The Coast & Country question: why should Labour bother with the rural vote?

In the last summer of 2013, I was interviewed on Radio Norfolk. They had recently heard about my campaign to get the Labour party to launch a “Rural manifesto” to reconnect with non-urban voters. Some had even read my Rural manifesto proposal – over-long and badly written, though it was. It was a terrifying experience, and while most callers from rural Norfolk were in support, some concerns became apparent from this broadcast.

First, why should Labour even bother trying to appeal to the coast and country voter? The majority of rural constituencies, especially in England, are safely Conservative (with a number of rural Lib Dem seats, mostly in the southwest). But contrary to popular perception, this was not always the case. Some of the great Labour victories of the past, most recently in 1997, saw unexpected non-urban constituencies – such as Northwest Norfolk, Rochester and Strood, and Harwich – elect a Labour MP.

But 2015 will not be this kind of clear-cut landslide by any stretch of the imagination. So why bother wasting scarce resources to appeal to non-urban areas we generally won’t win? The combined rural population of England, Scotland and Wales is over 11.75m (19.5 per cent of the three countries’ population), which, based crudely on the turnout of the 2010 general election, means there are over 7.6m votes to contest for in rural areas. In addition to this, 25 of the 106 designated target seats are classified as rural or semi-rural. So, as Ed Miliband declared his intention for the party to have “4m conversations on the doorstep”, those conversations can not be confined to the city if Labour is to build any kind of popular consensus to govern – even as a minority or coalition. In this election, every vote will matter.

The Labour party, however, has a problem when it comes to the hinterland. Take the high-profile and extremely successful “Freeze the Bill” pledge. So successful was this campaign that it defined the political discourse for months afterwards and Labour’s lead in the polls reached a high point. But this campaign, in its original form, ignored the fact that up to half of households in many non-urban areas are off-grid and reliant on oil or gas suppliers – still subject to the same price increases and extortion, but just not covered in “Freeze the Bill” (this was rectified later).

Although much of what Labour is talking about and devising ample policies for – be it on the cost-of-living crisis, the devolution of powers to local government, housing supply, rental controls, child care or transport re-regulation – is as applicable to the city as it is the market town, it needs to be adequately rural-proofed from inception, rather than as an afterthought. The Rural Manifesto offers us the chance to display some of these policies from a purely non-urban perspective, which the main election manifesto won’t.

That said, I’m not going to pretend that Labour has been answering all coast and country questions but just framing things the wrong way. There are big questions that still need to be answered on agriculture and the food and fishing industries, on transport and infrastructure, on the environment and greenbelt, on low wages and underemployment (to name just a few).

Most of all, though, Labour needs to realise that one size does not fit all when it comes to the coast and country. After all, the challenges faced by people living in North Norfolk are different from those in the Highlands of Scotland, which are, in turn, different from those in the Vale of Glamorgan. Despite popular perception, “rural” can mean wealthy or deprived, agricultural or industrial, mobile or immobile, young or old.

Although the party has not announced whether there will be a Rural Manifesto, I have heard a suggestion that it may be due to be unveiled in April. No one is expecting miracles, but if it does go ahead, it would give rural Labour something to fight with on the doorstep. For victory in 2015, Labour will need votes from all areas: urban and suburban, coast and countryside.

Jack Eddy is National Coordinator for Labour: Coast & Country.

First published in the New Statesman.

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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