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Thu, 18 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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The Battle For Dover And Deal Is About More Than Stopping The Boats

(Alamy)

5 min read

“The place isn’t that bad, you know,” a barista tells PoliticsHome, as she sweeps the floor while tourists and locals fill up the café on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

The constituency of Dover and Deal is a tale of two towns. The former has a host of unoccupied units waiting to be filled with retail businesses, while the latter’s high street remains a tourist hotspot. Dover has a child poverty rate of 35 per cent, whereas Deal was regarded by The Sunday Times as one of the most desirable places to live in the UK.

The seat, which has become a bellwether since 1997, has become synonymous with small boats. The issue affects voters in Dover acutely; they can see RNLI boats rescue and take in thousands of migrants each year.

A YouGov survey in January found 42 per cent of people wanted migrants who arrived on small boats to be removed “immediately” from the UK. Labour, Conservatives and Reform have made cast-iron promises to reduce small boat numbers across the Channel.

“It’s the immigrants,” one voter told PoliticsHome, after she was asked what the most pressing issue was for her at the next election on 4 July. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out to “stop the boats” as one of his five pledges in January 2023, where he has invested political capital in pushing through his Rwanda Bill through the House of Commons.

MikeTappLabour leader Keir Starmer has claimed he would scrap the scheme and instead “smash the gangs” and people traffickers at the source. Meanwhile Nigel Farage has said Reform UK would pull out of the ECHR and push the boats back.

A YouGov MRP poll in June suggested Labour were set to take the seat back by 21 percentage points on 4 July. More high-profile visits are expected to take place prior to the election on 4 July as the party looks to shore up its position in the two towns.

The party's candidate Mike Tapp, a former veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, has made inroads with many of the voters in his constituency.

Tapp is perceived to be on the right of the Labour Party. His favourite former prime minister was Tony Blair, and he told PoliticsHome he would not have served under Jeremy Corbyn. Does he believe he would be kicked out by the electorate almost immediately if a future Labour government cannot reduce small boat crossings?

“It’s hard to say how long it will take,” Tapp told PoliticsHome, referring to the time Starmer would need to crack down on the boats. “But within the first term, I'd expect to see some differences. And obviously I will hopefully have some part to play in that and I can give feedback from what's happening in Dover.”

However, while illegal immigration is undoubtedly an important issue for voters in Dover and Deal, the sense of dissatisfaction towards Westminster owing to perceived failings around the cost of living and public services is even stronger.

Reform UK fancy their chances in the seat. However, they would also perceive it as a victory if they put the Conservatives in to second place on election night. Insiders expected Nigel Farage to stand in the seat before he phoned Howard Cox and told him to contest the seat.

Cox, who ran for London mayor, and has led the campaign for FairFuelUK to reduce and freeze fuel duty, told PoliticsHome he believes the seat will be a hard battle.

DoverHe sees the issue of small boats as important. But like many voters he does not believe it defines the area or all of voters' concerns. 

“One of the things which is most important to people is the cost of living,” Cox told PoliticsHome. “The problem with Rishi Sunak telling everyone inflation has fallen from 12 to two per cent does not wash with people. Businesses are still struggling.”

Dave, an employee at ClarkeWright’s Mobility Emporium, said he voted Tory all of his life but was sympathetic to Farage and Reform UK. He said many small businesses such as the one he worked for could not afford high levels of tax and wanted Labour to address this. “We want to move to a bigger place but we have been told it would be £23,000 in business rates,” he said.

Crime is another huge issue for voters in the constituency. Sandra, the owner of La Salle Verte coffee shop, told PoliticsHome she was concerned about the lack of police presence in the area.

“We’ve learned to defend ourselves after 14 years,” she said. “Where is the protection? We had burglars break in and steal a charity box. We need more police on the high street and in the evenings.”

Chris White, a former journalist from Deal, told PoliticsHome there was a real problem with a lack of policing. With comic timing, a police car whizzes through the high-street with its sirens on as he says this. “That’s unfortunate,” he says, “but you won’t find a single officer on the street.”

He complained that both the Conservatives and Labour in Westminster looked like a “bunch of amateurs”.

The main battle in Dover and Deal was to win the battle over apathy.“None of them are worth it,” says one passer-by. “We need to be more right-wing.”

“I don’t give a toss,” says a butcher on the high-street, as he made it clear he would rather reassemble his shop front than discuss the state of UK politics.

Like many seats in the Red Wall, voters are more volatile than ever. They may lend their support to Labour at this election, but it seems to be without much enthusiasm. 

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