George Richmond details his experience standing in the traditionally ‘unwinnable’ rural seat of Burford in the Cotswolds in this May’s local elections.
Burford is a picturesque, near-chocolate box Cotswold town. In fact, it is known as the gateway to the Cotswolds. This southern, rural town with house prices regularly reaching over £1 million and an above average elderly population is certainly not an area that one would expect to see an active local Labour election campaign. As I stated in my opening remarks at a ‘meet the candidates’ event during the campaign, ‘there are more rhinos in the [nearby Cotswold] Wildlife Park than there are Labour supporters in Burford’. Which was confirmed by a rather loud laugh from the audience that followed.
Despite these uphill challenges, I decided to run as a Labour District Council candidate in the ward.
For me Burford is a beautiful and lovely place to live, and I felt that Labour should not be shy to offer new hope and representation to an area that previously had given only 55 votes to a Labour council candidate. Those who know me, will know that I am extremely passionate about standing up for rural communities within the Labour Party and in politics in general. I could not turn away from the chance to offer something different and voice the need for a genuine socio-economic and environmental transformation of our rural communities.
The starting point for my campaign was to convince my local CLP to A) allow me to stand for Burford and B) run a relatively active campaign compared to normal paper candidates. To be honest the selection as the candidate was easy considering few local Labour members came from the Ward and fewer if any were interested in standing in it.
Some may feel it was stupid or a waste of resources to seek to run an active campaign where we usually came third. There were a number of different factors though that I felt were important to consider. Firstly, I was one of the only genuinely local Labour individuals to have stood for the Party in the Ward. Secondly the incumbent Conservative councillor was stepping down and his majority had largely been built up based on his personal reputation within the ward, which is key to Burford. Finally, I believe passionately about the need for Socialist representation of rural communities and as such we must start somewhere to begin the journey towards fulfilling that need.
West Oxfordshire Labour Party has already done great work building strong-holds in the main urban centres of the district, notably in Chipping Norton (a local town for Jeremy Clarkson, David Beckham, and David Cameron). For me it was time to start reaching out to the more unchartered territory of smaller towns and rural communities.
Once I secured support, in the form of a small fund for one round of calling cards and some courageous volunteers from the neighbouring Cotswold CLP, I kicked off my campaign. Just as I began my campaign, I was made aware of a popular local Liberal Democrat candidate deciding to stand for Burford. Though it became clear overtime that this was going to put the Liberals on course to take the seat, I felt neither disheartened to do all I could to engage with the community on behalf of Labour nor concerned that I could split the vote endangering chances of removing the Conservatives from the ward. The election raised to me a greater concern that our historically low starting position in rural areas is compelling us to cede more and more ground to the Liberal Democrats. Tactical or progressive alliances have their place, especially in council and government leadership, but in elections giving an active voice and option for people to back an alternative socio-economic programme is important. I felt it was time to question the power structures that dominate our rural communities.
In Burford I focused on tackling less cars and lorries, championing first homes not second homes, and backing Burford’s environment.
In Burford problems that have been stacking up include the failure to effectively monitor and restrict empty homes, especially holiday homes, and the area lacks the infrastructure to support new housing developments. Existing developments have provided too few genuinely affordable houses and far too many care homes which require staff that Burford neither has available nor can afford to accommodate. The percentage of jobs to working age people in Burford is 164%.
Sustainable transport is a major concern. Many focused their expressions of this issue on lorries clogging up our roads, but there is an underlying issue that we have poor alternative transport to cars and motorised private vehicles. For an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty there is an astonishing lack of means to easily explore and access the natural beauty between villages and towns beyond the safety of a car seat.
My experience and work in the local Co-op allowed me to hear from lots of different communities and their struggles in the area, especially from those working in similar service jobs but who often go unnoticed or have little say in local decisions. One person told me how they worked two jobs in the area, one in a restaurant and another in a pub, but had to travel 40 minutes a day from Oxford while waiting endlessly on the council house-waiting list, in a cost-of-living crisis.
The sense of powerlessness in rural communities struck me most, since this has been a feeling I have often experienced growing up in such areas including watching my family’s livelihood be dictated by large landowners.
While, as expected, I did not win the election, the campaign sparked a strong and positive talking point in Burford. People were excited to engage with different type of local election offering and council candidate.
We raised the real possibility of a local food strategy to drive greater community connections around food, the use of land as an asset in mitigating and adapting to climate change and support for our local farmers.
The case was made for the need to tackle the challenge of empty homes and affordable housing, and ultimately restrict the asset stripping of our rural communities by second-home ownership, holiday-home owners, and housing investors.
I also made it clear that gone are the days where we can just accept that cars should continue to be the predominant form of transport in rural areas.
Yes, I received just 58 votes, but I will tell you honestly, as I watched those votes counted in the early hours of Friday morning, I felt humbled and heartened to see that someone had taken a moment to pick up a pencil and put a cross next to Labour and my name on the ballot paper. It sounds silly, yet to march forward in rural communities we have to start somewhere…
I started in Burford.
George Richmond is a Policy officer for the Young Fabian Environment Network and rural affairs coordinator for the Witney CLP. He ran as Labour District Council Candidate for Burford Ward in West Oxfordshire in the 2022 local elections. George focuses on agricultural, rural and environmental issues. He tweets at @ChatwRichmond.
Cover photo from Ettlz, accessed via Wikipedia.