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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.