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General election 2017: Can anybody stop the Conservatives in Kent?

PUBLISHED: 08:19 08 June 2017 | UPDATED: 08:19 08 June 2017

(left to right) Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Home Secretary Amber Rudd,  Ukip leader Paul Nuttall  and SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson take part in the BBC Election Debate hosted by BBC news presenter Mishal Husain,  as it is broadcast live from Senate House, Cambridge.  Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

(left to right) Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Ukip leader Paul Nuttall and SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson take part in the BBC Election Debate hosted by BBC news presenter Mishal Husain, as it is broadcast live from Senate House, Cambridge. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Richard Whitman, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent gives us the lowdown on today’s vote

Tactical voting is the only way of stopping another Conservative clean sweep in today’s general election, an academic has claimed.

With a landslide Tory majority expected both here in Kent and nationwide, supporters of some opposition parties are encouraging the electorate to vote tactically when they take to the polls in a bid to stop more blue domination.

The process works by encouraging so-called “progressive” parties to club together and back the candidate with the best chance of defeating the Conservatives.

Green Party chiefs have successfully orchestrated a cross-party alliance in nearby Brighton by convincing the Liberal Democrats not to stand against party leader Caroline Lucas, who was the constituency MP before parliament dissolved last month.

The Greens have tried to drum up support for a similar deal in Kent with Labour as well as the Lib Dems, but these hopes have been emphatically dashed by the red and yellow parties, who are also contesting all 17 seats in the county.

But in a county as traditionally blue as Kent, Richard Whitman, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, believes such a voting pattern is their only hope of standing any chance of winning local seats.

He told Kent News: “Tactical voting is the great unknown, if they tactically vote you have the potential for an upset or at least something interesting.

“The Lib Dems are not picking up the support you might expect from Remainers and it will be interesting to see how the 48 per cent [who voted to stay in the EU] position themselves. But tactical voting is absolutely the only way they can do that, certainly in Kent.

“I live in Maidstone and the Weald and if you look at the way the vote stacks up there, you would need a significant defection and then some.”

Tory Helen Grant won that particular seat in 2015 by some 10,000 votes, and a majority of 21.4 per cent - a trend that’s proved pretty consistent across the county.

The Conservative stronghold was tightened last month in the county council elections, as they romped to victory, claiming 67 of the 81 seats at County Hall, wiping out Ukip’s entire representation in the process.

Indeed, Professor Whitman suggests the prospect of what many consider a foregone conclusion could affect voter turnout, despite increased numbers registering ahead of the deadline last month.

“In the EU referendum we saw a pretty amazing turnout,” he said.

“We saw a lot of young people rush to register, but we will have to see if they actually turn out to vote.

“People tend to approach general elections in a different way to local or European elections where there was traditionally a lower turnout, because the electorate is often not certain what’s at stake.

“General elections are much clearer, they are more familiar with who their MP is, and there’s more at stake for people in terms of the economy and taxation and things like that.

“There is a question mark over whether they see it as an unnecessary election and whether people decide to sit on their hands, not least because they feel their vote won’t matter.

“People might stay at home because they think the Tories have got it in the bag.

“But we’ve still got a way to go until the day of the election, the polls have narrowed a bit and the question is how much more they narrow and how people respond to that.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sprung a surprise this week by unexpectedly appearing on a televised leaders’ debate, despite insisting he would not engage in one unless Theresa May also featured.

The prime minister resisted the urge to appear herself in Wednesday’s showpiece event, and drew some criticism for her absence, but Professor Whitman suggested the impact of such programmes on voters is actually somewhat overplayed.

“Those high profile debates tend not to shift people but to reinforce their views,” he said.

“The thing that has shaken people up is the Conservatives’ U-turn on social care.

“People probably would not have noticed it without the U-turn and that’s a problem for the Conservatives who put so much [emphasis] on the prime minister’s leadership.”

One interesting angle in this election, will be the performance of Ukip, which in recent years has soared in popularity to become the county’s second biggest party.

It became the main party of opposition on Kent County Council in 2013, and its candidates finished second in a number of seats at the 2015 general election, including famously Nigel Farage in South Thanet.

It represented a quite incredible rise compared to five years earlier, when some 13 candidates achieved less than five per cent of the vote and thus lost their £500 deposits.

But suffering with something of an identity crisis following Britain’s decision to leave the EU, compounded by a disastrous KCC election, farcical controversies and an increasing number of defections, many wonder just how much Ukip can bring to the table in this election.

“We’ve had a strong Ukip supporting sentiment in Kent and I do think those voters will move back to the Conservatives,” Professor Whitman said.

“The issue will be how well do the other parties perform. It could provide a platform for the next election if the likes of Labour or the Lib Dems do well and can look at seat targeting for next time.”

Despite a narrowing in the polls, even in this unpredictable political climate, a blue victory seems inevitable, and it’s one Professor Whitman can’t see past.

“I expect a majority of between 40 and 60 - not quite the landslide we were perhaps told when it was called but more than enough to see the government through.

“Anything less than a 40-seat majority and that would be a pretty disastrous election.

“It’s theirs to lose. Kent is a bellweather and if the Tories don’t do well here it could get interesting, but this is where they have core support, it’s where they harvest a lot of votes.”

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