Labour rural voters
David Drew MP, Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was a member of the advisory panel to the Fabian Society for its report, Labour Country
The view that the countryside is not Labour’s natural territory sits at odds with my own experience.
As a representative of Stroud, comprising market towns, villages and idyllic landscape, there has never been any dissonance between Labour and my own rural background. Yet the Fabian Society’s report Labour Country is clear in its conclusion that Labour could perform much better in rural constituencies.
From my own experience as a rural MP, the key to engaging the rural vote is connection, which runs as a theme throughout the report.
Rural areas are not only disconnected in a very real way through the erosion of transport, jobs and facilities; there is also a sense of disconnection which is hardly surprising. The Conservatives have failed to provide policies that can be embraced by rural voters with any enthusiasm. Indeed, relentless austerity has hit rural communities particularly brutally. Village shops, post offices, pubs and banks have all been eroded from rural communities. Smaller farms are also disappearing, with traditional farming struggling to compete with global food prices.
An economic divide is evident in many rural areas, with the loss of high-quality jobs, and young people talk about the ‘rural penalty’ of lost opportunity in terms of work choices and income if they choose to stay in the areas they grew up in.
While the Cotswolds constituency, which borders my own constituency in Stroud, attracts tourists from around the globe to its idyllic villages and unspoilt countryside, it is ranked the second worst place in the UK for social mobility. Too often the barriers to social mobility go unseen, but tackling that hidden disconnect is the basis for Labour policies which can deliver effective and real change.
The concerns of rural communities are the same as those of urban voters, but there are challenges which are specific to rural voters. Lack of adequate transport, for example, widens barriers, reducing access to jobs, education and other opportunities.
The lack of affordable housing in many rural areas is, of course, a major issue; one that can only realistically be addressed through provision of more council homes and social housing. Other costs are higher: the proportion of households in fuel poverty, for example, is much larger in rural areas, where households pay nearly 55% more for energy than those in more efficient urban homes.
The widely held perception of Labour as an urban party forgets its early roots. It was the farm labourers of Tolpuddle, for instance, who formed the first union and gave early inspiration to the Labour movement, followed by philanthropists and philosophers such as John Ruskin, who celebrated the skills, crafts and unique identity of a rural way of life.
The Fabian Society also rightly cites the existing strong community networks in rural areas as a valuable resource for engagement. Labour’s candidates and champions must be where our communities are most vibrant, the village pub, cricket club or summer fete.
There is a sense among rural communities that Westminster-based politicians are not interested in their experiences and stories. They have not only been geographically remote, but also politically, and it is only connection on the ground, quite literally, which will help to turn that around.
Those of us who live in rural constituencies know the value of life in our countryside. Labour Country identifies six factors that rural dwellers cite for valuing their way of life: strong community, pride of place, beauty of countryside, good family life, high levels of security, slower pace of life.
I see all these in my constituency and in the places I visit in my role as Shadow Minister for Rural Affairs.
But images of the ‘good life’ must not mask the major challenges rural dwellers face. It is time to hear the stories, listen to the real experiences, and respond with effective policies.