Country Tour – Day 3 – The North

A cool grey morning in the Midlands soon gives way to the sunny uplands of the Peak District as we head north to meet Caitlin Bisknell, PPC for High Peak, and her team. The rolling hills stretch out in every direction, occasionally interrupted by an aggregates quarry, a bright beacon on human industrial endeavour in the landscape. We meet with Caitlin in the small village of Peak Dale and are soon door knocking, (& noticing many community facilities paid for by the aggregates levy (between 2005/07)).

With Caitlin and team, Peak Dale village

As a village some eight miles from the nearest town (of Buxton) the bus is a lifeline for the many older residents so transport is an issue on the door step; as are jobs, immigration and the NHS. Four streets later and much of the village is covered, some good Labour support, with the occasional ‘I haven’t decided yet’ and just a couple of once Labour veering to UKIP.  Details of our five pledges on immigration help moderate people’s concerns – we clearly need to continue to have this conversation in detail with those who might waiver towards ukip.

With time pressing we head off to Rossendale & Darwen to meet Will Straw, our PPC there. First stop is Ritherdon & Co. Ltd, a specialist company making stainless steel enclosures, such as those metal boxes you see along the highway holding the cabling for traffic lights and the like. A growing business they suffer from poor broadband connectivity, which can affect everything from downloading software updates to accessing design software.

At Ritherdon Co.Ltd with MD Ben Ritherdon

A great business that will benefit from our continued commitment to universal broadband access.  Broadband, and mobile connectivity, are probably already an essential utility (along with water and electricity) and we should ensure everyone can benefit from the potential they offer, as citizens, and for the economic opportunity connectivity offers – every part of the UK can play its part in our economic revival, if they have the download speed!

Our final door knocking of the Country Tour has us enjoy the sunshine and views of the Jubillee Tower on the moors above Darwen in the company of Will and his team, assisted by the red coated Graham Jones, PPC for Hyndburn. Again plenty of Labour voters, interspersed with the occasional Ukip wavering household – door knocking might take longer, with more to explain in detail, but it is usually worth it – some who start angry appreciate the time, get the detail, and are willing to think again, not least because it really is Labour or disaster, for their village or town.   After watching Huw gently, firmly persuade another waverer I top–off my tour with a Tory – Labour switcher ‘the IMF have done for the Tories today’ who has a good chat with Will about what needs to happen for the town.

With Will and team in Darwen

A final team photo before departing home – three days have seen us cover 650 miles, made at least that many contacts, in eight constituencies with over 100 Labour friends and colleagues. We wish them all the best for the next three weeks and look forward to seeing them win on May 7th.

Hywel Lloyd is a Co-founder of Labour: Coast & Country

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.

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What does Labour need to do to win the rural vote?

How will Labour win the rural vote? I’ll some it up in three words: policy, process, and people! People with passion for the rural, for the countryside and coastal communities which help define this island nation.

But first of all, we must be clear on what we mean by the “rural vote”. That really matters!

  • The “rural vote” implies some horrible homogenous mass, that politicians can target crudely by devising a one-size fits all set of policies for a one-size-fits all countryside. That’s not only wrong, but downright condescending. The strength of rural communities lie in their great diversity, and their interdependence with market towns and the urban.

  • The keys to unlocking the “rural vote” lie in addressing the real rural issues that make a difference to people’s lives, both in quality of life, and their standard of living. This includes the health and wealth of the people and communities, and well as the health and wealth of the natural environment.

  • My final comment on the “rural vote”, which the Tories – and LibDems -have simply taken for granted for far too long: as Shadow Sec of State Maria Eagle said yesterday at a Labour Coast and Country fringe, “Labour doesn’t have a rural problem. Rural Britain has a Tory problem.

Now I don’t want to dwell on this. But … let’s cast an eye over the record of the so-called “party of the countryside”, who have spent the last four and a half years acting like absentee landlords to rural communities and the rural vote.

