Winning Rural England – Cllr Chris Hinchcliff

Chris Hinchcliff is a Labour Councillor on North Hertforshire district council and works for CPRE.

Across England, roughly 24 million people live in rural communities, or in urban
areas with a significant rural hinterland that plays a crucial part in their identity and
daily lives. With a Tory government resolutely determined not to rise to the
challenges facing our country, and a Tory cabinet locked in an ultra-right-wing re-
enactment of Reservoir Dogs, the Labour Party has an unmissable opportunity to not
so much shift the Overton window in rural areas as defenestrate the Conservative
Party through it.

It’s not just seats in regions like East Anglia or the South West where rural votes
matter. Whether or not we grow our support in the rural areas of key battleground
constituencies like Burnley, Hyndburn, and Alyn and Deeside will be crucial in
determining the outcome of the next election. If Labour start’s getting serious about
winning rural seats we can secure the big majority we need at the next general
election to transform the status quo that is failing so many and deliver a result that
more than reverses the disaster of 2019.

This might sound pretty hypothetical but as part of team that just routed the Tories in
market towns across North Hertfordshire for the first time in over 20 years, I know
that Labour can win in rural areas that our movement has written off for too long.
Here’s how:

  1. Listen to rural concerns
    All too often the left assumes that the towns and villages across England’s
    countryside are solely inhabited by the rich and wealthy – a stereotype just as
    fatuous as the depictions of all Londoners as owners of multi-million pound
    townhouses. Of course there are many people who are comfortably-off in the
    countryside but it is a fatal mistake to assume that all voters in these areas
    are therefore scions of the landowning squirearchy. In truth, for many rural
    communities private wealth sits alongside a deeply impoverished public
    realm. The poisonous Tory ideology of economic ‘efficiency’ has proven a
    drawn out death sentence for many towns and villages. One by one public
    services from local schools, to cottage hospitals and essential bus routes
    have been declared unaffordable and closed, creating an economic spiral that
    sucks ever more jobs and opportunities from rural communities. As pubs, post
    offices, and shops have disappeared, the quintessential English village has in
    many cases been left struggling to survive as more than a commuter
    dormitory. The story in every seat will vary but showing that Labour
    understands and empathises with the challenges facing rural towns and
    villages is crucial to gaining a hearing from voters across these communities
    who are desperate to see local investment.
  1. Focus on shared values
    Talk to voters in rural communities and you quickly learn that behind even the
    least promising doors are people who want to see politicians putting people
    before profit just as much as the best socialist among us. Whether it is the bus
    routes that only exist if they are making a profit for private shareholders, the
    housing developments that provide no affordable homes for local children, or
    trade deals that put generations of farming heritage at risk, rural voters know
    that the status quo is not delivering for them or their local area. Showing how
    Labour’s socialist values offer an alternative approach that would mean kids growing up in a rural community don’t have to get out to get on (even if you don’t use the s word on the doorstep) is an incredibly effective way to win support, including from voters you might assume are true blue dyed in the wool Tories.
  1. Work with trade unions
    Building good community links is crucial for a winning campaign in a rural seat
    and one of the best ways to do this is working as closely as possible with the
    trade union movement. From the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the present day, trade
    unions have had an important presence in rural communities and working with
    them can help you show your commitment to keeping good jobs in the area.
    In Royston, where I was elected as a District Councillor this May, we have
    well organised CWU and RMT branches who have recently been on strike for
    fair pay and conditions, and hundreds of Johnson Matthey workers
    represented by Community. As a Community rep in my own workplace, their
    support along with my other union, the GMB, played a big part in helping me
    to run a successful campaign in the backyard of the local Tory MP.
  2. Put your shoes to the test
    We need to be present in the rural communities we want to win on a regular
    basis between now and the next election and there is no alternative to being
    out on the streets going door to door and talking to voters to earn their
    support. Whether you are campaigning on local fuel poverty, or the water
    companies pumping sewage into our rivers and beaches, it is crucial to keep
    hammering home our key lines week in week out across rural communities. It
    sometimes seems that Labour Party believes the Tories have an innate ability
    campaign better than us in rural areas but they don’t have any secret tricks
    and in fact they actually aren’t very good at it. Rural residents want politicians
    who are visible and work for their votes, just like any other part of the country.
    In May this year, I and my Labour and Co-operative colleagues across North
    Hertfordshire were canvassing in our key wards multiple times a week from
    the day we were selected, and I lost track of the number of times I was told
    that I would be getting someone’s vote because I was the only candidate
    making the effort to speak to them. Canvassing in rural areas can be time
    consuming and certainly involves a lot of walking but it is the crucial element
    to persuading voters in these areas to put their trust in us.
  3. National leadership
    With so many voters losing faith in the Tory government, the Labour Party has
    a prime opportunity to send a clear message from the highest level that
    coastal and countryside communities are at the heart of our vision for the
    nation. Keir Starmer and the Shadow Cabinet have earned a hearing from
    voters in towns and villages across the country. Now we have to put forward
    the common sense policies on investing in high quality jobs and public
    services in every community, reforming the energy, transport and care sectors
    so they serve people not profit, and protecting both our environment and our
    food security, that rural communities are crying out for. Local canvassing will
    only take us so far if rural voters feel that a Labour government is not
    interested in them, but if the national party shows clear leadership on the
    issues that matter to them we could see the Labour promise surge across coast and country. This conference, Labour must clearly restate our determination to be the party of rural as well as urban seats. With the right policies, message and determination Labour can beat the Tories in seats they have taken for granted for years and paint the blue wall red.

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