That’s Tory territory, isn’t it? | Sandy Martin MP

When I challenged the Secretary of State to provide more resources for the Police in Suffolk in September, Sarah Newton, the junior minister, clearly mis-heard “Southwark” for “Suffolk” and replied that it was all the fault of Sadiq Khan.

Leaving aside the blatant buck-passing that was going on, it is obvious that the Minister was conditioned to believe that Labour MPs come from London, or from “oop North”, or from Wales – anywhere but the Shire Counties.  Tragically, far too often the Labour Party appears to fall into the same trap.

The fact is, we need to be able to win in Shire Counties – constituencies such as St Albans and Norwich North depend on their County Councils for much of their public spending and thus for the residents’ experience of government.  It is no coincidence, I believe, that the extraordinary County Council election result in 1993 which left the Conservatives in England in control of just one single County – Buckinghamshire – led on to a General Election where Labour won seats that it had never even contemplated.

Labour has a vision of society which should work in rural areas.  We believe in public transport.  We believe in public education, in a decent health service, in properly resourced police services.  All of these things matter to people in rural areas just as much as they do in urban areas.  And in addition, we have a view of small businesses and of protection of the environment which does not start from the bottom line of the company accounts, but from the needs of the people.

For too long the Labour Party has projected a corporatist image which quite rightly supports the needs of trade unionists working in large institutions but ignores the needs of small and micro businesses and in particular of sole traders.  Unlike the Conservative Party, Labour does not need to pander to the needs of multi-national corporations as we do not receive any significant amount in donations from them.  Unlike the Conservative Party, Labour has a commitment to fairness which can and should extend to the self-employed as well as to public sector and industrial sector workers.  And unlike the Conservative Party, we do not have an obsession with privatisation which leads services which should be delivered at the point of need to be instead profiled to maximise the profits of the contractor.

Housing, for instance, makes more profits for developers in greenfield locations, and if designed and built to cater for wealthy retired people.  Thus we have the paradox of disproportionate levels of building in very small towns, virtually none of which actually caters for the needs of local people. Conservative Councils are relatively good at maintaining roads in rural areas, but completely useless at maintaining bus services to run along them.  And while Conservative areas tend to attract the highest number of Free Schools, these are very often designed to please a minority of the local population – the “we don’t want our child mixing with the kids from the estate” mentality.

On all of these issues, Labour can and must win if we are to take back control of many of our Shire County Councils, convince the local voters that we are capable of winning and that we have a genuine alternative programme that can work for them, and ultimately win all those seats we need in the Shire Counties in a General Election in order to form a Labour Government.

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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.