Labour has an opportunity. For too long failure in the coast and country has been expected, and consequently the energies of the party have ignored the potential of our non-urban areas. Covid can change this; coast and country life will be dramatically altered by the aftermath of this pandemic.
Thanks to Covid home-working has now exploded in popularity, and it’s here to stay. The social, economic and demographic shifts that this phenomena will introduce present perhaps Labour’s most tantalising opportunity to reverse our recent sparsity of rural seats. However potentially beneficial these new trends may be, Labour must have the right policy programme needed to profit from these changes.
The main impact of home-working will be the increased elasticity of labour supply; no longer will it be necessary to live near centres of employment. Commuting distances increase when frequency drops, and theoretically commuting distances will become void for complete homeworkers.  This then allows people greater freedom to live where they please; and where people wish to live is, overwhelmingly, the coast and country.
This shift is already being reflected in the boom in the rural house market, Rightmove has announced that offers for rural houses are up 64% on their five year average. Nor is this expected to be a short term trend. 51% of London Rightmove inquires were for properties outside the capital. It is also worth mentioning that those best able to move are the most wealthy. The numbers are not insignificant, and this will raise multiple opportunities, and pitfalls for Labour.
An exodus from the city over the coming decades would, on the surface, buoy up Labour’s position. As a rule city-dwellers tick all the categories that suggest a Labour leaning, being younger, well-educated and socially liberal. It is no revelation that this is Labour’s core constituency. So their transition out of the cities and into the country poses a dangerous predicament—will these ex-city voters keep their Labour loyalty?
If they do then Labour will be able to exploit the demographic re-balancing towards the rural areas. One of the key blocks in Labour’s progress in non-urban regions is the age divide: rural regions are infamously older, and Labour lags significantly behind the Conservatives with older voters. A migration from the cities by younger voters could re-tip the balance, and make the countryside younger, and thus more Labour.
Yet if Labour has learnt anything from the last election, it was that it is never safe to assume that people will continue voting for you just because they always have.
There is a risk that ex-urbanites do not sustain their support for Labour, and instead begin to mirror their politics with the traditional orientation of the country. The change in geography could also bring a change in politics. This is no false danger, in fact it is exactly what many Conservatives hope.
Bim Afolami, a Tory MP, in conversation with the Economist, identified this exact issue. The influx of urbanites challenges the status quo of the non-urban, Tory, seats. He hopes that they convert ‘the prism in which they view the world’ to the Conservative model, and keep the seats blue. Labour must be alert to this problem.
And Labour’s opportunity is not just limited to the migration of urbanites. Covid presents a new means of engaging with traditional rural voters.
Home-working means the localisation of jobs. The localisation of jobs means the localisation of the services that support those jobs. This in turn means more (local) jobs and money. The main jobs most likely to leave the city are those in the ‘knowledge economy’, and these jobs are also happen to be amongst the most well paid.
The countryside lacks these jobs. In fact the absence of these, professional, better paid, jobs is one of the driving forces behind the youth flight from the country and coast. Not only would a relocation of these jobs help reverse that trend, but it would also great spillover benefits for the local community.
Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, calculated that the multiplier effect for every additional skilled job in an area is a corresponding increase of 2.5 jobs for that region.
“To win over rural voters, Labour will need to address the relative economic decline most rural areas have faced,” was a conclusion of the 2018 Fabian Society report Labour Country. The relocation of skilled jobs, and the multiplier rise in local employment offer a very promising potential solution to this issue.
But action is required. There is currently a great lacuna in policy that Labour can fill. In order for rural regions to benefit from the digitisation of the economy, they must be equipped with the necessary infrastructure. Labour can position itself as the party willing to provide the resources necessary for the countryside to capitalise on the changing economy.
Labour can use the coming digitisation of the economy, and the rise in home working and the associated growth in local employment, to provide a positive political pitch to the countryside.
This can be combined with a strong campaign that highlights the damage of austerity on rural residents. Add in the already observable drift towards a more socially conservative stance by Starmer (aimed at the ‘red wall’, but also neatly mirroring rural attitudes), and there emerges a strong, compelling, case for many in rural areas to vote Labour.
1— Julia Kolloewe, ‘Why the home-working boom could tumble London’s skyscrapers’, The Guardian, Sat 27 Jun 2020 16.00 BST — (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jun/27/why-the-home-working-boom-could-tumble-londons-skyscrapers); Alex Hern, ‘Covid-19 could cause permanent shift towards home working’, The Guardian, Fri 13 Mar 2020 17.11 GMT, (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/mar/13/covid-19-could-cause-permanent-shift-towards-home-working)
2— ‘It is generally found that workers are more inclined to accept a job that is located farther away from home if they have the ability to work from home one day a week or more (telecommuting)’— D. de Vos, E. Meijers & M. van Ham, ‘Working from home and the willingness to accept alonger commute’, The Annals of Regional Science, 61, 375–398 (2018). (https://doi.org/10.1007/s00168-018-0873-6)
3— Melissa Lawford, ‘Agents warn of a bubble in frenzied country property market led by fleeing Londoners’, The Telegraph, 6 July 2020 • 6:00am—(https://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/uk/agents-warn-bubble-frenzied-country-property-market-led-fleeing/)
4— Melissa Lawford & Adam Williams, ’Why London house prices could be hit hard by coronavirus – as demand for country homes surges’, The Telegraph, 6 May 2020 • 5:00am—(https://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/uk/london-house-prices-could-hit-hard-coronavirus-demand-country/)
5— See p.10 of ‘Labour Country’; 40% of rich world jobs can be performed remotely— ‘Covid-19 has forced a radical shift in working habits’, Briefing, The Economist, Sep 12th 2020 Edition— (https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/09/12/covid-19-has-forced-a-radical-shift-in-working-habits)
6— ‘Covid-19 and the end of commuterland’, Britain, The Economist, Sep 12th 2020 Edition—(https://www.economist.com/britain/2020/09/12/covid-19-and-the-end-of-commuterland)
7— See, Elle Hunt, ’The great rebalancing: working from home fuels rise of the ‘secondary city’, The Guardian, Mon 26 Oct 2020 07.00 GMT—(https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2020/oct/26/the-great-rebalancing-working-from-home-fuels-rise-of-the-secondary-city)
8— A McKinsey report predicts that spending on digital infrastructure needs to rise 6-11% per year for the next decade. From Is an infrastructure boom in the works?’, Finance and Economics, The Economist, Jan 2nd 2021 Edition—(https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2021/01/02/is-an-infrastructure-boom-in-the-works