
I’m at the pub to meet with Conservative candidate Anna Firth, who sips a Coke and orders a sandwich as she takes a break from the morning’s door-knocking.
Even her opponents can scarcely deny the energetic effort she has made to raise her profile since being named Tory candidate at the end of July.
She tells me this is exactly why she feels she’s right for the job.
“I’ve been told by MPs in Westminster that more noise has been made about
Canterbury’s need for a hospital in the last four months than has been made in the last few years,” she says.
“This is the level of representation that is required to put right an injustice. I can’t stress it enough - you’ve got to have someone who is proactive, who is prepared to get on the phone and actually start rattling cages and saying ‘it’s not acceptable - show me the money’.”
Asked if she believes Ms Duffield has been a good MP, she says: “I’ve got a clean campaign pledge. I’m not going to get into the business of making personal criticisms of Rosie Duffield.
“I would say to voters - come to your own conclusions about who you think is championing the need for this hospital the most.”
Naysayers have criticised the fact Mrs Firth has stood elsewhere previously, arguing the former barrister from Sevenoaks is unrelatable to Canterbury constituents.
'I don't come from privilege. I really do understand when people tell me they're having real problems'
But she argues that fighting a losing seat in Erith and Thamesmead in 2015 was “a very good learning experience”, while her career as a lawyer makes her well-placed to represent “ordinary people”. Being a mother-of-three has given her first-hand experience of everyday challenges she adds.
“I am now stuck in the same traffic in Canterbury as everybody else,” she says. “I’m using the same shops - buying my milk in Morrisons, popping into Sainsbury’s to pick up shampoo.”
She tells me of her upbringing - her grandmother a dinner lady, her mother a single parent working three jobs - adding: “I don’t come from privilege.
“I really do understand when people tell me on the doorstep they’re having real problems.”
Unsurprisingly for someone who has made delivering a new Canterbury hospital their primary campaign pledge, Mrs Firth maintains that healthcare is the chief issue affecting the constituency.
“Canterbury is due a new hospital irrespective of any developer contribution,” she continues. “It is currently in the bottom 20 of hospital estates in the country, and according to the chief executive is soon to fall into the bottom 10.
“If 40 other hospitals are being built elsewhere in the country, there must be central government investment here in Canterbury.”
Moving on to Boris Johnson, I ask whether she feels her party leader is trustworthy.
“I have always found Boris Johnson very straightforward in discussions I have had with him,” she says.
Faltering slightly, she continues: “I mean, how do you build up trust in someone? You’ve really got to hear what they’re promising and see if they deliver it.
“Whether we can trust him in his personal life and, you know, personal goings-on, in my mind is neither here nor there.
“I want to know that when he promises to spend my taxes in a certain way he delivers on it, and so far he has. His big promise was he would establish a new deal, and he has done.”
On Brexit, the Leave supporter says: “The common theme is that people want us to move on.
“Whether they voted Remain or Leave, we don’t want this agony to continue - we just want to find a sensible deal, and to move on to priorities people want dealt with.
“If I’m lucky enough to be elected, we will be out of the EU by the end of January and I will be focusing then 100% on delivering the new hospital, deliveringmore investment in our schools, and getting the fair allocation of police officers.”
'Judge me by my actions'
“The response we’re getting on the doorstep is phenomenally positive, and I’m very confident actually that we will win here on the 12th,” she enthuses.
“But we have to keep going - we’ll be working around the clock.”
Mrs Firth says she, like Ms Duffield, has not given thought to what she will do if she does not win.
“We are just focusing 100% on getting round and meeting as many voters as we can,” she says.
“Since I’ve been selected, I’ve worked non-stop.
“I’ve already made considerable progress on policing by lobbying the crime commissioner, getting a commitment that there will be serious investment in that hospital, and on congestion in bringing together key stakeholders.
“So I would say to people: judge me by my actions.
“It would be the privilege of my life to be the MP for Canterbury and Whitstable, and I would work as hard as I possibly could for every resident.”