Just a few months before the former Labour Leader Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ conference speech in 2012 I discussed with colleagues the right name for what is now Labour: Coast &Country, we even wrote down ‘One Nation Labour’ as a part of the route to power in 2015 . . . . .
Yet the results at the last General Election in target seats show how poorly Labour performed. At least 19 of the targets had a significant rural aspect to them, while at least 17 were coastal (or both). Labour only won one of the 19 seats.
These results proved the point, that to win a general election Labour must be able to represent the whole the nation – all four corners, country and city,
Do the new Labour Party leadership team ‘get’ that to govern the Party needs to win in all parts of the country? And need to embed One Nation approach into the Party’s organisation, policies, and communications.
The initial signs are encouraging.
In his final campaign speech for the Leadership Jeremy Corbyn MP said “If I am elected leader I will ensure that Labour is as much a party in the communities like the one in which I was born (Wiltshire), as it is for people in inner city constituencies like the one I represent. Too often the old machine politics writes off “the Tory shires”, abandoning communities struggling with issues such as housing costs, public service cuts and social exclusion just as those in inner cities are. If Labour doesn’t offer those communities solutions, no one else will. There shouldn’t be any no-go areas for Labour.” In turn in our own engagement with the Labour Party Deputy Leader Tom Watson MP it was clear that his experience of living and working in Dorset and Worcestershire had given him a decent insight to the issues faced by communities of coast and country.
Labour: Coast & Country couldn’t have put their shared ambition better – we exist to win the case for building Labour activism and representation right across the UK. To win in 2020 will require a swing equivalent to that seen in 1945, another election that saw Labour win many non-urban seats across Britain.
One aspect of the solution is perhaps counter intuitive, being a One Nation party is not the same as being a centrally controlled and directed party, not a party that creates and distributes all of its policy and messaging from a central team, nor a party that only focuses on ‘its people & places’.
Being a successful One Nation party must be built on an understanding of the diversity and variety of Britain, and a willingness to allow members to respond to local issues.
It is worth noting that more people live in ‘rural’ Britain (as defined by the ONS) than live in London (9.3m to 8.6m), while more people live in sparse areas (areas of very low population density, some 500,000) than live in all but a handful of UK cities, and certainly more than in say Leeds or in Bristol.
If Labour can take the ambition to be a One Nation party seriously as the Leadership team have suggested, then they have a chance to govern for the whole of the UK. To deliver on that ambition requires many things, these few would be a good start on that journey:
- Having a coherent vision for non-urban Britain, informed by the experiences of people who live there
- Recognize and reverse the view that some areas are inherently ‘tory’ and that campaigners ‘don’t do villages’
- Change campaigning and activism to reflect the realities of non-urban UK
- Acknowledge that the Party needs to have a development approach to the next few years, especially with the uncertainty of the boundary review.
Many parts of Britain’s coast and country are ripe for a Labour return, but neglect the needs of rural communities and UKIP will fill the void.
Hywel Lloyd is a Co-Founder of Labour: Coast & Country.