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

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The Coast & Country question: why should Labour bother with the rural vote?

In the last summer of 2013, I was interviewed on Radio Norfolk. They had recently heard about my campaign to get the Labour party to launch a “Rural manifesto” to reconnect with non-urban voters. Some had even read my Rural manifesto proposal – over-long and badly written, though it was. It was a terrifying experience, and while most callers from rural Norfolk were in support, some concerns became apparent from this broadcast.

First, why should Labour even bother trying to appeal to the coast and country voter? The majority of rural constituencies, especially in England, are safely Conservative (with a number of rural Lib Dem seats, mostly in the southwest). But contrary to popular perception, this was not always the case. Some of the great Labour victories of the past, most recently in 1997, saw unexpected non-urban constituencies – such as Northwest Norfolk, Rochester and Strood, and Harwich – elect a Labour MP.

But 2015 will not be this kind of clear-cut landslide by any stretch of the imagination. So why bother wasting scarce resources to appeal to non-urban areas we generally won’t win? The combined rural population of England, Scotland and Wales is over 11.75m (19.5 per cent of the three countries’ population), which, based crudely on the turnout of the 2010 general election, means there are over 7.6m votes to contest for in rural areas. In addition to this, 25 of the 106 designated target seats are classified as rural or semi-rural. So, as Ed Miliband declared his intention for the party to have “4m conversations on the doorstep”, those conversations can not be confined to the city if Labour is to build any kind of popular consensus to govern – even as a minority or coalition. In this election, every vote will matter.

The Labour party, however, has a problem when it comes to the hinterland. Take the high-profile and extremely successful “Freeze the Bill” pledge. So successful was this campaign that it defined the political discourse for months afterwards and Labour’s lead in the polls reached a high point. But this campaign, in its original form, ignored the fact that up to half of households in many non-urban areas are off-grid and reliant on oil or gas suppliers – still subject to the same price increases and extortion, but just not covered in “Freeze the Bill” (this was rectified later).

Although much of what Labour is talking about and devising ample policies for – be it on the cost-of-living crisis, the devolution of powers to local government, housing supply, rental controls, child care or transport re-regulation – is as applicable to the city as it is the market town, it needs to be adequately rural-proofed from inception, rather than as an afterthought. The Rural Manifesto offers us the chance to display some of these policies from a purely non-urban perspective, which the main election manifesto won’t.

That said, I’m not going to pretend that Labour has been answering all coast and country questions but just framing things the wrong way. There are big questions that still need to be answered on agriculture and the food and fishing industries, on transport and infrastructure, on the environment and greenbelt, on low wages and underemployment (to name just a few).

Most of all, though, Labour needs to realise that one size does not fit all when it comes to the coast and country. After all, the challenges faced by people living in North Norfolk are different from those in the Highlands of Scotland, which are, in turn, different from those in the Vale of Glamorgan. Despite popular perception, “rural” can mean wealthy or deprived, agricultural or industrial, mobile or immobile, young or old.

Although the party has not announced whether there will be a Rural Manifesto, I have heard a suggestion that it may be due to be unveiled in April. No one is expecting miracles, but if it does go ahead, it would give rural Labour something to fight with on the doorstep. For victory in 2015, Labour will need votes from all areas: urban and suburban, coast and countryside.

Jack Eddy is National Coordinator for Labour: Coast & Country.

First published in the New Statesman.

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.

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.