It was a privilege to join Labour Coast and Country recently to talk about how Labour can rebuild support in towns, rural areas, and coastal communities.
Currently, the electoral map shows England as a sea of blue, with small clusters of red in and around our cities. Our road to power must encompass towns and smaller communities. That means building on and broadening our coalition beyond our ‘new heartlands’.
Standing up for the interests of coast and country
Labour will champion the concerns of rural and coastal communities.
We will fight for rural interests during the Brexit negotiations. The government’s refusal to commit to maintain food and environmental standards has revealed a deep divide within the Conservative Party. Many Conservative voters feel they have been misled by the government on these issues; Labour promises to listen and challenge the government in this area.
The economic impact of coronavirus will differently impact coastal and countryside communities. Areas reliant on tourism and hospitality are going to find it particularly hard, and parts of our country which already experience some of the worst deprivation will bear the brunt of economic crisis. Rightly, Anneliese Dodds focused Labour’s response to the Chancellor’s summer financial statement on a call for jobs, and she has criticised the government’s continued attachment to a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting the economy, which hasn’t focused enough resources on those sectors (and, by extension, those places) most in need of ongoing support.
Labour must also hold the government to account on their commitments on infrastructure spending for the English regions, which is central to their pitch to ‘red wall’ places. Our Shadow Transport Secretary, Jim McMahon, is our spokesperson on ‘northern powerhouse’ issues, speaking up for those areas which have been promised so much but have been repeatedly let down by the Tories.
Labour will redistribute power as well as wealth to communities across the UK. Under the Conservatives, devolution has largely centred on city-regions. As we develop our own vision for devolution, Labour will be asking: what model of devolution works best for towns, and rural and coastal communities? What is the model that suits a more just and inclusive economic model?
Many of our values are universal
One of the things that came across powerfully when I spoke to Labour Coast and Country is that many of the concerns of people in rural places are the same as those in cities – whether it’s about buses, access to healthcare, or policing.
Between 2010 and 2018, local authority funding for bus routes in England and Wales was cut by 45%, with more than 3,000 routes reduced or scrapped. Many people have to travel much further to access A&E and specialist services.
Our lopsided economic model often pits cities against the rest. But, in reality, everyone loses out. A lack of opportunity outside of cities is matched by the exorbitant cost of living and deep inequalities within them.
Focusing on divisions can blind us to what people and places hold in common.
The loss of an MP cuts deep
In many of these constituencies, to be a Labour activist requires huge dedication which too often goes unrewarded.
Contributors from Delyn and Waveney reminded us that the loss of a Labour MP cuts deep. An MP’s office and their staff are often at the heart of campaigning. The same goes for councillors, who knock on doors all year round, and bring friends and family out in support. That infrastructure and those networks are not easily replaced.
In Yorkshire, where I am an MP, over the past decade we have lost ground in must-win marginals, lost seats we held for generations, and come dangerously close to losing others.
Alongside my Shadow Cabinet colleague John Healey, I have committed to working with local parties to see how we can help them start the Labour fightback in seats like Rother Valley and Keighley.
None of us have all the answers, and it isn’t up to us to tell members how best to reconnect with their communities. I am looking forward to work together with you to build that broad coalition to return a Labour government in 2024.
Rachel Reeves MP, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.