Rural areas are characterised by lower-earnings and self-employment, yet this has been made worse by the lack of growth in earnings over the last 5 years, the increased use and abuse of zero-hours contracts and under-employment. There is a nationwide cost-of-living crisis in which we are from being “all in this together”, an austerity drive far from being balanced on the shoulders of those who can bear it the most, yet rural areas suffer this more with the cost of services and goods, the costs of accessing public services and work, schools and training, the poorer transport and digital infrastructure. Food banks are not just an urban phenomenon.

Housing costs, food, water and energy bills, transport and childcare are often more expensive in rural areas. On average, rural households pay nearly £1000 more per year on transport yet their access to public and integrated transport is worse. Rural businesses and households have seen the soaring energy costs, but have an added burden, in that 1 in 5 in rural areas and over 1 in 3 in sparse rural areas have no grid access, forcing them to use more expensive alternatives for heating.

A government – LibDems included by the way though some have recently had a pre-election Damascian moment – that is happy to see people forced from their homes and rural communities, from their children’s schools and places of work, through the callous and downright daft bedroom tax. It has more of an effect in rural communities where alternative suitable accommodation is even rarer.

And if you’re looking to buy a home, in rural areas the average deposit for buying a home is three times the average salary.

In rural communities places where people gather are important economically but also socially. Local pubs have been closing at a rate of 26 per week. Post Offices are adapting but still struggling to survive, dependent on the link with Royal Mail, and now threatened by the fire-sale privatisation of Royal Mail.

Oh, and of course, the same government that tried unsuccessfully to flog off our public forests, was criticised for the way its decision to break up the Food Standards Authority contributed to a confused and delayed response to the horsemeat scandal, downgraded flooding as a priority in Defra, and frankly doesn’t seem to know biodiversity from its bio-detergents.

Rural Britain needs championing. It needs champions.

Labour will champion rural Britain because a truly One Nation party and a One Nation government must speak for all of Britain in all its splendid diversity, urban and rural, city and market-town and hamlet.

Labour will champion Rural Britain because the social, economic and cultural linkages between urban and non-urban are integral to the future success of every to our nation, and to every community and every individual. In this interdependence and mutual reliance is our strength, and our national character.

Labour will champion the people and businesses, communities and organisations of Rural Britain: because it is right to share the proceeds of economic growth equitably, and to promote a good quality of life and standard of living for every person.

So Labour in government will strive to:

  • Secure the recovery in rural communities by building more affordable homes, helping businesses grow and prosper, and delivering universal broadband as part of a high-tech rural economy.

  • Work in partnership with local government, voluntary and local organisations to ensure effective and efficient delivery of frontline services in rural communities

  • Promote sustainable and profitable food, farming and fishing industries, and secure meaningful – and I mean meaningful – reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy

  • Preserve and protect and enrich the diversity of our countryside and natural environment, whilst protecting it against flooding and adapting to climate change.

  • Re-instate and strengthen the processes by which we get the right policy choices in Whitehall, at a regional level, and at a local level. This means “sharper-elbows” in all levels of government for rural-proofing and for mainstreaming policy, and sharper-elbows in town halls and in regional consortia, so that policies are fit for purpose, right for rural communities, always and automatically. It means devolving power and responsibility away from Whitehall to the town hall and parish hall.

So, some early practical examples of this approach: Labour will pay off-grid households their winter fuel payments early, so pensioners can buy fuel cheaper, and not make the choice between heating and eating; and we will freeze energy prices to save those small rural businesses over £5000 per year; we’ll give communities the powers to protect their bus services so they get better value for money; and we will push the minimum wage

To sum up: it is the “Three P’s”: Policies that matter to people and make a difference, the Process in government that helps that happen, and people – Labour people – who will make that happen!

Labour has to mean what it says about rural communities, and – just as importantly – look like it means it! Labour has never been just a party of the city and the suburb. Our roots go deep in the countryside too. But we sometimes don’t shout loud enough about it.

But we are under-represented in rural areas politically, and we must work to change this, because otherwise the voice of social justice in rural areas is missing.. We need champions of people and rural communities, from a local level to the very top of government. That is out mission.

