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How Brexit, Immigration and Housing Became Political Flashpoints

Britain is experiencing profound political changes, going by the outcome of the general election, but new trends are shadowy, developing below the surface. It may be that Labour’s relative success – achieved amid confident predictions by pundits of annihilating defeat – stemmed from a last-minute change of direction by voters, or simply because pollsters vastly underestimated the turnout of pro-Labour younger voters.

The importance of the result is not in doubt: an election called to empower the Government at the start of the Brexit negotiations produced one weakened, divided and facing a rejuvenated opposition. But tempting though it is to jeer at discomfited political commentators eating humble pie with varying degrees of enthusiasm, it is more useful and interesting to ask what has changed so radically in Britain that so many intelligent and well-informed people were wrong-footed.

The shortlist of possible factors involved must include the Brexit vote, social media, Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, terrorist attacks, immigration, tactical voting, house prices, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats. Each one of these – and many others not mentioned – may have been involved, but, like the suspected passengers in Murder on the Orient Express, it is difficult to establish to what extent any of them has participated in one of the great election upsets in British history. The answer, as in the Agatha Christie murder mystery, is that they all played a role, and the election surprise was in fact a series of surprises coming together on election day to confound the prophets and deliver a powerful shock to the status quo.

To get a firmer fix on how these surprises were generated in the country as a whole, The Independent has been looking at constituencies which dramatically changed allegiance on polling day. The most glaring example of this is Canterbury, which lost its record for returning MPs from the same party (in this case, the Conservative Party) for 176 years or longer than any other constituency in the country.

Short and long-term influences were at play, some nationwide and others specific to Canterbury. “There was a perfect storm of events that favoured Labour in the run up to the election,” says Jack Brooks, 23, a recent graduate of Christ Church, one of the two big universities in Canterbury, who is now working at its Centre for European Studies. A former Liberal Democrat voter in the 2015 general election, he campaigned for Labour in the election just fought and was struck by the overall growth in the level of political engagement among students. “You’d find interest in the election even among members of in the Doctor Who Appreciation Society,” he says, adding that it was only people fixated on sports who stayed stubbornly disinterested in politics.

The Brexit referendum a year ago helped to break up the old political status quo. The parliamentary constituency of Canterbury narrowly voted to remain the EU, but not, rather confusingly, the Canterbury county council district which was the electoral unit for the referendum and includes the run-down seaside town of Herne Bay where Ukip was very strong. Canterbury and Whitstable are wealthier, have a cosmopolitan tradition and inhabitants used to seeing a multitude of foreign students and tourists in the streets. The high-speed train link to London, a spur of the Eurostar, means that Canterbury West station is only 55 minutes from King’s Cross St Pancras. The politics of this part of east Kent has more of a London flavour, as many local residents commute to the capital for work and Londoners move out of the capital to take advantage of Canterbury’s lower house prices, exorbitant though these remain.

Rita O’Brien, the Labour party chair in Whitstable, stresses that self-employed, well-educated, well-off people living in Whitstable had been particularly devastated by the Brexit vote: “Since then [the referendum] they have recognised that their futures have become precarious.” This pushes them towards Labour, despite the fact that it is committed to leaving the EU, because those most appalled by Brexit blame the Conservatives as the decisive force behind the project.

Attitudes to Brexit probably helped decide the outcome of the election to a greater extent in Canterbury than in most constituencies. Sir Julian Brazier, who had always been on the right wing of the Conservative party during his 30 years as MP for the constituency, strongly backed Leave. His stance was always going to lose him some Remain votes, but his supporters hoped this would be counterbalanced by an inflow of some of the 7,300 people who voted for Ukip in 2015. The party decided not to put an MP forward this time round in order not to split the pro-Brexit vote and many local observers were convinced that this would mean Brazier’s return as MP, since the so-called progressive vote – Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens – in the constituency only just exceeded the Conservative total in the last election.

