Labour needs a rural revival to win the seats needed for government

by Liam Stokes

The general election has given hope to those of us hoping for a rural Labour revival, but also pause for thought. This is an area in which I have a personal interest. In this year’s Wiltshire Council elections I stood for Labour in the very rural north Wiltshire ward in which Jeremy Corbyn grew up. It was an uplifting experience. People were pleased and surprised to find a candidate roaming the country lanes wearing a red rosette. The most oft-heard quip was “best of luck mate, you’ll need it round here”. Others were more encouraging, which was much appreciated during long and lonely days leafletting. I’ll be eternally grateful to the landscaper who, as my spirits were flagging on a particularly long and rainy walk down an especially remote track, took a break from shovelling gravel to tell me he was glad to see someone “standing for the working man”. But for all that warmth on the doorstep, I got 10% of the vote. Believe it or not even that was 2% better than Labour did last time. The Tory got 69%.

I shouldn’t have been surprised; in the wake of the 2015 election it was painfully clear that Labour had a “rural problem”. Maria Eagle MP wrote a paper with that very title. There are 199 rural constituencies in England and Wales, of which Labour won 30. Earlier this year things got even worse with the loss of Copeland, taking us to 29.

A Fabian Society report produced in the immediate aftermath pointed to 148 constituencies Labour should target in the next general election in order to secure a majority. Maria Eagle’s report highlighted that 28 of these seats were in rural England and Wales, and fretted over the cultural disconnect that might mean we wouldn’t win them. Her report found that rural voters saw Labour as insular and metropolitan, while the party viewed the countryside with “polite indifference”.

Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party quickly offered succour to the rural Labour activist. He declared in 2015 that he wanted Labour to become “as much a party in the communities like the one in which I was born (North Wiltshire- 60% Tory) as it is for people in inner city constituencies like the one I represent (Islington North- 73% Labour)”. Corbyn commissioned a report to this end, a report that found Labour needed to offer solutions on rural housing, transport and broadband, and support for farming and fishing industries.

Some of this made it into the manifesto, which to my mind was one of the strongest rural manifestos Labour have produced in some time. The introduction of a National Infrastructure Commission, a focus on protecting farmers from post-Brexit uncertainty, the commitment to invest in broadband, housing and transport in rural areas, and the promise to “rural proof” all legislation were all creative proposals, all good, saleable stuff on the countryside doorstep.

So what happened in last week’s election? Well, of those 28 rural seats Maria Eagle highlighted, we won five. That is great news and is most certainly progress. But unfortunately we also lost two. So a net gain of three rural seats, taking us to 32 out of 199, which still isn’t brilliant.

Of Labour’s gains in England and Wales, only 16% were in rural seats, while 40% of our losses (thankfully a much smaller dataset) were rural. The two seats Labour lost were both classified as “Rural 50”, the second highest class of rurality. Of the five we won, one was also “Rural 50” but the other four were only “Sig Rural”, the least rural of the countryside classifications. Results in the most rural seats, “Rural 75”, remain unchanged- we still hold only nine of the 75 such seats up for grabs in England and Wales.

So why does the truism Maria Eagle coined in her paper still largely ring true- the more rural the constituency, the worse Labour perform? Undoubtedly there is a cultural disconnect which cannot be fixed overnight. No matter the quality of Labour’s offer to rural communities, it simply won’t get a fair hearing until that is rectified. Animal rights issues are not the same thing as rural issues, yet instead of seeking to address the rural disconnect too often the Labour campaign simply defaulted to overemphasising the Conservative commitment to a free vote on the future of the Hunting Act. This commitment has appeared in every Tory manifesto since 2005 and simply isn’t interesting to rural voters. Research undertaken immediately before the general election showed only 0.39% of people spontaneously mention hunting when asked what will influence their vote. When asked to rank issues in order of importance, supporting or opposing foxhunting is less important to voters than the greenbelt, wind farms, broadband connectivity and the future of HS2. Yet #KeepTheBan was allowed to crowd out every other rural policy Labour had to offer.

