This weekend will be the first ‘first weekend of September’ in many years when I will not be in the pretty Norfolk village of Burston.
This important date in the calendar for those of us in the Labour and trade union movement in East Anglia, counters the idea that our radical past was only based in industrial cities and towns. In fact, the longest strike in British history took place in a small Norfolk village.
The strike was called in 1914, when two teachers at the local school were sacked for organising agricultural workers. The school children went on strike to show their support for the sacked teachers and, with the aid of local agricultural labourers, the couple were able to open an alternative school in the village.
Sadly, but quite rightly, this year’s annual rally to commemorate the strike has been cancelled due to Covid concerns. However I am delighted that I will instead be at a virtual conference organised by Labour Coast and Country. The event features a great line up of speakers showing that today’s Labour Party is taking the concerns of those living in our rural communities as seriously as the trade unionists of 100 years ago.
There are immediate issues to address.
We know that low-paid rural workers, employed in the UK’s meat, poultry and other food production plants, are being more badly affected by Covid than the population as a whole. Indeed nearly a hundred poultry workers and their families, from a factory just ten miles from Burston, are currently self-isolating due to an outbreak.
Rural and coastal communities are particularly reliant on the hard-hit tourism and hospitality sectors. This work is often seasonal, and despite the rise of the summer staycation, these businesses lost their crucial Easter income which is what usually keeps them afloat over the fallow winter months.
I will be chairing the conference’s session on “building back better” in our rural and coastal communities, including looking at what the rise in home working means for these areas.
It is well documented that the age profile of rural and coastal communities is creeping up. The Resolution Foundation found that the Maldon in Essex and Copeland in Cumbria are ageing twice as fast as the rest of country. One reason for this is the lack of availability of jobs, and the difficulties of commuting from these further-flung areas. So could a post-pandemic world offer a positive change?
Research shows that the number of employees working from home went from six per cent before the start of the pandemic to 43 per cent in April, shortly after lockdown measures were introduced, proving once and for all there is no overwhelming need for so many jobs to be based in big cities.
Office workers have proved remarkably adaptable as overnight they began working from kitchen tables, living rooms and bedrooms, and productivity has remained high despite the difficulties.
Could keeping some elements of the working from home culture alive as businesses recover have benefits for more remote parts of the country?
A Tory politician told me recently it was everyone’s moral duty to go back to the office and buy sandwiches in cities! That may be “building back” but it doesn’t sound to me like building back better.
Perhaps the new army of remote workers could instead support village shops? Meanwhile we could create hubs in village halls with fast broadband, photocopiers, “pro” versions of every video conference app on the market, and the chance to meet other workers. We could create a world where everyone can walk and cycle to work reducing unnecessary travel and pollution.
Challenges and opportunities abound – so let’s make sure Labour has radical policies to show we are on the side of working people in rural and coastal communities.
Alex Mayer. former MEP for the East of England.