The intertwined destinies of Labour voters in the North and the countryside

"New Labour might have tried to update the party’s identity, but in government showed this really a con, and has never fully recovered. This has left a vacuum which shrieks of cosmopolitan elitism, with a lack of respect for the traditions that have developed British identity together for centuries, and appeal to many in Britain today. Without acknowledging them, Labour will continue to be soulless, and inevitably keep haemorrhaging votes."

The ex-coal mining districts of North-East England and the countryside heartlands of the south may seem as politically polar opposites, but they highlight the same weaknesses Labour needs to address if they are going to win another general election.  The change in Labour’s appeal to both groups over the the last 20 years has been relative consistent. In 1997, even in the 50 most rural seats, Labour won 31.5% of the vote against the Conservatives’ 40. By 2010, this had shrunk to just 18% in the 150 least densely populated constituencies. A similar bleak picture emerges, with Labour’s share of the vote in traditional heartland plunging by 25% in the recent Newcastle council by-election. 

In the same vain that commentators have been noting how Labour should not take northern seats for granted, one should not underestimate Labour’s potential to rural voters.

Research in 2014 showed that 86% of rural voters feel felt ‘taken for granted’ by the government. The reasons why rural constituencies vote Labour are the same which appeal successfully in the north: A lack of job opportunities, the strong prospects of employment in local government in low-skill jobs, and a desire for basic public investment in infrastructure.

 There is a lot of nonsense talked about rural seats. If you take Calder Valley, a typical rural northern seat – less than 0.5% work the land and very few care about fox hunting. What they do care about is good travel links, affordable housing, accessible health services, excellence in education, and above all jobs.  For many rural communities, the problems of having a conservative government are exceedingly evident, whether that’s through the closing of local libraries, GP surgeries, schools, to the ending of public transport in otherwise inaccessible hamlets. For many, getting on too often means a one-way ticket to the big cities, and getting a well-paid job inevitably means leaving the community for London. 

For both regions, what is present is a fear of losing the strong sense of identity which is not acknowledged by national government. Centuries of tradition are feared being eroded by rapid levels of immigration into regions where many of the new generation have already moved on. It’s this sense of recognition that UKIP provides to both communities, a sense of turning back the clock, rebuilding what was thought lost, the same driving sense of inequality, not just of income and wealth, but of power and influence, which led to Brexit.

 For many in this region, Labour lack a clear sense of identity which can appeal to traditional voters, both rural and northern. What labour got right in 1997, when they could claim to hold largest number of rural/semi-rural seats of any party, was being able to create this dream for their more traditional base.  The countryside was acknowledged as “part of our heritage which calls for special stewardship”, balanced with the “needs of people who live and work in rural areas” (Labour Party, 1997, pp 4). For many, it was their appeal to stability, education, and ‘British’ values which gave gave Labour their vote. 

What brought Labour to their precipitous demise was their attack on this traditionalism. No matter how barbaric, for many in the rural regions fox hunting felt like an attack on the countryside at large. While only 50,000 people hunted foxes, 400,000 marched in protest. Here was a tradition lasting centuries, which was dismissed without acknowledgment of its importance to rural life. In fact, this issue goes further: many of their policies do not seemed designed for this group. Take the high-profile “Freeze the Bill” pledge in 2014. So successful was this campaign that it defined the political discourse for months afterwards. But this campaign, in its original form, ignored the fact that many households in non-urban areas are off-grid and reliant on oil or gas suppliers – still subject to the same price increases and extortion, but just not covered in “Freeze the Bill.” 

New Labour might have tried to update the party’s identity, but in government showed this really a con, and has never fully recovered. This has left a vacuum which shrieks of cosmopolitan elitism, with a lack of respect for the traditions that have developed British identity together for centuries, and appeal to many in Britain today. Without acknowledging them, Labour will continue to be soulless, and inevitably keep haemorrhaging votes.

Joseph Kelen is a Young Fabians member

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