There will be a rural conference. There will be a rural manifesto. There will be a stronger rural voice and more rural champions in parliament after the next election when we turn our PPCs into MPs.

Huw Irranca-Davies, Shadow Minister for Food and Farming | Conference 2014

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.

The long and the short of food and farming

The challenge for farming often gets defined in the ‘here and now’: the dairy crisis of 2012, the continuing impacts of the Somerset floods, last year’s cheap imports of lamb or this year’s beef prices, or just the need to get this season’s crops safely in and put a smile on the bank manager’s face. These immediate challenges for today always need our urgent attention, or there is no tomorrow to worry about.

But tomorrow does need our attention too, with challenges including: climate change; rising agricultural input and energy costs; competition for water and water scarcity; competition for agricultural land from other uses; declining agricultural productivity; and pressures on the natural environment and ecosystem.

Clearly, one of the biggest challenges is feeding the growing world population while also satisfying the domestic and international demand for safe, nutritious and affordable food. For farming in the United Kingdom this is a golden opportunity, boosting our markets by demonstrating the highest standards in our food production from farm through to processing and manufacturing and all the way to the consumer.

The rising global population and the increasingly westernised diets of nations with growing populations and disposable incomes means that we have a chance – and even an obligation – to play our part in feeding the world, as well our own consumers in the UK and European Union. New markets are opening up with huge export opportunities not only for our produce but for our knowledge and expertise in food, agricultural science and research and development.

This means rethinking the way we do agriculture: increasing agricultural productivity and innovation, not simply production levels per se; at the same time being unashamedly ambitious about protecting and enhancing our natural environment and environmental services; shifting the narrative from the cheapest possible food and a race to the bottom (horsemeat!) to good, affordable food (safe, nutritious, traceable, free from criminality and exploitation of people or animals etc) and a race to the top; using leadership on production standards and animal welfare to promote our produce overseas; and being open on evidence to traditional and innovative technologies, which can help us feed the UK and the world sustainably, while making sure everyone – especially developing nations – are not just passive recipients of new technologies.

One element of our rethinking is long overdue. We have to change those parts of food and farming in which low pay and poor conditions have persisted for generations, where rogue gangmasters can infiltrate and agency workers dominate our production lines and fields, and where there is exploitation of migrant workers here or vulnerable people overseas hidden in long and complex supply chains. People and communities suffer and so does the reputation of the industry. So Labour will tackle the overuse and misuse of agency workers and migrant workers in all sectors, support the work of the Gangmasters Agency and all efforts to tackle exploitation and slavery, strengthen the national minimum wage and enforce it better, and actively encourage the take up of a living wage through fiscal and other measures. This goes alongside investment in skills and training. It is only fair that all who have a hand in producing our food share fairly in the rewards.

Of course, common agricultural policy reform has the ‘here and now’ as well as the longer-term issues to work through. The current reforms are disappointing, and the lack of UK leadership at an EU level over the last four years is telling. What happened to simplification? What happened to moving towards a more competitive European farming freed from the market distortions of subsidy? A more level-laying field? Ministers (and more importantly farmers) are going to have their hands full unravelling the added bureaucracy and complexity and costs.

It may seem a long way away, but actually, government needs to start working at a UK and EU level on the next stage of reform and one that genuinely moves us towards a simplified CAP with a more competitive agriculture. That opportunity has been missed this time and a lot of effort from farmers and government wasted.

But let me make clear, in the best interest of UK food and farming we need to be at the heart of the EU, leading the debate and setting the agenda: with the strategic parameters (the ‘level playing field’) set at an EU level but with greater subsidiarity for the UK and the nations and regions to manage their own farming; benefitting from access to the EU market and also the EU-negotiated access to international markets; working collaboratively towards a more competitive agriculture less reliant on subsidy; playing our part in supporting the agriculture of developing nations and helping feed the world population.

