Chew Valley, the largest and most rural ward in North East Somerset, may not be a Labour stronghold. Yet at this year’s branch AGM members left upbeat and energised, determined to play their part in Labour’s effort to unseat Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg. I attended the meeting, as a guest speaker, to lead a debate about how best to capitalise on the opportunity we have to turn our corner of the southwest red.
The revised constituency of North East Somerset & Hanham might just prove to be the biggest story of the 2024 election. Boundary changes mean the seat will closely resemble the old Wansdyke constituency, which Labour held from 1997-2010. It contains super-safe Paulton, part of the old Somerset coalfield. It includes two large population centres, Keynsham and Hanham, where Labour won council seats from the Conservatives this year. The northernmost wards border Labour-voting Bristol. Above all, the changes make Labour the only plausible challenger to the Tories. The Lib Dems have admitted as much, stating their priority locally is to retain Bath and win in Frome. In North East Somerset & Hanham, for voters primarily motivated to defeat the Conservatives, Labour is the only option.
Our political opponent, Rees-Mogg, is our biggest asset. As we spent the summer door knocking in villages Labour had not targeted during the May local elections, the unpopularity of our MP was palpable. Voters know that behind his eccentric persona lies a man with extreme views. He denies the seriousness of climate change, denounces paid holidays and continues to defend the calamitous premiership of Liz Truss.
We won’t be first in line for the party’s resources as this isn’t viewed as a “must win” seat to get Keir Starmer over the line into Number 10. Yet Rees-Mogg’s notoriety is a bonus since we will draw in help from those who wish to see him ejected. And if Labour’s lead in the polls stays as wide as it has been throughout 2023, whispers alluding to the 1997 “Portillo Moment” will only grow louder.
Labour’s standing throughout the countryside is strengthening. Since the 2019 election, Conservative support in the 100 most rural seats has slumped from 59% to 41%. With Lib Dem popularity also declining, from 16% to 13%, Labour has been the overwhelming beneficiary. We are now only marginally behind the Tories.
The next challenge, in our constituency as in dozens of other rural and semi-rural seats in England, Wales and Scotland, is to shore up that support. The recent warning from Jonathan Roberts of the Country Land and Business Association that Labour needs “to up its game on engagement with rural communities” has been well noted.
Luke Pollard, Labour’s former shadow environment secretary, set a fresh direction of travel for the party in the countryside, insisting in 2021 that the next manifesto would be “the most rural positive manifesto since 1945.” Keir Starmer’s speech to the NFU conference the previous year was the first by a Labour leader since 2007. This positional shift now needs to be backed up by policy pledges.
There are clear dividing lines on rural policy. Desperate Conservative efforts to secure post-Brexit trade deals have in practice led to lower environmental and animal welfare standards and British farmers being undercut. Starmer, by contrast, backs homegrown food, recently committing that under a Labour government at least 50% of food bought by public sector bodies would be British. On devolution, too, Labour has a compelling offer for rural communities. Labour Coast & Country, building on the Brown Commission’s recommendations, is advocating for powers to be devolved to town and parish councils as part of the Taking Back Control Bill.
The prevalence of poorly insulated homes in the countryside means rural areas should benefit most from Labour’s plan to insulate 19m homes – through jobs created and lower energy bills. Likewise, Labour’s promise to restore neighbourhood policing, with thousands of additional officers, should prove popular, given crime rates in rural areas have risen faster than in the country overall.
Our experience on the doorsteps in Chew Valley and across the constituency tallies with Labour’s standing with rural communities in the national polls. Constituency parties must maintain this momentum. With energetic campaigning, regular fundraising and by demonstrating how Labour’s priorities will improve people’s lives, Rees-Mogg may not be the only Conservative worrying about comparisons with Michael Portillo come next year.