West is best . . . fighting for a Labour Welsh Assembly

One of the familiar strap-lines of the Scarlets; and an oft repeated remark of my west coast friends and family.   Last weekend saw a significant pick up in the campaigning for the Welsh Assembly elections.  We joined comrades on the Gower, in Llanelli and in Ogmore to support their respective AM West is best candidates – Rebecca Evans (AM), Lee Waters and Huw Irrancca-Davies (MP).

Ogmore sits on the fringes of the uplands of the Valleys of South Wales, north of the M4. Its many communities have returned sizeable Labour majorities at both Assembly and Parliamentary elections.  We hope Huw will be well placed to take his place on the Assembly, and bring his undoubted skill and experience from Parliament to serve Wales more directly. Canvassing in Llanharry saw a tight knit team of ten plus cover a swathe of streets from Alder to Sycamore, regardless of the initially inclement weather (though it does rain it Wales it doesn’t always rain in Wales!)

Nearer the coast and we are in Llanelli, starting our canvas near the site of one of the  Rebecca Riots of 18430s, campaigning against unfair taxation . . . .  While the Llanelli Parliamentary seat shows a healthy 7,000+ majority for Labour Nia Griffith MP, the Assembly seat was much closer.  The retiring Keith Davies won through in 2011 on a tiny majority of 80.  Lee Waters, Director of the Institute for Welsh Affairs is working hard to secure a Nia like majority for Labour.  With her help and that of local campaigners, the Progress three seats gang and LCC.

The Gower is a seat we should not have lost in the general election. It seems on election day the Tories bussed in eight or more coaches of volunteers to help get them over the line, and yet we only lost by 27 votes!

Rebecca Evans 22Jan16

Though the Assembly seat has the same electorate and a new AM candidate, Rebecca is an existing Labour (list seat) AM so has the experience of campaigning and office. A robust two hour session with local campaigners, comrades from Cardiff and the Vale, and a Three Seats team from Progress, saw us cover a lot of ground and the great majority positively in favour of Labour for the 5th of May.

These are all seats that we need to hold in Wales for a Labour Assembly, and long term for a Labour government in Westminster. Many of the characteristics of these seats are also true of other Welsh seats (e.g. Carmarthenshire, East & West, The Vale of Glamorgan).  they are also like many English seats we need to win back.

Labour does hold rural seats – we need to get better at fighting in all of them.


Rural voters and the price of milk

In recent years my campaigning activity has been limited, but having been made redundant from local government I was able at last to play an active role at the general election this year. I hit the streets with gusto wearing my ex-council demographer hat to find out the lie of the land.

Now, being a Labour activist in rural Lincolnshire can be a thankless task. It is rare to have so much as a town councillor to show for all your hard work yet in spite of this, or maybe because of it, we are often asked to forgo our own campaigns and travel many miles to work in key marginal seats. We know that few will make the return trip and bang on the doors with us; rural areas just are not the priority.

So what has all this got to do with the price of milk you ask? Almost everything.

Knocking on the doors reveals no shortage of people who share our values, but beyond local activists these voters are rarely addressed by the Labour party. When the Tories appear ever more metropolitan and complacent in outlook it ought to present a great opportunity for those willing to meet the concerns of the unfashionable countryside and enthuse disaffected voters.

The United Kingdom Independence party has risen to the challenge already. In 2013 it won 16 seats on Lincolnshire county council, becoming the official opposition. Fourteen of these seats were in the east of the county, remote from major cities and transport links. A similar pattern emerged in Norfolk. It won in the seaside resorts, marshes and fens where seasonal work and labour intensive agri-businesses are the major employers and wages are low. It is not the chocolate-box stone and thatch villages of the metropolitan imagination but isolated settlements separated by wide-open spaces and big skies. Services are few and far between and cuts are felt deeply.

Labour is already in tune with many of the daily trials facing rural voters. Deprivation is so much greater when it is a 20-mile round trip in the car just to sign on, and if you cannot drive it can be a very desolate life indeed. With our town post office currently closed, residents are embarking on almost a day trip just to obtain the full range of forms for passports and driving licences. The price of petrol is a huge issue here as the car is such an essential part of life; so of course we have to pay more for it. Public transport is patchy to say the least.

Then there are the problems faced by small farmers too, which brings me back to the price of milk. As the big supermarkets flex their muscles, farmers are squeezed between diminishing returns and increasing overheads. Livestock farmers need constant supplies of electricity and animal feed meaning milk can cost more to produce than its commercial value so they quietly sell up and leave the industry. Yet at times of crisis for small producers it’s rare to hear a Labour politician speak out.

Often local activists do not even get responses to their enquiries as shadow ministers are more concerned with issues like animal welfare, which offend urban sensibilities, rather than the bread-and-butter aspects of marginal farming. This has left Labour looking ever more like an urban party for trendy vegetarians which talks in terms of city lifestyles where you have a choice of shops or schools and where broadband (fast or slow) is taken for granted.

