What do Labour and Co-operative Parties need to do to connect with rural voters?
Since narrowly losing the Stroud Constituency seat in the last General Election I have been engaged in a passion of mine – I have started a PhD investigating the last Government’s approach to Rural Policy. My aim is to prove that both Labour and Co-operative Parties have a tale to tell about how they operate in the countryside but too often that story remains hidden and unheard.
By undertaking this research I hope to be able to at least partly rectify this. Being re-selected as PPC has steeled me in my resolve to provide this narrative and explain what we can learn from our experiences so that a future Government can capitalise on the opportunities that will come its way.
My starting point is that, if the Boundary Commission Review passes through unchanged, there will be many more rural and semi-rural seats next time in relation to the total number of seats to be contested. For this reason alone, it is vital that our Parties start to become far more serious about what policies and message that it wishes to communicate with rural voters.
What I have done so far is to examine 5 case studies which I list below;
- The decline of the rural Post Office
- Parish Governance
- The Right to Roam/Access to the Countryside
- Affordable Housing
- Public Service Reform concentrating upon Health and Education
I have undertaken many outline interviews to scope the subject area including with politicians, civil servants, academics and practitioners, both current and former.
What I have found out is that the Government did do much more in pursuing a rural agenda than was immediately apparent. It kept post offices, schools and village facilities open when otherwise they would have closed. Resources were put into the countryside which saw some interesting initiatives in the field of governance, transport and the voluntary sector. Attempts were made to open up the countryside through the legislative changes such as the Right to Roam. The problem was that too often the impact of such reforms was lost because of the churning of policy initiatives, the curtailment of funding streams and the unwillingness of Government to stay with its changes. This situation was exacerbated by the intervention of unhelpful events such as the foot and mouth disease outbreak.
The role of the Co-operative Movement is particularly apposite. Quite simply the only way that many of our village services can be retained is if they become social enterprises, and ambitiously full blown co-operatives embracing local communities in a democratic and cohesive manner. This was happening under the last Government. It is just that too often this was only seen in an ad hoc and disconnected way rather than being part of a fully thought through and comprehensive policy process.
But I believe that we could have gone much further – to extend co-operative enterprise into all areas of the rural domain – into agriculture, into manufacturing and many service facilities. Of course it is not as though there are not antecedents to this. Our history is full of the rich tapestry of the Labour and Co-operative movements working successfully in rural Britain.
It is just that we have to keep reminding ourselves about this and then need to go out and shout this out so that both rural and urban Britain understand that we have a responsibility to explain ourselves in the countryside. There are many who would listen to us if we choose to do this and there are those who desperately need such an inclusive gesture. Sadly poverty, disadvantage and homelessness exist in rural areas as well as in the wider country and it is vital that Labour and Co-operative politicians take a lead and represent these interests.
So there is much to gain if our Movements choose to become much more serious about policy development in ruralities and stop being intimidated by the catcalls of other parties that we don’t care about the countryside. There is no better time than now to announce that we are serious about changing the politics of rural Britain and with that recognising that the Labour and Co-operative Movements have a part to play in designing the future direction of the countryside.
David Drew is the Labour & Co-operative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Stroud, and a Labour & Co-operative councillor there since May 2012.