One challenge for Labour in the run-up to the general election is can we really be the village people?
Why is rural campaigning important?
First, many key seats have rural surrounds and Labour votes in wards we can only rarely win in council elections are still a crucial part of assembling parliamentary majorities. One hundred seats won by Labour in 1997 were classified as rural or semi-rural.
Second, the thinking behind ‘one nation’ Labour is that we appeal everywhere as a party of government for Britain. It is right to say there must be no ‘no-go’ areas for the party.
Third, although the recent European elections showed the party had learned from past mistakes, the previous targeting strategy which seemed to write-off large swathes of the country was kamikaze campaigning. There are no activists to draw in to key seats in the run-up to an election, if we have spent the previous five years discouraging them from being active where they actually live. And if the party is effectively telling its own campaigners we have no chance in an area, should we be surprised if that’s the message which seeps out to the electorate?
My own east of England constituency is a classic mix of rural and urban, stretching from red London buses and underground stations in south Essex and Hertfordshire to village greens and lifeboat stations in rural East Anglia.
In the European elections, I campaigned in all 58 of the region’s constituencies – so how do we do it? Partly it’s about wallpaper-pasting tables covered in red table cloths under war memorials and in market squares. Tell people you are coming, talk to them while you are there and tell them you have been.
Suffolk’s Jane Basham topped the poll in the police and crime commissioner election with just such a ‘street stall’ strategy.
Then the issues: Ed Miliband is right to talk about the preservation of village pubs and post offices. I highlighted how Labour’s energy bill freeze should be extended to the 1.5 million ‘Calor gas’ generation who rely on heating gas and oil in rural areas.
While Westminster might be obsessed by airport expansion or HS2, when I campaigned in the small village of Elmsett in the European elections, voters were much more concerned about what would happen to their one bus a week? And imagine how pleased I was to walk in to the local pub and see a poster advertising in advance that I would be there!
In Europe, I have championed an initiative to represent the interests of market towns. The Tories got it right by identifying the ‘Portas issue’ of deserted high streets, but their prescription – as ever – sees only a privileged few benefiting with the rest left behind.
Then it is the people. The unsung heroes of the party are those members who are embedded in rural communities who through sheer force of personality, local knowledge and activism, defy the odds and get themselves elected in otherwise strong Tory areas. Many of them start by getting elected to parish councils, where Labour chairs and even control are not unusual in my constituency.
So it is not about activists getting in to a car or a minibus with a map for a day. It is about recruiting and nurturing members to become active everywhere, which today’s guest-edit form Progress is one attempt to encourage. It has also seen the launch of ‘Labour Coast and Country’ as a new pressure group for rural activists in the party and to ensure rural issues are very much part of our party’s policy-making.
Each September, I go along with many others to the well-known trade union rally at Burston in south Norfolk to celebrate the historic fight for rights of agricultural labourers. But the truth is that rural poverty and deprivation may be different in character today, but remain endemic.
Rural areas need Labour. Our party needs them. They must be the ‘Tory shires’ no longer.
Richard Howitt MEP is Labour member of the European parliament for the east of England and is chair of the European parliamentary Labour party
Photo: Amanda Slater