I’m not arguing that we change our policy on foxhunting, but those issues that are deemed vastly more important than hunting are issues on which there are interesting Labour solutions that we need people to hear. Animal rights campaigns are disproportionately noisy by their very nature, but that noise is not helpful when trying to communicate a policy offer to a rural community that at the moment is not inclined to listen.

In my role at the Countryside Alliance I am working with the Fabian Society on a piece of extensive research into how Labour can improve its offer to rural communities, partly in terms of policy but mostly in terms of culture. We are seeking the answer to the question of how we get that fair hearing that Labour ideas really deserve. This research is needed now more than ever, and alongside that work I’ll now be looking to speak to candidates who stood in rural seats to try and learn from their experiences.

The progress we have made is fantastic, but the fact it was so overwhelmingly urban illustrates the fact that the route to a Labour majority now lies down the country roads of rural England and Wales. A Labour that is strong in both town and country is a Labour that will put a Labour prime minister in Number 10.

Liam Stokes is Head of Shooting at the Countryside Alliance

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6 Responses to “Labour needs a rural revival to win the seats needed for government”

  1. Matthew says:

    Good article. There is hope under Corbyn but clearly Labour has neglected rural areas in the past.

    There’s hunting and there’s hunting. Farmers shooting pests is a rural necessity, farmers allowing the blood-lust of hunting with dogs on their land isn’t. And if it’s not a vote winner with voters of either party – then why do the Conservative Party persist? Is it merely to troll the Labour Party, driving a wedge between rural and urban voters when Labour supporters inevitably ‘take the bait’?

    The farmers in my family were much more vocal in their opposition to hunting with dogs then any of my city friends have ever been, so I’ve never personally seen hunting with dogs as a rural versus urban issue.

  2. Robin says:

    I think there is another aspect that is overlooked. Country people tend to be more self reliant and independent than urbanites , many of whom have been conditioned into dependency by Gordon Brown.

  3. Chris says:

    Liam Stokes is entitled to his views and it is good the Countryside Alliance is a broad church, but personally, I am very thankful the efforts of well-meaning supporters of the utterly metropolitan Labour Party did not recently deliver a government run by Marxists and those with ambivalent views on how to deal with Defence, Security and terrorism issues. Moreover, I sincerely hope a Labour government of that complexion will never take office.

  4. Ray says:

    Very interesting and timely piece. I well remember when living in a Devon village in the 70s how refreshing it was to bump into the occasional lefty. One of the many things that I learnt was that rural class relationships are far from simple and straightforward. I have always felt that one of New Labour’s biggest failings was to fail to overturn Thatcher’s anti-working class legislation and ban hunting instead. I have never been able to understand my comrades
    hatred of field sports. For an interesting take on working class hunting have a look at, The Last Of The English Poachers by Bob and Brian Tovey.

  5. John says:

    When Brexit rolls along you lot will be moving to cities anyway! Cash will be in short supply, it’ll be far far cheaper to import food stocks and the only farms that remain will be large-scale superfarms.

    You’re living in fantasy land if you think the Tory Party will subsidise the countryside like the EU have! So pick your high-rise social housing now, you’ll be able to live with the other “metropolitan elites”, like those poor souls of Grenfell.

  6. Simon Norton says:

    I have long believed that we need something which I might call a Sustainable Countryside Alliance. This would campaign on issues many of which the CA says it’s concerned about but (and I am ready to be corrected here) they don’t seem to be doing anything. Top of the list would be the development of a Swiss style integrated transport network whereby every community would have enough bus or train services to provide for the needs of life, including journeys to work, school (which would not be on dedicated buses from which people other than schoolchildren were excluded), shops and leisure facilities, plus services for visitors. Other important issues would be the maintenance of local shops, provision of high quality footpaths and cycle routes (and bridleways too for those who are into riding), and avoidance of the present proliferation of sprawling housing estates with no facilities within walking distance and little or no public transport. Anyone interested in setting up such an organisation ?

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