George Richmond and Tina Bhartwas reflect on the need for rural affairs to be at the heart of the New Leadership's priorities, ahead of their event on 'Revitalising Labour's Rural Policy' at the New Year's Conference.
With the Young Fabians event on Revitalising Labour’s Rural Policy led by the Young East of England Fabians, Young South West Fabians and the Young Fabians Environment network fast approaching at the Annual Fabian Society Conference, we in the Young Fabians and the Labour Party have a real chance at putting rural affairs at the heart of our New Leaderships’ priorities.
Labour has not historically done well in rural areas. Its approach to rural communities and affairs has often been flawed, ignorant, and flippant. Our holding of only 17 rural constituencies is not an electoral mistake, it is a real sign of the apathy within rural communities towards the Labour Party. This apathy has been built up for good reason. Labour has consistently offered little specifically for these communities.
I was born in rural North Yorkshire, in what is now Rishi Sunak’s constituency, and grew up in the rural Cotswolds on a farm that my father managed. I have seen many deep-seated inequalities within these rural communities, from the lack of public transport to the inability of social housing to be delivered in rural communities. These experiences have driven my concern for the need for Labour to offer real change and policies for rural communities. Only Labour can offer this as a Party who understands that we must confront socio-economic injustice and structural inequality.
A lack of public transport has been a real issue for rural communities, with over 3,000 bus routes cut across England and Wales since 2010 due to austerity. On a personal level, it was something which curtailed my freedom with me having physical disabilities, preventing me from learning to drive at 17 and making me dependent on my parents to drive me around which was not always possible. I was fortunate to live in a middle-class family with the means to ease the challenges posed by rural living. There are a silent few who are suffering without the means to reduce the burden of rural living.
I grew up and live in a town in Hertfordshire, in a seat many deem to be a safe seat for the Conservatives. I have experienced the very real deprivation of growing up in social housing and struggling to make ends meet for food, rent and bills. This reality of rural areas can lead to health issues and low educational attainment. Also detrimental to the mental health of people living in these areas are the lack of jobs, high rent prices, not enough housing and poor public transport damaging their social lives and leading to geographic isolation.
These aspects are often ignored when talking about ‘leafy green areas’ and that is something that I find really worrying. Communities are being left behind. To reach out to these communities the Labour Party must not only offer policies which are relevant to those in areas such as mine but involve them in the policy making process. Too often these places are ignored by the Party.
Whilst rural communities only make up around 17% of the population, they harbour great opportunities and potential. They manage and steward much of the nature, countryside, and farmland in Britain. It is within these communities that the skills and resources to confront the ecological and climate crisis largely exist. It is time that the Labour Party provided these communities with the means to truly utilise their unique talents and in order for this to happen deep-seated inequalities and discrepancies in well-being must be addressed. Rural communities remain heavily unequal. They are disproportionately white, middle-class, and elderly. The voices of those from the BAME community, working class backgrounds and young people in rural communities struggle to be heard. It must be the role of the Labour Party to amplify the diverse array of rural voices.
Meanwhile, as the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission stated, ‘Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) seems all too often as Def’, ignoring the needs of rural communities. This was clear in the post-Brexit legislation, where both the areas of agriculture and environment had their own extensive legislative bills, rural communities have not. Whilst these areas must be addressed, without a strong piece of legislation that tackles the various challenges rural communities face and sets up new opportunities and mechanisms to face the future, these communities will forever be left behind. Any legislation must include a response to the ecological and climate crisis as well as addressing unemployment, a sustainable economy and affordable housing. This is a chance for the Labour Party to help to secure the future of rural communities in the long term.
The Labour Party must ensure that rural communities are represented in decision-making and considered in national policies. It is clear that there is interest and demand amongst the public to listen, discuss, and suggest policies for rural affairs. Already small groups exist, but their thoughts, ideas and voices are too often marginalised. It is why we hope that this event will raise awareness and start the raising of rural voices.
It's time to step up and listen to rural communities.
For those interested in the Fabian Society Revitalising Labours Rural Policy Event, please sign up to the Fabian Society Conference https://bit.ly/3snDfIU. Please send any questions to Tina Bhartwas, Chair Young East of England Fabians at [email protected]
For those interested in getting involved in a Young Fabians Rural Affairs cross-network group contact: George at [email protected]
George Richmond is the the Rural Affairs Officer for South West Young Fabians. George tweets at @ChatwRichmond.
Tina Bhartwas is Chair of the East of England Young Fabians. Tina tweets at @TinaBhartwas.