Canterbury: city of faith, students and Brexit anguish

Canterbury, United Kingdom – More than a year after British voters rejected the EU, university cities such as Canterbury are on the frontlines of a political realignment shaped in part by students’ revulsion at Brexit.

Britain’s general election in June featured a surge in turnout by younger voters, who plumped by and large for the opposition Labour party led by socialist firebrand Jeremy Corbyn.

That surge powered Labour’s candidate in Canterbury to victory by just 187 votes, marking the first time the constituency has failed to return a Conservative MP since it was created in 1918.

The Labour leader’s pledge to scrap university tuition fees, coupled with his anti-establishment idealism, were credited with fuelling the surge.

But half of under-35s surveyed in one poll said Brexit was the “main factor” in their decision to cast a ballot, contributing to the astonishing win in Canterbury by Labour candidate Rosie Duffield.

Duffield had hoped at most to dent her Conservative opponent’s majority, and concedes she is “still very shocked” at her triumph.

But speaking to AFP, she stressed: “Our economy is dependent on our relationship with Europe.”

Ironically, abysmal turnout by younger voters in the Brexit referendum held on June 23 last year was a major reason why the Leave camp won, by a margin of 52-48.

Labour party critics of Corbyn, who for years characterised the EU as a pro-business cabal, say his own failure to campaign more forcefully for the Remain side contributed to the result.

– ‘Sold out’ –

Most voters in Canterbury — 53 percent — voted to stay in the European Union, reflecting the results in Britain’s other centres of learning, which benefit from EU research funding and are enriched by the free flow of European students.

The city has 40,000 students, attending institutions such as the top-ranked University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), a former seminary adjacent to the city’s historic cathedral, which is the cradle of the worldwide Anglican faith.

The county of Kent is Britain’s gateway to Europe, with the ports of Dover and Folkestone lying on its southern coast about half an hour’s drive from Canterbury.

“Brexit has played an enormous role here,” said the CCCU’s Amelia Hadfield, who holds a chair in European studies named after Jean Monnet, one of the EU’s founding fathers.

Young people “were genuinely disappointed” by the Brexit result, “they felt that their future had been sold out”, she said.

“There was a real determination not to lose that opportunity (of voting) this time.”

In Canterbury, voter registration jumped by 10 percent between the referendum and the general election as the younger electorate mobilised.

While the city’s Conservative vote held stable, the Labour vote nearly doubled, depriving the outgoing Tory MP of a seat he had held since 1987.

Tobias Isaac, 19, did not see the point of voting in the referendum but changed his mind for the election.

“I voted Labour this time, even if my whole family’s voted for the Tories for years,” he said.

Because of results like Canterbury, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives lost their national majority in parliament and are now holding out for an alliance with a pro-Brexit party from Northern Ireland.

– Last chance? –

Nevertheless, opinion polls point to a strong majority of Britons in favour of honouring the referendum and turning Brexit into reality.

Corbyn’s Labour itself campaigned in the general election to pull Britain out of the EU, albeit with a stronger emphasis than May on protecting jobs and livelihoods.

There is resentment among some Conservatives in Canterbury at the election shock.

John Lemond, 62, accused Corbyn of extending a “bribe” to students with his manifesto pledge to cancel tuition fees, which reach thousands of pounds for every year of study.

The city’s former lord mayor, George Metcalfe, took issue with the ability of students to register to vote in either their home town or their city of study.

“Our students will eventually go home, but we who live here will be skewed for years by their choice of vote,” the Tory councillor wrote to The Times newspaper.

The youth mobilisation has stoked anxiety among right-wing commentators that politicians could row back on their commitment to Brexit, as the fiendishly complex process of negotiating Britain’s departure begins.

However, for CCCU literature student Rosie Jackson-Horn, Brexit is an inescapable reality.

She hopes to pursue a master’s degree in Germany next year. “Maybe it is our last chance” to study in Europe, she said.

By Antoine Pollez