Posts Tagged ‘Liam Stokes’

How can Labour win in rural seats?

08/10/2017, 11:21:35 PM

by Liam Stokes

This was the question that closed the Countryside Alliance fringe at Labour conference, a panel discussion entitled “How can Labour make Brexit work for the countryside?” based on our Brexit policy document. The question was asked by a frustrated party member from South West Norfolk CLP, a constituency currently represented by Liz Truss.

I happen to believe the answer to the question lies partially within the title of the fringe, which is precisely what I argued during my opening remarks as the first panellist to speak. At this point I think most people accept that the main barrier to Labour progress in rural areas is cultural, the perception and indeed the reality that until recently Labour has treated the countryside with a “polite disinterest”, to repeat the oft-quoted line from Maria Eagle’s report Labour’s Rural Problem.

I argued that Labour can help shed this image by showing some real passion for making Brexit work for the countryside. Everyone is talking about Brexit in great sweeping macro terms, yes or no to the Single Market, yes or no to Freedom of Movement, which is entirely understandable at this stage of the debate. But what the countryside needs to hear, and what I was hoping to hear at our own fringe and at the other rural fringes I attended, was an interest in the details that will matter to rural communities.

This doesn’t necessarily mean farming, but it does mostly mean farming. It’s true that most rural voters aren’t directly involved in agriculture, which only employs around half a million people, but again: Labour’s rural disconnect is cultural. Farming, and other land based industries like fishing and shooting, go right to the heart of rural culture. Land based industries shape the landscapes we look at, influence many of the social events going on in our towns and villages, and drive much of the conversation down the local pub. And I speak from painful experience when I say it is a little disheartening to wear the red rosette when the farmland bordering every road and railway line is festooned with “Vote Conservative” signs.

So putting effort into working for the land based industries could be electorally useful in the countryside, and as my fellow panellists Will Straw and Helen Goodman MP pointed out, it is also of immediate importance. Agriculture should be top of Labour’s policy agenda because farming is so uniquely exposed to Brexit.

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

14/06/2017, 10:15:29 PM

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”.

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