Helen Goodman MP’s rural constituency is the geographically largest that Labour holds. To walk around Bishop Auckland’s 356 square miles, taking in the hill farms in the north Pennines to the west and the former mining towns to the east, would take around a week. It is a long way from Islington North. Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency is the smallest in the UK, at around two square miles. You could wander from Dalston Junction in the east of the Labour leader’s constituency, round Holloway and up to Crouch End before heading south-east back to Dalston in around three hours without pushing yourself.
This same dynamic will be at play in the local elections in England on May 3 2018. In the course of the research that went into the recent Fabian Society report Labour Country, we spoke with council candidates in rural wards 14 miles long. Before we come to any of the cultural or political reasons for Labour’s relative lack of success in rural England, this basic fact of geography places a substantial obstacle to Labour’s efforts to make progress in rural parts of the country. Organising and canvassing in urban areas is easier and more cost-effective in the short term.
But only in the short term. At present the Conservative party is the natural party of most of rural England. Challenging the deep-seated, largely instinctive rural Conservative vote will take more time than the time before local elections allows for, but it must happen if Labour is to become a truly one-nation party capable of speaking to and for the whole country.
This will require a national effort to centre rural culture, concerns, language and imagery at the heart of Labour. But it will also come down to the effort of rural Labour activists on the ground, who have long been encouraged to head to the nearest town or city to organise and canvas because their rural patch was considered a waste of time or a lost cause. Those who have campaigned in rural areas will know how surprised and appreciative residents can be at the unusual sight of a red rosette on the doorstep, even if they don’t plan to vote Labour (and especially if there isn’t an election round the corner).
Our report recommends that rural local branches be given greater support from CLPs, regional parties and the national party so that they may throw themselves into local campaigns and community life – whether that it is a campaign to save a village pub, or helping to organise the local fete. Practical activity and an active local presence demonstrate that the Labour party is a party for rural people and their concerns rather than a party of, by and for the cities.
Likewise, rural activists should be encouraged to stay and campaign close to home rather than travelling to their nearest urban settlement. There could be swaps within and between CLPs, with those in larger settlements taking the time to campaign in rural areas. This may mean fewer doors get knocked. But in the long run it will be more valuable than stacking up votes in urban wards with big Labour majorities where you can’t move for Labour activists.
Labour may well be heading for a successful 2018 local election night. However, if Labour’s gains come only from London and the other big cities, it may indicate that Labour’s resurgence is failing to extend beyond the city-gate. The real test for Labour in England, and rural England in particular, will come when Labour contests the district elections in England in 2019.
Tobias Phibbs | Researcher and Assistant Editor at the Fabian Society