Today, Progress is hosting a special guest-edit with a series of articles concentrating on people who live in predominantly rural communities in the United Kingdom, the issues they face, and how the Labour party might work harder to build a meaningful conversation with them.
It is fair to say that the Labour party and the ‘countryside’ have not always seen eye-to-eye. The national debate over foxhunting saw this divergence grow wider, with the Labour party leading the urban majority in favour of a ban, which was driven through despite major rural protests – the people it most affected.
Here is not the place to re-run these debates, but suffice to say that many people in rural communities viewed this as the pinnacle of an assault on their distinctive way of life by a distant and uninterested urban elite. This view permeates not just those who were actively engaged in hunting, but far beyond, deep into rural communities.
However, with the more pessimistic views of pro-hunting groups being disproved with the growth of legal ‘hunting’ (drag hunts), perhaps an opportunity has opened that will enable the Labour party to re-engage with the concerns of rural voters on broader issues of interest and concern.
Over 11 million people live in totally rural areas in the UK, out of a total of 63 million. Many of these people face very specific issues, both social and economic. Although employment is generally higher, average earnings in rural areas are more than £4,000 lower. The gap between rural and urban earnings has increased since 2008, suggesting that the financial crisis and subsequent economic crash has affected rural workers even more adversely than the country at large.
Isolation is a key concern for many people in rural areas – from poor transport links, to the closure of post offices, rural libraries and pubs, rural communities face huge challenges. An elderly person who suffers with dementia in London or Glasgow can generally rely on an array of charitable or statutory services. If you live with dementia in a rural community, the challenge of living independently becomes greater.
Economic isolation holds rural areas back. While the roll-out of rural broadband is now finally underway, the two year delay caused by this government means rural communities still do not have access to the same economic opportunities as urban communities.
Housing is a huge issue for the country at large, but try growing up in Cornwall and wanting to own your first house. You will probably find that someone from London has already bought up half the village you live in and converted the properties into holiday homes; if you do find one for sale, you will find that Devon and Cornwall have the worst housing affordability in the countryside, outside of London and the south-east. In Cornwall, house prices are ten times average earnings, and as a result, over 25 per cent of parents in the county now have at least one adult child living at home.
These are just some of the issues that affect rural communities that the Labour party can use to start a conversation. There is some great work being done by members on the ground already, and by organisations such as Labour Coast and Country. But if Labour is to be the ‘one nation’ party we want to be, the senior leadership of our party must work hard to dispel any view that we stand only for a metropolitan elite, by visibly and vocally working to tackle these issues to appeal to rural voters.
Steve Race is vice-chair of the Fabian Society