by Liam Stokes
Labour has a rural problem. I have written that so often recently that it’s becoming a mantra, but I’m not the only one saying it. Despite an insurgency in the South West, where a wounded Liberal Democrat party haemorrhaged votes to Labour, the progress made in the 2017 General Election largely bypassed rural England and Wales. The trend is obvious and often commented upon, but what is consistently missed is the disconnect between what potential rural Labour voters want and what they are offered. What they want is Blue Labour.
Let’s dwell on the trend for a second, and set the scene. There are 199 rural seats in England and Wales, of which 29 were in Labour hands prior to the last General Election. In what has been widely heralded as a successful election (despite not winning it) for Corbyn’s Labour, 84% of the gains made were in urban seats, while 40% of the losses were rural. Net result: Labour now holds 32 rural seats out of 199.
To those of a lefty persuasion, this is baffling. The free market liberalism that is too often the heart of Tory policy has so little to offer rural communities. The unfettered winds of the market close our village shops, relocate our local banks and drive our pubs out of business. The rural poor and elderly need to head to local towns to make every day transactions, except they can’t because there are almost no rural buses and even fewer rural trains. Second home ownership drives up house prices while doing nothing to support local community infrastructure for most of the year, and new housing developments seem to serve wealthy incomers rather than the families of locals. Solutions to all of these social and economic problems can be found in the traditions of the labour movement.
And yet the Labour Party is electorally shut out. I stood as a Labour council candidate in the Wiltshire Council elections earlier this year, and I came third behind the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems have been the Tory’s only real competitor in this part of the country for some time, and it is worth exploring why that is and why they’ve recently faltered.
It has been said that the Liberal Democrats of the countryside are not the Liberal Democrats of everywhere else. Certainly to Westcountry (by which I mean roughly everything south of the M4 and west of the Hampshire Avon) Liberal Democrats, the Tories are the party of the City, of finance and wealth, while their party is the party of the slightly anarchic rural tradition that thumbs its nose at both fat cats and state meddling. This countryside tradition has always existed in tension with the rest of the Liberal Democrats in Westminster, but the illusion seems to have been shattered once and for all by Brexit. The Westcountry is very, very Brexity, and the Lib Dems betting it all on continuity-Remain did not go down at all well out here. I suspect the same is true for many rural areas.
So what does this tell us about where Labour should head in the countryside? Social ills in need of collaborative, democratic solutions, but a community resistant to commodification by an overweening state: a perfect recipe for Blue Labour.
The Blue Labour prescription of local democracy, democratic ownership and management of services, resistance to the power of state and big business, and love of place and home, could have been made for winning back rural England. This isn’t academic. I have travelled around countryside seats speaking to Labour candidates, and the policies that appeal are vintage Blue Labour. Rural communities are much more likely than urban populations to talk about the desire to keep their communities rooted, for there to be opportunities for their children to live and work close to where their parents live. These aspirations tend to be belittled nowadays, but where people in cities often talk about escaping to the countryside, families in the countryside rarely talk about wanting to go the other way.
No one is currently speaking to these aspirations. The Labour Party too readily conflates rural policy with animal rights policy, sending the message that their votes aren’t wanted to the 1.6 million people who shoot game, the 350,000 who do some sort of work on shooting estates and many of the 200,000 who work in agriculture. This is a shame, because you’ll find nowhere more infused with solidarity and rural working-class tradition than the beating line of a shoot or a meet of the Blencathra Foxhounds. More damagingly, a focus on noisy animal rights crowds out sensible policy discussion about what rural voters want, which is support and autonomy for their communities.
The one-party hegemony of the English countryside doesn’t serve rural people. Their issues get side-lined as everyone assumes their votes are heading to the Tories. A Blue Labour offer would disrupt this consensus and reinvigorate rural democracy, as working rural people finally find their communitarian views represented on the ballot.
Liam Stokes is a Blue Labour writer