The penultimate weekend of July was one of the hottest of the year when sensible people were heading to the coast or country. However members of the National Policy Forum were instead gathering in Milton Keynes to finalise our policy platform for 2015.
As part of the National Policy Forum, Ed Miliband gave an excellent keynote speech followed by several rounds of questions. At events like the NPF, when there is a leader’s Q&A, questions normally follow a pattern – “I’m a Coop delegate – what is your view on Cooperative solutions…” “I’m a young person – how will you ensure youth services…?” “I’m from LGBT Labour… what is your view on equality…?
However it is quite a recent phenomenon for the “I’m from a rural part of the country…” question to come up. I’m delighted to report it did and that Ed’s reply was unequivocal. He promised that we would have a rural manifesto – which is a victory for the campaigning efforts of organisations like Labour Coast and Country.
Clearly the ‘One Nation’ slogan highlights the need to make sure that we have policies that appeal right across Britain and not just in urban areas. Supporters of Labour Coast and Country know there is an electoral imperative not to ignore our coastal and countryside areas. They are vital in European elections, for example in my East of England region, where the votes of coastal and countryside Labour supporters ensure we have Richard Howitt MEP as a progressive voice.
Many key Westminster seats have rural surrounds and Labour votes in wards we can only rarely win in council elections are still a crucial part of winning the seat and so a Labour Government. Just before the last General Election I was driving a minister to the then Labour held (now highly marginal) constituency of Waveney in Suffolk. I told him we had just crossed over the boundary into the constituency sparking the shocked reaction: “But this is the countryside!” Yet if we look back a little further to 1997, a hundred seats won by Labour were classified as rural or semi-rural.
The Living Standards and Sustainability policy document has a section entitled “Supporting Rural Communities” and we will go into the next election with policies specifically aimed at those living in more remote areas – for example to pay Winter Fuel Payments earlier for pensioners using off-grid energy, allowing them to purchase their energy at lower summer prices and store up supplies for the winter.
The way the NPF works is that there are hundreds of small meetings (a couple of NPF reps and the relevant shadow minister) hammering out details. I contributed to a meeting on the post-AWB landscape discussing how the next Labour Government will look at what more can be done to ensure agricultural workers are properly protected and extend the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. But rural and coastal issues are cross cutting and in many ways you could go through so many of our policies adding the words “including in rural and coastal communities”.
The cost of living crisis is not an issue confined to our cities, but critical also for rural communities. Indeed given higher transport costs and less choice, rural families are already spending £2,700 more on everyday goods compared to their urban counterparts.
Take the Bedroom Tax, there is a shortage of one and two-bedroom homes across Britain. But in some villages there simply are no one and two-bedroom homes at all. ACRE, the national voice for England’s network of rural community councils, has highlighted rural tenants having no choice but to move into towns or fall into debt if they cannot make up the rent shortfall.
Likewise increasing the minimum wage by more than average earnings, an end to the abuse of zero-hours contracts, cutting business rates for small businesses and restoring our National Health Service will all resonate in rural and coastal communities.
So I would make a plea to everyone campaigning and promoting our policies that as well as talking about “our towns and cities” you also mention “our villages and market towns” – it doesn’t cost a penny so will please Ed Balls!
When we go into rural and coastal communities with the mental note in our heads that you can add the words “including in rural and coastal communities” to the end of almost all our policies then we will truly get across the fact that a Labour Government will change the lives of people living not only in Birmingham but in Burston or Bishop Burton too. In fact we’ll govern for One Nation.
Alex Mayer is NPF Representative for the East of England
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.