The labour party’s origins are as rural as they are urban. Industrialisation and enclosure drove people from the land, and villagers and city-dwellers alike formed the labour movement together to defend their dignity and livelihood.
Despite Labour’s strong performance at the last election, it risks becoming electorally and culturally adrift in rural areas. To win a general election, Labour must capitalise on the demise of Ukip and the weakening of the Liberal Democrats to gain seats in both rural and semi-rural constituencies. A YouGov/Fabian Society poll conducted in November 2017 shows the electoral challenge facing Labour:
- The Conservatives lead Labour by 54 to 31 per cent in rural England and Wales. In contrast, in urban Great Britain, Labour is beating the Conservatives by 46 to 37 per cent.
- The more rural the area the greater the Conservative lead. In the most dispersed rural areas the Conservatives lead by 57 per cent to 27 per cent. In those rural areas designated ‘town and fringe’ the margin is 51 per cent to 36 per cent.
- Demography alone does not explain the scale of this challenge. The Conservatives lead Labour amongst working class rural voters by 49 to 35 per cent, and the Conservatives perform much more strongly with young rural voters than young urban voters.
- But there are also reasons for hope. Labour is leading the Conservatives among those who voted remain in the EU referendum by 45 per cent to 34 per cent.
The reasons for Labour’s electoral challenge are first and foremost cultural. Labour is seen as a party of, by and for urban people. To address this Labour must learn to speak in the language and to the priorities of rural England and Wales. It can do this by:
- Campaigning to conserve small, local institutions that tie together rural communities
- Extending the notion of ‘rural-proofing’ to incorporate not just policy, but campaigning, organising and party culture too
- Supporting local Labour parties to develop a long-term community organising approach that can rectify the inherent difficulties involved with canvassing in rural areas
At the heart of the cultural divide between rural and urban areas is a rural paradox. Young people, especially graduates, are leaving rural areas for cities in search of economic opportunities. Yet our research shows that people enjoy living in rural areas and have little desire to leave them, while many people living in urban areas harbour a desire to move somewhere more rural.
As a consequence, ageing rural communities are becoming culturally and economically adrift from the wealthy, liberal cities which receive disproportionate policy attention and funding.
Consequently, Labour should pursue an economic strategy that delivers for rural areas and helps overcome the cultural and economic divisions in society.
This would focus on enabling rural people to find economic success and social status close to home, without having to move to a big city. The strategy should consist of:
1. A place-based industrial strategy to rebalance the economy:
• support for small-scale enterprise and manufacturing
• place-based investment
• support for technical education
2. Better rural transport:
• the restoration of the rural bus routes lost since 2010 and the municipalisation of bus services
• reviewing the effects of the Beeching cuts to rural train services
3. Local, affordable and attractive housing:
• democratic local involvement in planning
• affordable and social housing to meet local need
• small-scale development on disused plots of land
• architectural form that fits the environment
• a fairer taxation policy
4. A post-Brexit agricultural settlement:
• a new support system that values the labour that sustains our countryside, rebalanced towards small-scale and marginal farms as well as the provision of public goods.