This turned out to be a gross miscalculation: Ukip voters plumped for both Brazier and Rosie Duffield, the Labour candidate. The failure of the four million who voted Ukip in 2015 to abandon their party and vote en masse for the Conservatives was one of the biggest stories of the general election results, but Canterbury’s result was particularly damaging for Brazier. His own explanation for what happened is that middle class Ukip voters in genteel places like Whitstable went back to the Conservatives, but those in the housing estates in Canterbury returned to Labour.

This does not mean that Brexit ceased to be an issue, or that the fear of immigration that so largely fuelled it has gone away. Christian Turner, the Christ Church student, says that, though his student friends in Canterbury voted Labour, other less well-educated friends in Dartford voted Conservative. His explanation is that “they are very worried about immigration, because they don’t have the qualifications or the necessary skills to compete successfully with immigrants”. His views are in keeping with the YouGov national survey of 50,000 adults voting in the general election, showing that among the less well-educated (GCSE or below), Conservatives got 55 per cent and Labour 33 per cent of the vote.

One controversial type of immigration is prevalent around Canterbury, which is surrounded by orchards full of apple, pear and cherry trees and by fields growing soft fruit and vegetables. Down narrow tracks and in the corner of fields are half-hidden clusters of white caravans, housing seasonal migrant workers from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Peter Forrest, a carpenter organising the Labour vote in the villages, says that a there is a widespread local sense of grievance over “large farms not advertising jobs picking fruit and vegetables and instead bringing in East European workers at low wages”. Farm managers strenuously deny they discriminate against native-born seasonal pickers – though the work is often non-seasonal in the packing plants – claiming that British workers never in practise want to do the hard and relentless work of picking in the fields and orchards. Whatever the truth, Forrest says that Labour won votes in the villages because it was committed to immigration control post-Brexit. He adds that Conservative ambivalence on the issue was damaging to them.

Brexit and immigration remain important issues, but it is housing, ownership and non-ownership of a place to live, which is the obsessive topic of conversation in Canterbury. Possession of a property, after the children have left home, visibly guarantees a comfortable standard of living: in the last 20 years a number of excellent restaurants have opened in east Kent, but a noticeably high proportion of their customers are grey-haired. Estate agencies have mushroomed: a visitor walking the short distance in Canterbury from the half-ruined Norman castle to the Cathedral precincts will pass at least eight en route. Houses with two or three bedrooms coming on the market are immediately snapped up by landlords looking to rent out rooms. According to students it is high rents – £450 a month for a single room is quoted as average – and not tuition fees which are their biggest worry. Everybody who does not already own house or a flat faces a similar problem. Jack Brooks, who has just graduated, says he will soon move with his partner to Berlin where rents are lower, job opportunities better and “we will have a better standard of living than here.” He compares his prospects with those of his brother in London who teaches chemistry in a school and was “spending 60 per cent of his income to rent a place to live in, but has just got kicked out by his landlord”.

Long-time householders, who may not like students, still resent the ever-growing number of landlords letting out houses for multiple occupation. Winston Feather, 68, a former first mate in the Merchant Navy, has run a shop selling prints and framing pictures for 30 years which is situated 100 yards from the great medieval double towers of Westgate, built as a defence against the French at the height of the Hundred Years War. He has just sold his shop to a prospering Turkish restaurant next door and was returning to his home county of Yorkshire in the week after the election.

He feels that “the city has lost the sense of community it had in the past because such a large part of the population is now transitory”. He once had a sideline selling furniture, but today there is no demand for it from people renting accommodation. He says some of his neighbours have been able to buy a second homes through profitably renting out rooms in their houses. He rented out a flat at the top of his house to a Brazilian anthropologist and his family for less than half the £1,600 a month they had been paying for a house nearby. Feather did not say how he had voted, but expressed suspicion over Corbyn’s opposition to Trident. He had written a letter to Brazier about his concerns over defence and had received a sympathetic reply.

As an MP, Brazier had long focused on defence issues, but few people in Canterbury paid much attention to them. His critics said he was out of touch with the mood of his constituency.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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