Key Findings of the Virtual Coast & Country Conference 2020

As Labour once campaigned and governed because Every Child Matters, so now we must campaign to govern, because Every Job Matters. That means a focus on coast and country as much if not more than anywhere.  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.

The first step of campaigning to govern starts with listening to the communities of our coast and countryside. On Saturday 5th September over 100 supporters, members and representatives of the Labour Party came together to consider the issues and challenges of these communities; to listen to their representatives, and to explore how Labour can develop solutions that really work for them – getting away from the tired one size fits all feudal-esque approach of Conservative governments of the last decade.

We are very grateful for all those who attended, and our panel participants, not least those who have already offered to arranged zoom meeting with CLPs across the country!

Key findings from the day included:

  • Labour members are everywhere across the country. Given their number the Party can and should help them be seen in each and every one of their communities. Turning up gives Labour a better chance of finding common ground, of getting a fair hearing, which in turn gives a better chance to respond with locally focused Labour solutions.

  • The Labour:Coast&Country (LCC) network has a growing library of good practice that can be shared with supporters and their CLPs; and will continue to develop that resource. The Party should ensure that Labour stands in every County seat that is due to be contested in May 2021.

  • The conference recognises that one-size clearly doesn’t fit all, and that a decentralised approach to many services and decisions affecting these communities is the right way to go. That means getting devolution right, especially for England; including the right changes to local government – while that might include creating unitary local government it does not mean distant county unitary authorities, nor underfunded local services. 

  • There would be a different, more important role for the most local of councils, the town, community or parish council; with Labour local government reform focused on ensuring it and unitary local government could deliver for local need.

  • Labour should in turn consider its own governance, and take steps to ensure those areas of the UK yet to have Labour representation have a place in the Party’s governance, not least a voice on the NEC.

  • Given many of the communities of coast and country have similar issues to contend with to those places Labour already represents, greater efforts should be made to ensure solutions are developed with these sparse, diffuse and distinct communities in mind – as a minimum that would mean a commitment to rural and coastal proofing – better still would be to approach solutions with these localities in mind, and urban proof!

  • Being heard, acknowledging one size doesn’t fit all, and responding with local distinctiveness should support the creation of an attractive ‘coast & country’ / rural manifesto – we will need one well in advance of May 2021 as much as for May 2024.

  • Labour should in turn consider at least an annual coast and country focused campaign, be that ’Labour, the farmers’ friend’ as we fight for decent food standards and agricultural support for 2021 and beyond; or taking up the concerns of many communities of the free for all to come if the planning bill becomes law. A distinct campaign would enhance our ability to get national cut through on ubiquitous local issues.

  • Highlighted issues among others requiring coast and country suited solutions include access to and the opportunities offered by decent connectivity, digital and physical; post-16 and adult education & skills; an appropriate ‘clean growth’ strategy, noting the success of ‘The Preston Model’; a greater recognition of the importance of the defence sector to many of these communities; and housing to suit all incomes.

We note the Yorkshire Post’s report published on the day – a challenge for Labour to engage with rural, yet also a damning indictment of a decade of conservative government.

Campaigning to 2021 & Beyond

In addition to this strategic approach to the next four years a number of specific actions for a Party based response were noted, building on the post-2015 election work of Maria Eagle’s team. They are as follows:

  • Real impact in May 2021 lies in the more geographically varied mayoral contests, and in the County Council elections, in turn building a platform for 2024. Therefore we need:

    • A supported concerted effort to have a candidate for every county council seat, so Labour can be seen, with;

    • A national County election spokesperson on a par with our mayoral candidates, and used in unison with them;

    • Opportunities to put our mayoral candidates for West of England, Tees Valley and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough to the front of campaigns.

  • The Party needs a dedicated approach to the potential impact of both Boundary Commission review, and the proposed ‘Devolution’ White Paper as it appears to be about to abolish District Councils. As we have learnt from Labour’s unitary efforts in 2008/9 the creation of a ‘super’ unitary at the county tier is as good as being governed from Westminster, as well as being a way of reducing Labour representation – hence our proposals in 2018 for unitaries in two tier areas to be based on pairing up District Councils, and strengthening the role of town and parish councils.

  • The Party should consider a successor to ‘Operation Toe-Hold’ to build towards 2024, that could include getting London out in 2023, as well as an organised network for town and parish councillors.

We look forward to the second Virtual Coast & Country Conference with even greater frontbench participation in September 2021!

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