We often assume that if you live in an urban part of the country, you will naturally vote Labour and if you live in the countryside you will simply vote Conservative. When you look at the ‘safe’ Labour cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Stoke and ‘rock solid’ blue Tory seats in the Shires, you can understand why people draw these conclusions.
However if we are to be a Labour party that genuinely has aspirations to be a ‘one nation’ government for the whole country, we need to challenge what are lazy assumptions. Like the Tories in some of our big cities, we cannot be seen as the same in the rural towns and villages. It is time that as a party we had a proper conversation with rural Britain.
Office for national statistics figures show that our countryside towns and villages make up almost a fifth of the population across England and Wales. And in Burton, my home constituency, also a Frontline 40 seat, the villages make up almost a quarter of people living there.
As in other marginals, I think we will not win the seat alone by talking to people in just our ‘safe’ Labour areas. We need to adventure out into what we perceive to be our less ‘traditional’ areas and engage with those voters that we too often – and I sometimes feel conveniently – forget.
Last Saturday I canvassed some of these rural communities and villages in the constituency, along with our parliamentary candidate Jon Wheale and other party activists. What we found was that there is support for Labour but it is support that has to be earned.
‘Yes I see myself as a Labour voter but I feel you have forgotten us’, one resident told Jon. For a lot people we spoke to, it was their first contact with the Labour party in many years, but in general the conversations we had were promising and there was every reason to be optimistic.
What came across to me in the conversations we had on the doorstep was the sense of isolation felt among residents, as well as the feeling that they were powerless in the decisions affecting their communities.
The cuts to critical services like public transport, low wages and the rise in energy prices were all talked about and highlight that Labour’s cost-of-living narrative is just as relevant to our rural areas, as it is to our towns and more built up urban areas.
But what also came across on the doorstep was the issue of developments. While many praised the resistance being put up by their local parish councils, there was feeling that very little could be done to stop the inevitable.
Like many in the Labour party, I agree that we need to have more housing (and importantly more affordable housing), however this should not be at the cost of small rural villages, which often have not got the infrastructure and capacity to cope with such a big expansion. In one of the villages we canvassed, a proposed development would see the village almost double in size. Our first port of calls should be looking to regenerate disused brownfield sites and then lower value green field sites.
When the coalition government introduced the localism bill, the deputy prime minister said: ‘It means giving local people the powers and funding to deliver what they want for their communities.’
This could not be further from what we found and that is why I think it is important that when Labour talks about localism, we have to spell out what it means to the people like we met in the villages, but also really mean it.
As a party we should not have fear of campaigning in the more rural areas (even if we did nearly get shot at by game hunters – well not quite literally – and chased by a dog). There are certainly people out who can resonate with the issues we are talking about.
We just need to go out there and spend some time in these communities and have those conversations with people. As we have seen in Burton, for too long the Conservative party have taken rural voters for granted and we cannot let this carry on this way.
If we want to be a ‘one nation’ government and win for the whole country in 2015, the Labour party also needs to talk to rural Britain.
Andrew Bettridge is a Labour activist in Burton
Photo: UK Garden Photos