green grass
Photo by Magda V on Unsplash

Rural England deserves a bigger voice in politics. That was the conclusion I came to when I was first appointed as Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I’m a proud West Country lad. My little sister is a sheep farmer and I am proud of my rural roots.

People in rural areas are very proud of where they live and rightly so. We need to better promote and protect the things about countryside life that people love: access to green spaces, cleaner air, better quality of life and community to name but a few. Picture postcard scenes of rural life are commonplace in politics, so too are impressions of rural life that do not always bear relation to the reality.

The rural economy has been hit hard by the pandemic and the economic crisis. This has come on top of the disastrous consequences of the Government’s incompetent Brexit deal especially for rural food and drink producers and exporters, including many farmer and producer co-ops. All this, together with the ongoing changes brought by the climate and ecological crisis mean that rural life is changing fast and that rural communities should command much greater political priority.

In 1997 Labour won over 150 rural seats. At the last election we won just 17. I am determined Labour wins back trust and that means having a policy agenda that speaks to the concerns and aspirations of rural voters.

It’s vital these issues are not ignored any longer, and I’m delighted to have been tasked by the Labour leader Keir Starmer to lead the Party’s Rural Review.

Launched today, the Review will examine in depth what must be done to support rural communities, looking at how years of austerity have weakened the foundations of these areas by hollowing out essential services and failing to invest in infrastructure.

The Conservatives have taken rural communities for granted but Labour has not always turned up. We have to turn up, which means not just me visiting those communities themselves, but also with Labour’s voice being seen and heard in rural policy debates, in local media and on ballot papers. Turning up matters. And once we have, we need to listen and then act on what we have heard. This is a challenge that Labour is embracing. Keir has given me a clear instruction that Labour’s next manifesto must offer as much hope and opportunity to rural communities as it does for those living in towns and cities.

This is a challenge that those in the Co-operative movement must rise to as well. The urban lean in policy work of the broad left is real, but it is not inevitable. And in the Co-operative movement we have some incredible stories to tell.

As a proud Co-operative Party MP, I know that the co-operative and mutual sectors already play a significant role in rural and countryside communities. Rural co-operatives are more present than urban co-operatives. Nearly every single farmer and fisher is a member of a co-operative of some form. Whether based on purchasing or selling, pooling resources for the benefit of all members, the co-operative spirit is alive and well in rural areas. Rural community shops, community broadband and rural travel schemes all benefit hugely from a co-operative element, and more and more co-operatives are being formed in rural communities.

I have always been on the vocal side of the Co-operative Movement. I want us to be louder and prouder about the utility and favourability of our politics and our solutions. There is a bright future for mutual and co-operative solutions to the challenges facing many of our rural communities. And there are many pioneers in towns and villages nationwide delivering those schemes.

I think there is a bright and bold co-operative story waiting to be told in our rural communities and just as I want the Rural Review to be the start of a re-discovery of rural England for Labour, so it must be for the Co-operative Party and our wider movement.

As part of the Rural Review, I’ll be hearing more about these co-operative ideas and initiatives, from the people involved and those who benefit, to find out what more we can do to support our movement in making a difference in rural communities right across the country. I want to hear your views and you can submit them on the rural review website here.

For too long the Conservative government has taken rural communities for granted, and the Labour Party’s Rural Review is critical in ensuring we can offer people in these areas the far better representation they deserve. I am excited to hear from rural co-operatives and those pioneers and innovators to share best practice and ideas. Please get in touch.