In these extraordinary times, the opportunity to imagine other times and places, to daydream, or to simply enjoy the imaginary worlds of TV and radio, have been a solace to many as they manage their lives from home. For many, the most appreciated ‘place’ is their regular dose of soap – not the hand-washing sort, but the imaginary places of CorrieEastendersThe Archers. As a political activist reading LabourList, I wonder whether you have ever thought about how the characters in these imaginary places might vote? How you might campaign in their ‘place’? How you might appear in each soap as a campaigner on election day?

While that’s all fictional, Labour does have to apply its imagination to the real world situation of our coast and country communities, given more people live in the real world equivalents of The Archers’ Borsetshire (the rural UK) than live in the Eastenders’ Walford (Greater London). And of course to win a general election, any party needs to win in the communities of the coast and the country, as well as the city. The Labour: Coast & Country virtual conference on September 5th is the next step in helping the party show it both understands the issues facing non-urban communities, and that it can offer them a future-facing vision they can buy into.

The conference brings together a wider ranging group of frontbench MPs, local representatives and many members to highlight the issues and emerging Labour solutions as we all head towards a bumper set of local elections in 2021. Surprisingly enough, the issues are much the same as many of the others Labour fights on for the communities it already represents:

  • The already limited availability of affordable housing, which the planning white paper will exacerbate;
  • The lack of connectivity, with vast swathes of the country left without any public transport, coupled with limited decent broadband and mobile signal; and
  • A dependence on only a few sectors of economic activity – e.g. tourism, wholesale and retail, manufacturing and public services.

In some cases the solutions to these challenges would be the same as those Labour already has in mind as a national response. Yet the context of living in less densely populated areas – with an older population, with greater numbers of self- and multiply-employed people, often on lower incomes, and with more small businesses – does mean we have to think differently about the right solution. Both in terms of how we engage those communities on what’s needed and what we put in place as a result.

Ensuring that ‘every child matters’ in Suffolk isn’t the same as it is in Southwark, for example. That’s why rural-proofing is a minimum requirement for future Labour policy, and why a distinct manifesto for these communities and their challenges is a high priority. As the government’s blunt Covid-19 response continues, recent Labour research shows the one-size-fit-all approach to furlough is putting millions of jobs at risk – with rural and semi-rural communities in England most affected as a third of the workforces in Cornwall, Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, Staffordshire and Worcestershire are on furlough.

As we head towards May 2021, the elections for the English county councils, English mayors, the Scottish parliament and Welsh Senedd mean that we have almost a general election to contest. While our strengths will lie in many of the mayoral contests and in Wales, we must make sure that we have a relevant, future-focused story to tell in Scotland and in England, too, coupled with an appropriate storyteller. The county elections might seem least important, but that attitude would be both an unduly defensive position to take and one that neglects opportunities. Labour can only improve its county presence, and the counties include many of the seats needed for a general election victory.

One key step will be quickly identifying the Labour spokesperson for the English counties. A second will be ensuring that there is a distinct counties/rural manifesto. Given the furlough figures, there’s a clear opportunity to tell a Labour story about those employees and their future. From the Tolpuddle martyrs to today, Labour is on the side of the worker – wherever they work, whatever their job.

Can Labour win in areas that are less urban, increasingly rural and coastal? Some might say not because they aren’t ‘labour people’, ‘labour voters’, or even ‘labour places’. Yet Labour has and does represent such places. Our challenge is to imagine what we could do, how we would engage, how we would hear and be heard, how we would represent, and ultimately how we would govern – for the communities of coast, country and city – as the next Labour government. Please join us on the September 5th, and beyond, to contribute your imagination and effort to this eminently winnable opportunity.

Hywel Lloyd, co-founder of Labour:Coast&Country.

This comment piece was first posted on LabourList on August 26th, you can view it here.

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