"People in rural areas feel that policy is done to them, rather than with them."
When I voted for the first time in local elections in rural Lincolnshire, I was shocked to discover there was no Labour candidate on the ballot paper. Shortly after I joined the party a year later, I received an email inviting me to go to Corby, which involved a three-hour trip on two buses – completely inaccessible for a young person like me without access to a car. Sadly, this experience is not uncommon as the Labour Party often diverts members living in rural communities to go campaigning in more urban areas. The infrequent and often unreliable public transport means members can all too often be prevented from playing an active role in the party.
I was therefore delighted to read the Fabians’ new report, ‘Labour Country’, on how the Labour Party can re-connect with rural voters. For members in towns and cities, some of the findings might come as a shock but for those of us in rural communities, the research backs up what many of us long suspected. For example, just 25% of rural voters said they agreed that the Labour Party understands their local area. From the New Labour years to the present day, the party’s policy has increasingly been geared towards those living in towns and cities, leading to the party in more recent times being dubbed ‘the metropolitan elite’. This sentiment was echoed by members of the focus groups who are quoted within the report who say: “Somebody will come down from up country and they say, ‘It’s a fantastic place, these villages are wonderful’, and the first thing they want to do is change it. I just find that so annoying”.
At the launch of the ‘Labour Country’ report, Tobias Phibbs from the Fabians talked about the growing divide in the quality of public transport between urban and rural areas. Since 2010/11, there has been almost £100million of cuts to bus grants which means 2,900 bus services have either been cut or axed altogether, disproportionately affecting rural communities. A total of 134 million miles of bus coverage has been lost in the last decade alone, back to levels last seen in 1989. This means that those living in rural communities who do not have access to a car have become increasingly isolated. One of the biggest mistakes of the past was to close huge swathes of the railway network (the ‘Beeching cuts’). It is promising that some of these lost lines are now starting to re-open, but so far this seems to be concentrated on connecting different urban areas rather than providing connections between urban and rural areas, thus increasing the divide. Labour needs to prioritise restoring both buses and trains to prevent Britain becoming a country of two halves.
A recurring theme both from the report and the launch event was that all too often, people in rural areas feel that policy is done to them, rather than with them. This is most clearly highlighted by the tendency for the Labour Party restricting its policy offer to voters in rural constituencies to just better broadband and animal welfare. Whilst both these issues are important, a lack of mobile phone signal is surprisingly common and far more pressing issue. Furthermore, a number of speakers at the launch event rightly noted that the issues faced by rural voters are the same as those in urban areas – it just costs more. If Labour is serious about being a party for the many, not the few, then it needs to pay as much attention to those living in the countryside as it does to those living in our cities.
Dan Mayhew is a Young Fabian member and Vice Chair of Grantham and Stamford CLP.