One of the most striking sights when looking at the electoral map of the UK today is the almost entire absence of red within the sea of blue countryside of rural England. Of course, this deficit of rural support is not exactly news – in 2015, Labour won just 7% of all available seats in the predominantly rural South West, all of which were in Bristol or Exeter.
As the council elections are likely to make apparent, we are a party of the inner cities and post-industrial towns, and this issue is becoming widely recognised across the Labour movement, as reports from Labour HQ and ongoing research by the Fabian Society illustrate. So, what exactly is Labour’s ‘shire problem’? At a time when Labour may not be able to hold on to urban seats where it has previously thrived (the Liberal Democrat posturing over the Gorton by-election comes to mind), tackling rural seats in which Labour may come third or fourth may not appear our greatest priority.
But we must not allow the reliance on our urban base to shape our strategy for governance; to continue to rely on constituencies we take for granted is a surefire method for continued opposition, particularly if they – like Scotland – become increasingly hostile to an out of touch Labour Party. We must work on sustainability in the party for any hope of relevance, as our Northern strongholds are chipped away at by UKIP and our moderate voters are lost to a resurgent Conservative Party.
As such, I believe our hope of necessary success in rural England is threefold: devolution as a policy and electoral strategy, open and moderate leadership, and electoral reform. There is no reason we cannot succeed in rural areas, which are poorer and face a continued lack of investment from successive governments, if we do not take our de-facto stance of ‘polite indifference ’, as a leaked internal document puts it. Devolution This rural story is not a unique one to the UK.
As many examples across Europe and the West show, the countryside is – as a rule of thumb – unlikely to vote for centre-left parties (the image of the recent ‘Clinton Archipelago’ in the 2016 presidential election makes this perhaps clearer than most). This, however, is not exclusively the case, and not one which should give us an excuse to give up. In France, Parti Socialiste rely on the region of Midi-Pyrénées for stable electoral support.
The region is predominantly rural, with a strong agricultural economy – the region’s main city, Toulouse, is around the same size as Bristol, and voted for a centre-right mayor in 2014. Why, therefore, does Parti Socialiste receive such strong parliamentary support in a region which, by all expectations, would be opposed to politics of the centre-left? Although oversimplifying, the most notable reason why support was originally garnered was that voters sought to protest centralised political power in Paris.
Persistently a political problem in the UK, centralised power is the first target Labour must focus on to gain rural support. This should be, as shown by Parti Socialiste, levelled at the London-centrism of government policy, and focus on providing more power to residents in the rural counties, such as power over wider-reaching infrastructure projects, energy and industrial policy, for example. This, however, must not be the limits of Labour’s devolution focus: we must devolve the party. CLPs in areas with little electoral presence face an absence of party support.
If the leadership ensures frequent, detailed communication between local parties, policy can be developed which are tailored to the needs of rural areas whilst constituency activists can gain expertise, training and guidance from the party machine. Leadership This is a problem not exclusive to rural areas, and must be remedied for the sake of Labour as an electoral force in all constituencies. Ben Bradshaw, who won the Devon seat of Exeter off the Tories in 1997 states quite succinctly: “There is no reason why the Exeter success story is not replicable elsewhere – but that is likely to require far more effective national leadership and a more credible and appealing policy programme than is being offered at the moment.”
The Labour leadership must focus on policy which can gain UK-wide support to attract voters in rural Conservative constituencies. At the same time, we must be campaigning on issues continually affecting rural prosperity, such as poor transport links, out of date infrastructure such as broadband, and more targeted community concerns (which can be greater address through party devolution).
Elections are won on both national and local issues, which Corbyn and Rayner’s tax and education policy releases have in part tackled, but we require much greater immediate focus. Electoral Reform Let’s face it: it’s going to be a long time before Labour can win seats in rural Britain under first past the post. Local party campaigning and centrist policies will aid us towards our goal, but much more significant inroads would be made under a non-majoritarian electoral system.
Senior party figures, such as Chuka Umunna , have rallied behind a shift to proportional representation, which would at least afford us the chance to make evident progress so that Labour is no longer seen as a wasted vote in areas where we are third to the Tories and Lib Dems. As a policy, it combines the best of devolution and leadership; it allows Labour to build consensus across a number of parties (Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP have all expressed wishes to ditch first past the post) with a bold but cheap flagship policy, whilst handing greater power to voters in rural Britain who have had next to no democratic clout in successive elections.
Electoral reform must come with a warning, however, in that it often hurts larger parties who benefit from a greater seat-to-vote ratio than smaller parties; Labour would have 33 fewer seats, whilst the Tories would have lost 90 , under PR. Electoral reform is clearly not a silver bullet for electoral success, but a potential policy to work towards getting a foot in the door in regions we have often been ignored. Moving Forward Moving forward, Labour must show that they can put the concerns of voters in towns and villages first, and give rural England and Wales the tools they need to tackle persistent infrastructure and community concerns.
The goal of a Labour rural strategy should combine competent and credible top-down leadership in a with a bottom-up, community based policy programme, giving power to regions which have been politically and economically ignored.