There was a woman who walked nine miles, mostly down a 60-mile-an-hour, windy ‘A’ road because she didn’t have the bus fare and was scared that if she missed her job club appointment her benefits would be stopped. When the Tories announced that they would require claimants to visit job centres daily I wondered how many would be joining her.
Transport is vital to rural areas. There is no point having excellent public services you can’t access! But Westminster-imposed austerity means rural bus services are being cut. If you are looking for your first job you are restricted in where you can travel by bus timetables and fare costs, and even if you can afford to run a car the costs of maintaining it and paying for fuel can be significant, as can travel time. We ought to be able to use online connectivity to ameliorate some of these issues and help level the playing field but broadband has been slow to come to rural areas.
In one of our local villages there is only a satellite GP service where the GPs keep cancelling surgeries. Another surgery, slightly further away, will take residents on, but will not guarantee home visits. As one woman said to me, her son who is young and healthy was willing to take the risk and register there, but it didn’t make sense for her husband who has a chronic condition.
When it comes to campaigning, the first thing to remember is every community is distinct. Many feel neglected and are pleasantly pleased and surprised to see you. I’ve heard: ‘I’m Labour, but I stopped bothering to vote because I never saw anyone’ a number of times. Many villages have active local communities, and going along to events that are already happening can be the best way to meet people and find out about what matters in that community. We talk to people about the things that matter to them in the language of their choice whether that is English or Welsh.
It’s a 45-minute drive from Llandudno on the coast to the furthest villages in the constituency. That takes its toll on activists and the cost of campaigning. But if you want to represent people you need to go to where they are.
We have a lot of properties with no street address and even plotting them on a map, let alone actually finding them, can be a significant challenge – and one that Contact Creator is not designed for! Telephone canvassing is therefore vital.
Labour’s energy freeze petition has been extremely popular in Aberconwy, but some villages do not have mains gas at all, and their heating bills have risen significantly more than the national average. Labour has already promised pensioners who are off-grid their winter fuel payment in July rather than October so they can purchase energy at lower summer prices. We have also promised to bring the off-grid energy sector for the first time under the new energy regulator, which will offer some help the 15 per cent of UK households who are off grid.
We all know the bedroom tax is cruel, iniquitous and ill-thought-out. But in rural villages you meet disabled people who not only face losing the home they have spent adapting to the their needs, but having to move away from the village where they have lived all their life and away from their support network of family and friends because there are no smaller properties available there
It is ironic that many rural and coastal constituencies are marginal, and therefore their needs and concerns are under-represented in the current parliamentary Labour party. But these are areas we need to win in and we need to demonstrate that we understand the effect of different policies on our rural areas and our spokespeople need to highlight them.
Mary Wimbury is Labour parliamentary candidate for Aberconwy in north Wales. You can support Mary’s campaign at www.marywimbury.net