In one of the more baffling moments of Conservative Party Conference, Rebecca Pow MP questioned whether Labour had any constituencies with soil in them. For those who live within or have visited a Labour constituency, the answer to that is quite obvious, but the purpose of the statement was as a jab towards Labour’s electoral performance in rural constituencies.
Winning only 31 of 199 rural seats in England and Wales during the 2017 election, it’s hard to ignore that there is a problem, and it’s not an easy task to decipher why this happens.
The 2017 manifesto, although not completely free from criticism, had one of the best offerings the Labour Party has had for rural areas in many elections, tackling real problems that rural constituencies face. With 68% of rural Welsh homes lacking 4G coverage, and 960,000 households in rural areas across the United Kingdom with broadband connections with a download speed of <10 Mbit/s, there are large infrastructural barriers facing these communities.
These issues are contributing to the ever-increasing developmental gap between them and their urban counterparts. Labour’s pledges to close this gap in digital technology by investing in 4G and broadband infrastructure would enable aspiration, innovation and further economic development in rural areas.
Alongside the rural ‘proofing’ of policies, to ensure they work for rural communities, the Labour manifesto provided a solid set of pledges which would improve lives and opportunities in these often left behind areas. Yet we only gained two rural seats, the Vale of Clwyd and the Gower. This indicates that Labour’s problem with soil extends further than policy, and as such, will not be as easy a fix.
Cultural differences and a lack of understanding of rural people can be attributed to this poor electoral performance. As a Labour member in a rural area myself, I will always try to put the topic of rural affairs forward during discussions, and often, I get some quite lacklustre responses. One senior Labour MP, when asked what should be done to regain the trust of rural communities, replied by saying ‘everyone cares about hospitals; we should build more in rural areas.’
This oversimplification is a prevalent issue within the Labour Party. A party report, leaked to the Telegraph in 2016, stated that Labour treats the countryside with a ‘polite indifference’ is a telling example of the cultural issue we face and is likely the root of the above comment. The image of Labour being the party of urban areas will be hard to shake, with most of our MPs representing urban constituencies, issues facing urban areas will always be at the forefront of party policy and discussion, naturally.
Whilst it might be easier and more comfortable for the party to continue discussing urban issues, where our traditional core vote lives in post industrial regions, there needs to be a greater focus and for rural communities to be discussed if we hope to change the cultural differences we face as a party with them.
With the Conservatives in recent elections targeting urban voters, a lot of rural areas are starting to feel ignored by both parties. This push for urban voters provides Labour with the perfect opportunity to seize the gap left behind in the countryside, and seize some of the soil currently held by opposing parties.
With Brexit looming, there are going to be seismic shifts in our political landscape. We are already witnessing the breakdown of class voting, as was evident in the 2017 general election, with Labour gaining seats we have never held before, such as Canterbury and Kensington, but losing seats which were once considered our heartland, such as Stoke-on-Trent South and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.
Theresa May and her Cabinet are leading us into the unknown for rural communities; leaving the EU means an end to the Common Agricultural Policy and the benefits that come with it. It could also mean leaving the Single Market, where 90% of our beef and lamb exports go to. This could be majorly damaging to our agricultural sector, the heart of rural communities, and this damage will radiate outwards to the countless business reliant on the industry to operate.
Whilst the situation unfolds, this provides Labour with an excellent opportunity to fight for single market access, to enable our hardworking farmers to continue to export to our neighbours on the continent. A strong line on this could start to turn heads towards Labour in areas we would otherwise write off.
The importance of rural communities should never be downplayed. Our route to Number 10 trails through many rural areas of England, Wales and Scotland – Tony Blair’s historic 1997 landslide indicates this, with many rural constituencies voting Labour, helping us secure our historic 179 seat majority in the Commons.
If we are to ever replicate this, and return to government, Labour needs to pay heed to rural constituencies. The Labour Party was created to represent labour – all workers – and there should be no areas treated with ‘polite indifference,’ even those containing soil.