One of the bright spots of a dismal night for Labour in 2021 was Dan Norris’ crushing triumph in the West of England metro-mayoral election, by a 59-41 margin.
This victory was predicated on a huge swing in the Bath and North East Somerset Council area, half of which Dan previously represented as an MP. In 2017 we finished third, 7,000 votes behind the victorious Tories and with only 6,000 votes. In 2021 we finished only 143 votes behind, on over 15,000 votes.
Part of this is attributable to Dan’s unique appeal to rural voters in North East Somerset. Having represented the area as an MP for 13 years, he was fondly remembered in many of the communities in the constituency. The fact that Dan was so well known meant that he did not fall victim to the anti-Labour swings we saw in other parts of the country. But it was the fact that he understood the values and concerns of rural voters that was key.
North East Somerset contains former mining communities such Clutton, Paulton, Peasedown St. John, Radstock and Westfield – expansive mining terraces of named houses are a common feature for anyone canvassing in the area. Whilst the pits closed during the 1960s, the working-class community spirit has endured in these areas. This is not what outsiders might expect of the constituency of Jacob Rees-Mogg, but it shows the diversity that characterises the British countryside.
These are areas that were once represented solely by the Labour Party, but during the last 20 years have seen the Tories and Liberal Democrats creep in. Despite how far the Labour Party had fallen in recent elections, in these areas we were consistently shocked by how positive the reaction was from people to whom Labour had not spoken for many years.
However, it was not just in these former mining strongholds that we discovered support. In the tiny hamlet of Ubley (fewer than 200 people strong) by the shores of Chew Valley reservoir, we again found support for Labour from people who had never voted for us historically but had lost faith in a government that ignored them.
But it wasn’t just in Dan’s old constituency that we found support. We took a trip to the constituency of Thornbury and Yate, a Tory-Lib Dem marginal long-since written off by Labour as not worth contesting. We visited the rural communities of Chipping Sodbury and Frampton Cottrell. On a rainsoaked day we found far more Labour support than we had imagined in an area neglected for so long. The CLP was active and engaged and more than happy to support our campaign effort, despite having so little support in the past.
My hope is that the links made across the region will help the strong local activist contingent in Thornbury and Yate to compete at the district- or parish-council level. We finished second in South Gloucestershire by 9,000 votes, which was a vast improvement on fourth in 2017 by 15,000 votes. Closing the gap in South Gloucestershire undeniably helped us to victory overall, showing the value of campaigning in all rural areas even if victory locally seems distant.
The coastal areas of the West of England Combined Authority also yielded support. On the final Saturday of the campaign I took a trip over to Severn Beach in South Gloucestershire. Severn Beach – from which Wales can be seen on a clear day – is an area that typifies the coastal communities of England. It is a 45-minute drive from the nearest city (Bristol) and lacks a bus route. The trains are once an hour. Unsurprisingly there was a huge amount of disinterest, with many people deciding not to vote. However, by showing our presence there we ensured that those voters who might have been predisposed to us would come out.
Keir Starmer represents the first Labour Party leader since Tony Blair who is not seen as hostile by many rural voters. This presents us with a unique opportunity to push into areas we have not competed in since 2010, or perhaps ever. If we are to win a majority in the next general election then we must seriously begin investing in seats like North East Somerset, and that means a relevant and comprehensive offer for rural voters.