For various historic reasons such as dispersed communities and lack of unionisation, country areas never engaged with the Labour movement, yet for the most part they share the same social values as the mining areas and mill towns we claim to represent. These are not the ruling classes. Indeed many country people still genuinely labour for a living in packing plants and food factories.

My belief is that Labour needs to come up with a well thought-out rural strategy which engages with country voters and meets their concerns up-front. These may not always be palatable to us but there are areas of commonality that we can address, as well as giving us the opportunity to explain why the things we stand for can bring benefits beyond the suburbs.

We have a tremendous opportunity to grow new support and sell our message in areas we have never looked at before. It is time for us to start engaging at senior level with rural voters in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Devon and Powys and show them what we have to offer. It may not deliver us many seats in the short term but it is vital to show that we care for areas where you can’t easily buy a panini.

Christabel Edwards is a Labour party activist.

This piece was originally published on Progress, here

Norwich North – the first seat of an overall majority!

Friday and we join a mass of volunteers, the Progress team on their last ‘Final countdown’ campaign days and Jess Asato our candidate.  You can read more about her campaign here.

Winning Norwich North and we are in overall majority territory so key to our national campaign as well as giving Labour voice to those who live in a constituency that is a classic mix of city and rural fringe, as our door knocking areas illustrate.  There are plenty of places where houses abut the fields of rural Norfolk and are part of the District of Broadland, such that the District Council is responsible for the running of the parliamentary election for Norwich North. 

We’ve enough volunteers for five or six teams of six or more, and are soon out enjoying the sunshine and decent levels of voter contact for a Friday.  Proof of Labour capacity for voter contact is soon apparent, our team of seven (average age 35) meets a pair of Tories (average age 55); a few pleasantries later and the next door has a resident soon making very clear he’d rather talk to us than them – another vote for Jess!   Three hours later and it feels like we are definitely ahead – there are some Labour – ukip wavering, and some who think voting green is the answer – more opportunities to remind them it is only Labour that delivers workable, sustainable policies from the National Parks to the growth on renewables we see today.

A quick bite to eat and every team is out again, further north.  More sun, more stakes and more Labour support keep us going through the afternoon, before heading home.

On the train we get to read this fascinating piece by Nick Pearce, considering the variety and energy in the politics of English regional identity, by way of an exhibition of the work of Eric Ravilious. We agree with Nick, England is much more complex and varied than the north, the midlands and the south east; and that every part of England has its radicalism to balance its conservatism – responding to and supporting the descendants of those radicals across the country is why we created Labour: Coast & Country.

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, the Labour: Coast & Country

Majority government starts in west Wales

The delightful counties of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire contain four parliamentary seats, all of which have been Labour, which we need to win again if we are to have a good chance of achieving a majority government in 2015.

Taken together these seats are perhaps a microcosm of the challenge we face to win a majority across the United Kingdom. They cover industrial heartlands, former mining villages, market towns, coastal tourist haunts, small ports and a small city. As we enter 2015 we need to hold our heartland city seat of Llanelli, held by Nia Griffith, while we need to fight the Tories in both Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (last held in 2005), and Preseli Pembrokeshire (last held in 2001), while it is the nationalists, Plaid Cymru, we have to fight in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (last held in 1997).

Of the three ‘vacancies’ Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire is 62nd on the 106 target seats list, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr is 66th, while Preseli Pembrokeshire is 84th. To secure an overall majority we currently need to win 68 seats.

We have made a start on the road to winning. Having all three ‘vacancies’ on our target list means we have good candidates selected and in place.  What they need are the practical support and policies that will make sense for the people who live across west Wales, be that the market towns of Carmarthen and Haverfordwest; the coastal communities of Broad Haven and Laugharne; and the villages of St Clears and Trimsaran.

To help deliver these seats Labour:Coast&Country are working with the party to ensure that one of the manifesto roadshow meetings is held in Carmarthen. The presence of the party engaging with local people, involving them in a direct conversation with members of the shadow cabinet can only help reinforce our One Nation ambition and show that we are listening to each and every community of Britain (as well as building on work already done in West Wales by the likes of Nia, Huw Irranca-Davies and Chuka Umunna among many others).

We need to build on the commitment to a rural manifesto made by Ed Miliband at the National Policy Forum in July and ensure we respond to the issues of all of the places in the UK that are communities of coastal or country areas. These communities face many similar challenges to city constituents such as looking for and obtaining work, empowerment in their home and social lives, while facing greater challenges of greater distance, higher costs, limited public services and often minimal public transport (by city standards).

To go further nationally to secure those seats that are essential to our majority, much more coastal and rural than urban, we should encourage the party to hold its next rural (or, of course, Coast & Country) conference in the new year. That way, we can support those candidates who we need to win, ensure a challenge to the incumbents in seats who might otherwise expect an easy ride and to build a wider next work of twinning and support to these seats from other coast and country areas.

Win these coast and country seats and we win government.

This article was also published at: http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2014/11/06/majority-government-starts-in-west-wales/

Hywel Lloyd is a 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.

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.