At this point in time, it can feel like Labour’s disconnect is in its totality. An organisation seemingly self-obsessed, riven with internal strife, factions and divisions. A membership and leadership more intent on sparring with one another than with reconciling the broad swathe of ideas across the left into a coherent vision, never mind communicating this vision to all of the electorate. I say all, because there are troubling areas where the party perennially fails to impact. A constant electoral sore for Labour? Communicating to Rural Constituencies.
Given that the issue of connecting with rural locales is a long standing challenge for the party, you would be forgiven for imagining that this takes a certain importance. Perhaps symptomatic of the concerning mindset of the Corbyn leadership in relation to ignoring winning over tory voters, it’s less surprising to see reports of the leadership actively ignoring advice on strategy towards “Labour’s rural problem” (as reported in the New Statesman).
Admittedly, the Corbyn tendency to shirk from anything other than preaching to the converted could stem from the fact that these are complex problems. It’s challenging, easy to paint these seemingly homogenous rural areas with a broad brush, lazily consigning them as the sure seats of the traditional right; an electoral lost cause not worth targeting, disputing.
A lacklustre, one size fits all approach is inherently damaging. ‘Rural and Coastal’, as the constituencies are labelled, is no easily handled homogenous demographic. Obvious but often lost on the left, there exists a spectrum of different issues across rural areas around the UK, each as geographically different as their socio-economic contexts. Labelling them as such does writes off the need to address specific local issues inherent to each area, issues caused by national problems.
Any broad vision for the countryside presented by a labour party seeking power needs to be both coherent and detailed, emphasising that Labour truly acknowledges the needs and attitudes of these communities in order to make any sincere connection to the spectrum of rural voters. Stressing the fact that Labour government can and will offer solutions to the issues that puts a strain on rural societies.
Sadly, communicating these solutions has been lacking in Labour’s most recent electoral efforts. The party’s “rural manifesto” of 2015 felt far too much like an after-thought to the thrust of its main manifesto, lacking detail, attention and promotion, emerging as it did towards the end of the campaign. This lacklustre offering was noted, mirrored in the election result.
This lack of concerted effort achieves a two-fold problem for Labour. Local campaigners and candidates from these very seats who would otherwise seek to help labours cause, with the passion and the knowledge of the locale feel neglected, second-rate, marginalised. More damaging, the lack of structure in approach to dialogue with these areas appears to further communicate to the rural electorate that Labour simply doesn’t care enough about them. Voters feel demeaned and at worst, blatantly ignored, forcing a disconnect with Labour. It’s a self-imposed, electorally suicidal irrelevance created by the party; unchecked it runs the risk of becoming entrenched.
In post-coalition 2015, this lack of dialogue was delivered at perhaps the most opportune moment for a recrafted Labour message to address rural areas. With the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote (traditionally strong in many rural constituencies such as those in mid wales and the south west), A lack of strong, coherent, Labour message, within a campaign already labelled as “confused”, further pushed rural voters into the hands of the conservatives. Tory criticisms of Labour were easily accepted with no rebuttal delivered locally. Montgomeryshire has consecutively twice voted in a Tory MP after a near total liberal hegemony of over 100 years. Where were Labour to capitalise on this? Where were the solutions that the area desperately needed in the face of the juggernaut of oncoming, crippling austerity?
The electoral vacuum present with the rout of the liberal democrats should be framed as an opportunity for the voice of a vocal centre-left alternative. Communication is imperative: connecting the inherent issues at hand with broader policy. The ignored leaked report indicates the way to engineer a Labour for rural areas is to cultivate candidates representative, understanding and passionate about truly local issues. Avoiding purely parochial debate, these are united with the national policy solutions offered by Labour.
The exasperation inducing irony is that the underlying causes of the diverse rural problems stem from issues that abound across the entirety of the UK: issues that Labour, in its very history and DNA is inherently committed to tackling. The problems manifest themselves and are construed in different ways in each rural locale, but the overarching issues are inherent nationwide. Combatting inequality and inequity. Tackling cuts to public services, unemployment, education and housing, all are near perpetual elements of any Labour Campaign.
A Labour party seeking power, one that truly believes itself to be the propagator of social change nationwide and for all, needs to recognise that centre left causes need to be framed as the evidently applicable solutions for rural communities that they are. Rural areas need to feel they are being spoken to, addressed with genuine attention and real solutions. The party desperately needs sincere dialogue with those that traditionally do not make up its support base if it is to make a concerted effort at tackling inequality for all. This dialogue starts with ensuring that the half-hearted approaches tried before are replaced with genuine, sincere focus.
Finally, to both current leadership contenders: If the ethos of an impassioned Labour government is to reduce inequality for the most at risk, the most at need and the most vulnerable, then why isn’t the party giving our entire society, urban to rural, a chance to understand how it could do so?
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