“You’re obviously just not trying…”: The harsh reality for Non-Urban Labour

We were discussing my chances of becoming a borough councillor at the 2015 local elections.

‘Surely,’ said my friend, ‘you just need to put the work in – knock on doors, put out leaflets – and then every seat is winnable? You’re obviously just not trying…’

He’s not had much to do with politics, bless him. ‘Let me explain,’ I sighed, resisting the urge to scream.

My ‘patch’ is technically a ‘village’. Stretched along a by-passed ‘A’ road just north of our county town, it is actually an established high street with multiple ‘bolt-on’ housing estates which are home to some 5,000 people.

It is also part of a rural, Tory-in-perpetuity constituency.

Things were not always that way. When I joined Labour, full of anti-Thatcher campaigning zeal, the village came under the same Parliamentary constituency as the town, and we and the nearest urban ward were a joint branch. Boundary changes intervened, however, and 1994 saw us cast into the outer darkness of the new, geographically large and predominantly rural, CLP.

It was, and still is, an unwieldy situation. The only urban focus of the constituency lies down south in ‘the other half’, while our main community of interest is the county town – itself another constituency. Our branch is huge and unrelentingly rural. And equally unrelentingly Tory.

Apart from my ward, that is. The village has been every political colour in its time, going from solid Labour in the 1970s, to Liberal (remember them?) in the 1980s, then Tory in the early 1990s. Much to my surprise, I actually won the seat in 1995, serving for just one four-year term before being ousted by the Tories. And hold it they have, despite my standing for most elections since.

So is my friend right and I’m just not trying hard enough? Or are there other factors in this, a familiar scenario to so many of you?

Well, to an extent I hold my hands up. I haven’t always door-knocked and leafleted. Life intervenes, and some years you have to be content with simply giving your Labour voters a name on the ballot sheet. It’s a perfectly valid part of what we do, especially where we know we can never, ever win.

What we also do, unpalatable though it may be, is use our limited resources to fight only the battles we can possibly win. And by ‘limited’ I mean almost non-existent.

A CLP which had some 400 members now has half that number, fewer than 10% of whom are active in any sense. Our multi-ward, multi-village branch covers nearly 210 sq km and has a population of almost 27,000. Of these, fewer than 100 are Labour Party members and, of those, five or six come to meetings.

Neither CLP nor branch has any money to speak of. And people to knock doors? Forget it. The best we can do is rustle up a few stalwarts to deliver leaflets. The leaflets we can’t afford to have printed, that is.

So, talking about battles we could win, what of our discussion? My friend persists: ‘The ward’s not even that rural, so close to the town and with all those new houses. Surely Labour could win it? You did it once, after all…’

Yes, I did. But in 1995. The year that saw the biggest swing to Labour in decades. And my majority? Two votes. Yes, just two. And I ‘lost’ next time on a dead heat when, after five recounts, the two names were thrown in a ballot box and the Tory one drawn out.

Now, what are the chances that 2015 will see a swing anywhere near 1995? Factor in the increase in the home-owning population; the likely defectors to UKIP; the neglect of rural communities by successive governments; public disenchantment with politics in general – and this village looks like a battle too far.

So, while I’ll do what I realistically can, you’ll forgive me if I spend most of my time and what’s left of my energy in the neighbouring urban constituency – one that’s high on Labour’s list of key marginals.

Now there’s a battle we can, and must, win if we are to return a Labour government. That said, Labour – One Nation, or not – is supposed to be the ‘Party of the People’. That means ALL people. Not just the people in this city or that city, but everyone, everywhere. That, if for no other reason, is why I think this all-too-familiar scenario for non-urban CLPs has to change.

What do you think?

Jenni Jackson, Labour Member from NE Beds CLP | @jenni_jackson

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.

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