In all these aspects we need strong leadership, long-term vision, and we need a plan of action to make things happen. Because in addition to the economic potential, food and farming touches people’s lives intimately in ways that no other sector does: in health and nutrition, in culture and diet, in linking people with place, in supporting rural communities, managing conflicting land uses, in reducing waste and carbon impact and so much more.

That is why we produced Food 2030 in January 2010 before we left government. It was a landmark strategy and is still relevant, even though this government left it on the shelf to gather dust. Its time will come.

Labour would also develop with the sector an economic growth strategy based on four key pillars: investing in people through skills and training; driving innovation in production; an active government that works with farmers and food producers to put in place a long-term strategy taking us to 2030; and an industry and government that look out to the world with confidence.

Food and farming have massive potential for boosting economic growth, and the rewards of that growth should be shared along the whole supply chain. We can simultaneously meet the major environmental and societal challenges. That is not just an exciting prospect. It is something we have to do – together.

First published by Progress at: http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2014/08/13/the-long-and-the-short-of-food-and-farming/

Huw Irranca-Davies MP is Shadow Minister for Food and Farming

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.

Getting off the bottom rung and into power in rural seats

So, the fantastic work of Labour activists, promoted by Jack Eddy from Labour: Coast & Country and spearheaded by Huw-Irranca Davies MP, has been recognised. The Rural Manifesto has been given the green-light by Ed Miliband – now comes the time to develop innovative and appealing policy for coast & country areas in order to fill it.

Excellent news, yes, but what does it mean?

LabourList readers not local to the area, won’t know much about South Suffolk. It spans Shotley to Shimpling, Pinewood to Glemsford and has a coast.

We’ve put together a campaign, a profile and a growing base of support using energy, nous and the tools available – including nation-builder and contact creator.

Siren voices insist this is forever true-blue Toryland, but voices on the doorstep tell a different story. They tell of an historic lack of opportunity to vote Labour. In some places that’s because we’ve rarely had a name on the ballot. Local members, often retired to rural villages after rich years of activism elsewhere, simply can’t do it any longer. In others it’s arisen from tactical decisions to concentrate effort and resources elsewhere.

Then there are those who talk of accepting second-best – a habit-forming tendency to vote tactically for the non-Tory. That’s allowed Lib-Dems, Greens and the odd – sometimes most odd – Independent to flourish. Then there are tales of parliamentary candidates campaigning only in nearby Ipswich.

So how will Labour’s Rural Manifesto translate into real action in South Suffolk? Well, it won’t without activists. Nor will it without campaigning hard on local issues all year, culminating in local elections – whether Parish, Town, District, County or Parliamentary.

As in many rural areas, District and Town Council elections take place at the same time as the General Election in May next year. I’m not the only one excited by this; nothing brings out activists old and new with a sense of hope and optimism like a General Election

But here is the challenge. In South Suffolk we have just 3 Labour District Councillors and no County Councillors. If we see building rural Labour as a ladder with District Councillors as the bottom rung then we have lots of work to do.

I fully understand how important our key seats are and have and will continue to support my fabulous key seat colleagues as much as I can. But we’re not going to get up that ladder if potential activists and Parliamentary Candidates are encouraged not to campaign in their locality because it’s ‘hopeless’ or ‘a waste of time’.

All of the potential Town, Parish and District candidates I have met in South Suffolk want a Labour Government. They would also like people with Labour values running all three tiers of local government. They want to campaign in their locality to achieve this and I intend to help them.

Jack Eddy has discussed with me the need for Labour to have a real mandate to govern our country. He’s right. Such a mandate can only be achieved if voters from all parts of the country cast their votes for Labour – not just those in heartland urban areas. As I topped the first preference voting, but ultimately came second, in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2012 with a 16% turnout, I know from harsh experience the significance of winning the broadest mandate.

The General Election in 2015 gives us an opportunity to begin delivering on the rural manifesto. We need to take it.

This article was first published by Labourlist at: http://labourlist.org/2014/09/getting-off-the-bottom-rung-and-into-power-in-rural-seats/

Jane Basham is Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for South Suffolk | @Jane_Basham

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.