Labour must reconnect with the politics and culture of the countryside to be confident of winning the next general election, according to a new Fabian Society report published today. To secure a working majority the party will need to capitalise on the demise of Ukip and the decline of the Liberal Democrats and gain seats in both rural and semi-rural constituencies.
Labour Country, a new report from the Fabian Society, supported by the Countryside Alliance, shows Labour still has a way to go to win over rural voters. The report argues that to gain countryside seats Labour needs to be seen as ‘a natural party of the countryside’.
To win a UK majority, the party does not need to beat the Conservatives across all rural areas, but it does need to be competitive. Of Labour’s target seats ahead of the next general election, 16 are rural and a further 28 have at least 3,000 rural inhabitants. A YouGov / Fabian Society poll shows that as things stand:
- The Conservatives lead Labour by 54% to 31% in rural England and Wales (23 points)
- Even amongst working class rural voters the Conservatives beat Labour by 49% to 35% (14 points)
But in better news for Labour, the party is ahead of the Conservatives in rural England and Wales among people aged under 50 (48 per cent to 36 per cent) and among those who voted remain in the EU referendum (45 per cent to 34 per cent). There are large numbers of both groups across rural England and Wales, despite the countryside being older and more Eurosceptic than the nation as a whole.
The report identifies the policy areas that are key to Labour rebuilding its connection with rural voters – including transport, housing and farming. But focus groups conducted for the report also show the party needs a shift in how it campaigns and organises to ‘rural-proof’ everything it does.
The report concludes that Labour’s next manifesto should set out an economic strategy that delivers for rural areas. It makes recommendations in four key policy areas:
- A place-based industrial strategy:
- support for small-scale enterprise and manufacturing
- place-based investment
- support for technical education
- 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
- Local, affordable 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 post-Brexit agricultural settlement:
- a new support system that values the labour that sustains the countryside, rebalanced towards small-scale and marginal farms as well as the provision of public goods
Shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs Sue Hayman MP said:
The Conservatives take rural communities for granted, imagining that they have their votes sewn up. But it is all too clear that they have nothing of substance to say on the real challenges facing rural communities.
As the member of parliament for a rural constituency in West Cumbria, I know only too well how creaking Victorian infrastructure, rural poverty and a lack of employment opportunities for young people are leading to a growing disconnect between city and countryside. At the same time, austerity is leading to the steady erosion of the pubs and post offices, bank branches and local businesses that serve as the heart of so many of our small towns, villages and hamlets.
This new report outlines positive recommendations for how to take on the Conservatives in their rural heartlands and deliver for rural communities across England and Wales.
Andrew Harrop, general secretary at the Fabian Society said:
To win the next election Labour must gain seats with lots of rural voters and that will take a big shift in the way the party campaigns and organises. But there is room for optimism, with Labour now leading the Conservatives among rural voters under the age of 50.
As a former Labour candidate in a rural seat, I know myself that the party is often dismissed as an ‘urban’ intruder that does not understand country life. Labour must prove to countryside voters that it is on their side with rural-friendly policies for saving banks, bus routes and countryside businesses.
Baroness Ann Mallalieu, Labour peer and president of the Countryside Alliance said:
There is no doubt that there can be no future Labour government without improved support in the countryside, but this can only be achieved if the party gets serious about making a credible policy offer to the countryside. For too long Labour have conflated rural issues with animal issues, to the detriment of Labour’s vote in the countryside. This report lays out how Labour can correct this trend and challenge the Conservative party’s rural dominance, by speaking to the genuine concerns of people in the countryside.
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- Rural Country is by Tobias Phibbs, researcher and assistant editor at the Fabian Society. This report represents not the collective views of the organisations involved but only the views of the individual author.
- The Fabian Society is Britain’s oldest political think tank. Founded in 1884, the society is at the forefront of developing political ideas and public policy on the left. The society is alone among think tanks in being a democratically-constituted membership organisation, with over 7,000 members. It is constitutionally affiliated to the Labour party.
- This report is published in partnership with the Countryside Alliance. The Countryside Alliance is a 100,000-strong membership organisation which exists to promote and protect the rural way of life.
- The notion of rural is contested. For this report, we have adopted the classification of the ONS and taken it to refer to any settlement of fewer than 10,000 people. We have sometimes – again taking our lead from the ONS – further separated this rural classification into two subcategories: ‘town and fringe’ and ‘rural’. These refer to more and less built up settlements respectively, all of which have fewer than 10,000 inhabitants.
- All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 3619 adults in Great Britain, of whom 696 live in rural and town and fringe areas in England and Wales. Fieldwork was undertaken between 7th – 9th November 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
- As part of the research for this report the Fabian Society carried out three focus groups with rural voters. These were held in St Asaph in Vale of Clwyd, Probus in Truro and Falmouth, and Clay Cross in North East Derbyshire. The Fabian Society also ran a self-selecting survey aimed at Labour party members with rural connections, with 984 respondents.
- Labour currently holds just 32 of the 199 constituencies designated as rural, having lost two rural seats and gained five at the 2017 general election. Of Labour’s 75 target seats for the next election, 16 are rural. But the impact of Labour’s comparatively poor performance in rural areas is not confined to these 16. Many more seats are not designated rural but have a sizeable rural component. A further 28 target seats have more than 3,000 rural inhabitants:
- The 16 rural target seats are: Aberconwy, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, Copeland, Truro and Falmouth, Dover, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, North East Derbyshire, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Ribble Valley, Sherwood, Calder Valley, Camborne and Redruth, Corby, Rushcliffe, Scarborough and York Outer.
- The 28 target seats in urban constituencies with at least 3,000 rural inhabitants are: Shrewsbury and Atcham, Morecambe and Lunesdale, Stafford, Vale of Glamorgan, Loughborough, Clwyd West, Milton Keynes North, Rossendale and Darwen, Hastings and Rye, Rugby, Mansfield, Pendle, Wycombe, South Swinon, Carlisle, Welwyn Hatfield, Thurrock, Redditch, Stevenage, Milton Keynes South, Nuneaton, Harlow, Rochford and Southend East, Reading West, Filton and Bradley Stoke, Broxtowe, Shipley, Bolton West.