• Labour has a rural problem. So why aren’t we talking about it?

    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

6 Responsesso far.

  1. Christopher says:

    I’m Blue Labour through and through yet there’s no chance I’d vote for a candidate who supports killing animals for ‘sport’. Rural areas should have plenty of wildlife, not a playground for mental patients whose idea of fun involves ripping a fox up to a million pieces.

    • James says:

      I am strongly opposed to blood sports, but would certainly not include hunting in this category. Foxes need to be killed if they grew numerous and threaten livestock; deer need culling else they eat their way through the landscape; boar can be seriously disruptive if they spread out of control.

      The blanket opposition to hunting is one of the surprising reasons (to city-dwellers) that many rural people simply won’t consider voting Labour: “they just don’t understand our way of life”.

  2. Tony Day says:

    Much of the tenor of this article does not just apply to rural communities it also applies to broad swathes of the rest of the country.
    I would suggest that what people want is for less representative democracy and more direct democracy where their vote will really count.

    This means a major overhaul of our Parliamentary system which lets face it is not fit for purpose and I suspect that most people instinctively know that.

    We need to get rid of direct access to MP’s of lobbyist be they Industrialists, Bankers or Singe Issue Fundamentalists (i.e Anti Hunting Groups, Animal Rights, Feminist rights etc.).

    We need term limits on all MP’s and acknowledge what is the de-fact situation of needing a separate elected president who would have the responsibility of forming a cabinet from anybody he chose this subject to the approval of Parliament.

    Any body elected to Parliament could be re-called by the electorate should enough feel that he is not keeping promises or otherwise performing badly.

    Any major constitutional changes would have to be the subject of a referendum(s) which should be held under very clear rules as to what constitutes a valid outcome (Unlike the BREXIT referendum which had no meaningful parameters at all).

    This of course would mean the end of the party system as we know it and not before time, it is for this reason that none of what I have written is ever likely to happen and as a ountry we will slip ever further down the toilet!!

  3. A good piece and living in a rural area of Lancashire Liam is right on many issues, and ‘community’ is at the heart of it. The hunting issue is divisive in rural areas so I wouldn’t major on that. Access to services, need to protect village facilities like transport, schools, health centres, pubs, shops as well as supporting small business. Supporting agriculture is important but is it still the top issue?

  4. Anna says:

    If it wasn’t for Ukip /Tory collapse ther would be a fall in the Labour vote in outer London Rural areas next year, and the answer to the question, is why aren’t we talking about it, because the party needs proof to accept it

    If labour does win Councillors in outer London next year it won’t be an increase in the labour vote but. Decrease in the Tory one, so we have to say to the party ,if you want to win chingford, bromley, or keep croydon, we need to accept That ,acorbynistas and Blairites don’t understand suburbia.

  5. James says:

    I love the idea of Blue Labour taking off in the countryside. Unfortunately, I’m really not sure how realistic this is given the hold that Islington-based Corbynism has secured over the party.

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