How can Labour win in rural seats?

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.

In order to find out what Labour is thinking about these things I attended a few other rural fringes and heard quite a lot from the Shadow Defra team, including Shadow Secretary Sue Hayman. What I heard was an awful lot of pledges to listen. In more usual times, listening might be appropriate for this stage of the electoral cycle, but it was pointed out during the National Farmers’ Union’s exquisitely-catered fringe that there could be an election at any time which could thrust Sue Hayman into the Defra hot seat. I would suggest Shadow Defra doesn’t want to stay in listening-mode permanently, but while it is I would hope a wide range of organisations and individuals are getting a hearing.

Fortunately, the Shadow DExEU team were a little more forthcoming. At our fringe event Shadow Minister for Brexit Jenny Chapman pledged that Labour would win back the trust of rural and small-town communities, saying Labour would never again go into an election ignoring part of the electorate.

This was music to the ears of those who work for a rural Labour revival, but turning good intentions into votes is going to take a lot of work. I have been talking to Labour candidates who stood unsuccessfully for rural seats at the last election, and the problems these candidates experienced were both very uniform and very challenging. Good community-organising is the foundation of successful insurgent campaigns, but the lack of members in rural areas, and especially the lack of parish councillors and councillors representing rural wards, means it is incredibly hard to identify local issues to organise around in rural areas. The Jeremy Corbyn effect is youth-driven, yet in rural areas there is very little youth vote on which to draw. One candidate told me that the small rural youth vote wasn’t even breaking exclusively for Labour, but was splitting between postal votes from university students, which went to Labour, and young people who worked in land based industries in the area who voted for the Tories. Which brings us back to the importance of a credible agriculture policy.

Not being able to rely on local issues, and not being able to rely on a youth vote, left rural candidates looking for common ground with older voters and families to whom Labour should be able to offer so much, but with whom the cultural divide often proved too wide a chasm to bridge.

If Jenny Chapman’s admirable sentiment is to be delivered, and our questioner from South West Norfolk is to be satisfied, then Labour need to address all of these problems. Engaging with the task of making Brexit work for the countryside needs to be the top priority. Doing so challenges the “polite indifference” that has allowed a cultural disconnect to emerge and signals to those young people staying and working in rural areas that Labour is concerned about their future too. Get this right and rural membership grows, increasing the party’s sensitivity to rural people and local countryside issues. That just might be the key to winning in the countryside, without which there can be no overall Labour majority.

Liam Stokes is Head of Shooting at the Countryside Alliance

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6 Responses to “How can Labour win in rural seats?”

  1. NickT says:

    How can Labour make Brexit work for the countryside?
    Start by not doing anything so stupid as actually Brexiting. You can’t make an unnecessary disaster “work” for anyone, least of all those parts of the country that depend on EU subsidies and workers from Eu countries who are prepared to do the hard, poorly-paid work that the British think themselves just too good to do.

  2. swat says:

    Timely article, which again shows up Labours lack of interest in Rural Affairs.Countryside Issues have never been high up on Labours list, and we’ve left the the farm fields basically open for the Tories to exploit.
    Too often fine words and intentions are no substitute for determined actions to put the problems of the countryside right.
    And it is disheartening to experience the lack of interest that the Party has shown in the past.
    I know, because I’ve stood in 2 rural seats and there’s a core of about 6000 loyal supporters in these seats who always feel let down by the lack of interest. Surely we can build on this support?
    Just as Labour doesn’t really understand ‘business’, the same could be said of ‘farming’. There are real problems like transport roads schools health services employment social care and housing which affect all village communities, and the Party must frame policies that will build sustainable communities. That means more investment in these communities. Agriculture is our lifeblood, and we owe it to the people in the rural areas to improve their lives.
    At the moment, I’m India in a small village looking after the family farm which I’ve inherited and trying to grapple with making the farm workable and profitable. And experiencing the problems of village communities.
    The Govt of India is not the farmers friend, they’ve introduced a Goods and Services Tax which just increased the costs of fertilisers pesticides and tractors by about 18%, at a stroke. Subsidies are not tha easily available, so the poor farmer has to absorb the increased costs himself, and the price he gets for his produce is low.
    Thats why many farmers are going out of business.
    A similar situation no doubt exists in the uk.

  3. John P Reid says:

    Nick T remember when the farmers poured away all that good Milk after we went in the EEC, why do you think Fatmers are retainers, the ones in Suffolk I know aren’t and they like Jeremy

  4. Anne says:

    I would suggest that culture is a big driver as to why many in rural communities vote Tory. However Brexit will have an impact on farmers – they are about to loose their subsidies from the EU and I can’t these being easily replaced by this Tory government – Gove is proposing something very convoluted.
    Sue Hayman is an MP in my locality and seems to be doing a good job – agree she should be looking at how she can help the rural communities. Milk quotas was a big thing not too long age – farmers thought they were not being reimbursed sufficiently for their milk production.
    Have read about some good ideas about Brexit from Jenny Chapman – keep these coming.
    Tim Farren is also very knowledgeable regarding rural affairs – his constituency is rural.

  5. Tafia says:

    NickT Start by not doing anything so stupid as actually Brexiting. You can’t make an unnecessary disaster “work” for anyone, least of all those parts of the country that depend on EU subsidies

    I live in a rural area. The farmers round here support BREXIT because they want to grow what they want to grow and raise what they want to raise and not what the EU tells them – something they very much resent.

  6. Mike Homfray says:

    Tricky one. There isn’t in the main a tradition to draw upon – or if there is, it’s hidden in history. Mind you the question of how to win in urban city seats is just as much of a problem to the Tories.

    Perhaps we need to be more specific. We aren’t about to win South Holland and the Deepings or Penrith and the Border any time soon. It may be a case of looking at which seats we might be able to make an impact in where there is a rural element and what the specific issues are there. We came very close in Preseli Pembrokeshire and Morecambe and Lunesdale. No doubt we won the urban wards but where could we have picked up in the rural element.?

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