Rural Labour Reborn
Labour has succeeded in the countryside in the past and could do so again with some hard work and imaginative manoeuvres, argues Steve Race
Labour speaks for the cities, the Conservatives speak for the countryside: that is the old canard that prevails throughout both political parties and indeed the general public. The myth maintains that this has always been so, and that the 1997 Labour gains in rural seats such as The Wrekin and Kettering were mere aberrations from the proper pattern. This despite the Labour party boasting over 180 members of the parliamentary party after the 1997 general election who self-defined as ‘rural MPs’, and despite our origins in historical events unfolding in the countryside such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.
With the axing of the Agricultural Wages Board, the body that set minimum standards of pay and conditions for over one million agricultural workers in the UK, the government has broken its self-proclaimed traditional affinity with rural workers. Now is Labour’s time first to actively value and then to reclaim the rural vote.
The Labour campaigning machine should work to dedicate available resource to reconnecting with rural constituencies, from local communities up. There should be no excuse that these seats are ‘unwinnable’ or that we ‘don’t have the activists’. It is only with these English seats and votes that we will regain a majority in parliament in order to govern, and this is especially urgent if the Scottish National party continues on the road to independence in Scotland.
Centre-left parties across the western world have successfully engaged with rural voters. In Australia, the Labor party successfully operates Country Labor, a specific brand of the party aimed at gaining and retaining rural seats – an important task for any party in a country as vast and as sparsely populated as Australia.
In creating Country Labor, the ALP brings together the different strands of policy development affecting rural areas, while organising conferences and forums that genuinely look to reflect rural concerns back to the national party and, at the moment, the government. Particular successes have included specific training both for candidates at all levels of rural elections and for members.
It is exactly this type of vibrant organisation that is needed for our rural areas in the UK if the Labour party is serious about ‘refounding’ itself to truly represent every community in the UK. Great work already happens. Rural Socialism is the newsletter produced by Dan Whittle, a former Labour parliamentary candidate for Wells, and is the last vestige of the old Labour Rural Revival campaigning organisation – an organisation that even in its name accepts that we are not the party of the countryside, and which has long since ceased to be operational. My own experience as a campaigner in Exeter shows that strong Labour organisation in that seat encourages and aids surrounding rural seats to be more active by sharing good practice and providing an organisational base. And then there is the Progress-supported Third Place First, a network of local councillors and parliamentary candidates in the Surrey-Hampshire-Berkshire borders who work together to organise campaigning and tailor programmes that meet local people’s needs.
As Harriet Harman has said, we want Labour candidates in every seat, to give Labour voters the opportunity to vote for their party. How else did we end up with a Labour councillor on South Hams district council in Devon this year?
The same goes for the brilliant campaigning work of Cornwall Labour, which had no councillors at all when the new unitary Cornwall council was born in 2009 but which is now building out from its win in Camborne North with further by-election wins on parish and town councils. Cornish activists’ determination to set the Labour ball rolling there has galvanised members and I expect to see many more successes in the coming years.
But these Labour representatives in otherwise pure blue seats have had to do it off their own bat, with little help from a Labour party that looks mainly to increase Labour seats in urban areas.
A campaigning organisation called Rural Labour, which provides materials, support and advice and which shares best practice, would help rural candidates and local parties to rebuild in districts that we would not otherwise identify as ‘core vote’. With a little support from head office, Rural Labour would inform our party, which can often be seen as one of metropolitan liberal types, by focusing forensically on the wants and needs of rural voters. Labour candidates could even stand as Rural Labour candidates, hammering home the message that we understand the needs of rural voters, and along the way stealing the ‘pavement politics’ approach of the Liberal Democrat Focus Team handbook.
If there are to be ‘no no-go areas’ for the Labour party, then the vast swaths of our rural areas need immediate attention – a new identity for the Labour party in rural seats that brings together all the strands of our shared social democratic tradition and that works to enable our comrades to engage rural voters is desperately needed.
Steve Race is treasurer of the Young Fabians and leads their activity in the south-west