When I challenged the Secretary of State to provide more resources for the Police in Suffolk in September, Sarah Newton, the junior minister, clearly mis-heard “Southwark” for “Suffolk” and replied that it was all the fault of Sadiq Khan.
Leaving aside the blatant buck-passing that was going on, it is obvious that the Minister was conditioned to believe that Labour MPs come from London, or from “oop North”, or from Wales – anywhere but the Shire Counties. Tragically, far too often the Labour Party appears to fall into the same trap.
The fact is, we need to be able to win in Shire Counties – constituencies such as St Albans and Norwich North depend on their County Councils for much of their public spending and thus for the residents’ experience of government. It is no coincidence, I believe, that the extraordinary County Council election result in 1993 which left the Conservatives in England in control of just one single County – Buckinghamshire – led on to a General Election where Labour won seats that it had never even contemplated.
Labour has a vision of society which should work in rural areas. We believe in public transport. We believe in public education, in a decent health service, in properly resourced police services. All of these things matter to people in rural areas just as much as they do in urban areas. And in addition, we have a view of small businesses and of protection of the environment which does not start from the bottom line of the company accounts, but from the needs of the people.
For too long the Labour Party has projected a corporatist image which quite rightly supports the needs of trade unionists working in large institutions but ignores the needs of small and micro businesses and in particular of sole traders. Unlike the Conservative Party, Labour does not need to pander to the needs of multi-national corporations as we do not receive any significant amount in donations from them. Unlike the Conservative Party, Labour has a commitment to fairness which can and should extend to the self-employed as well as to public sector and industrial sector workers. And unlike the Conservative Party, we do not have an obsession with privatisation which leads services which should be delivered at the point of need to be instead profiled to maximise the profits of the contractor.
Housing, for instance, makes more profits for developers in greenfield locations, and if designed and built to cater for wealthy retired people. Thus we have the paradox of disproportionate levels of building in very small towns, virtually none of which actually caters for the needs of local people. Conservative Councils are relatively good at maintaining roads in rural areas, but completely useless at maintaining bus services to run along them. And while Conservative areas tend to attract the highest number of Free Schools, these are very often designed to please a minority of the local population – the “we don’t want our child mixing with the kids from the estate” mentality.
On all of these issues, Labour can and must win if we are to take back control of many of our Shire County Councils, convince the local voters that we are capable of winning and that we have a genuine alternative programme that can work for them, and ultimately win all those seats we need in the Shire Counties in a General Election in order to form a Labour Government.