Can Labour capture the rural vote?

Connect Chief Executive Gill Morris was a panellist at the Countryside Alliance’s Labour Party fringe meeting on Labour and the rural vote. This blog is based on her opening comments.

There is little denying the fact that Labour looks and feels more like an urban party than a rural one. As has all too often been the case, you don’t get much sense that the Labour Party is particularly interested in rural votes or targeting rural seats for 2015.  Indeed the opposite is more likely to be true.

But how wise is this omission? The heated debates over Scottish independence have shown that Labour may not be able to count on guaranteed support north of the border indefinitely. It is also worth remembering that Labour has only won well at General Elections when it has done well in England – 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001. The Scottish referendum shows us that Labour needs to have – in Ed Miliband’s now underused phrase – ‘One Nation’ appeal, or put more simply, Labour has to focus on England. That means rural as well as urban voters.

Labour’s enthusiasm for devolving powers to cities, mayors and regions first and foremost provides an opportunity to generate growth, but the party also needs to ensure that the debate over English devolution is not seen as too “city-centric”. Cities such as Leeds and Sheffield are actually more rural in their make-up than Westminster politicians acknowledge and the same can be said of many of Labour’s target seats in Wales and the North. Labour must find new rhetoric and a narrative which appeals to the rural vote as much as their traditional heartlands if it is going to succeed in capturing power in 2015.

In truth, there are in fact strong Labour traditions in many rural areas, but they have become lost or confused. The record of Labour councils in keeping open small rural schools and local transport services is pretty good but it could be doing a lot more to trumpet its success on these issues that matter to rural voters. There has to be a point in voting Labour but in many constituencies and for too long these reasons have not been made clear. Lack of resources has also led to a focus only on those target urban seats. This is a mistake.

Labour needs to broaden its appeal to those living in rural areas.  In many ways, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Many of Labour’s headline campaigns have even more resonance in the countryside than they do in urban seats. If Miliband wants 2015 to be the cost of living election, there is no reason why this shouldn’t work just as effectively in Somerset as in Streatham.  Voters in rural areas are not feeling benefits of growth; there is a chronic lack of affordable housing; small hospitals and clinics are being closed; energy bills are rocketing. Other issues will impact them far more: what happens to universal postal service now Royal Mail has been ditched? Where are new jobs for young people outside high density areas going to come from? When will there be genuine access to good broadband?

Canvassing opinion on what matters to Labour voters in rural areas I was passed this comment, which shows how open many rural voters could be to Labour as much as any other party:

“There is a lot of nonsense talked about rural seats. If you take Calder Valley  – a possibly typical rural northern seat – where I live pretty much no-one works on the land – less than 0.5% – and very very few care about badgers and fox hunting. What they do care about is good travel links, affordable housing, accessible health services, excellence in education, and above all jobs. Offer those and  there is no reason why Labour cannot win.”

It is too easy for Labour strategists to see rural seats as out of reach. While the banning of fox hunting caused a rupture with many rural voters post 1997, the party cannot simply write off thousands of voters as unwinnable. Instead, next year Labour has a genuine opportunity to reach out to rural seats by focusing on the cost of living crisis in the countryside as well as the cities.


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