Tuesday, 29 May 2007

The Rural Issue

Down here in Kent we have an (ever diminishing) amount of rural areas. These tend traditionally to be seen as Tory safe spots, and in many parts Labour don't visit them at all.

Yet we really do need to be breaking into these areas and presenting not only a Labour vision, but also one that reflects true left-wing values. They are areas that have largely been ignored by the party, and could prove vital areas in picking up new recruits - but which of our policies are most likely to appeal to these areas, and how can we broaden our appeal in these areas?

I have spent the last two local elections working in some rural areas, and picked up quite a few votes - but these were largely due to local concerns and the fact that I've a record in Parish politics. They probably will not transfer en masse to Labour in other elections...

Yet I think there is a constituency in these areas that would vote for us if they had positive reasons to do so...

Any ideas anyone?


Doctor Dunc said...

Skipton and Ripon (my CLP) is also a largely rural area (apart, that is, from Skipton and Ripon themselves!)

There is a general attachment to the Tory party that is quite hard to shake. It is interesting (though perhaps only of historical interest) that in 1944, the people of the Skipton Division (which was different, but no less rural) voted for the Common Wealth Party in a by-election (a party which, amongst other things, called for the common ownership of land).

Although I think that would be hard sell to today's farmers (!!) - I think we have to look very seriously at the issues of rural poverty and also consider the land question. I do think that parts of the environmental agenda could be a way to tap into a rural constituency. There is no point trying to make ourselves more attractive to rural dyed-in-the-wool tories, but most rural areas have their fair share of progressives who just haven't necessarily seen Labour as their home in the past.

In some countries, rural workers are much more radical. The moves towards organic farming and farmers markets, etc. have tended to take quite a conservative path, but there's not a huge shift of imagination to consider possibilities of food co-operatives, etc. from that point.

Other important issues relate to young people, and what they do in rural communities.

A good issue to raise.

Mike Baldock said...

Cheers DD - some good points.

I agree, the environmental issue is one where progressive policies could appeal to elements of the rural vote, and the comments about co-operatives are certainly ones worth pursuing.

The issue of young people in rural areas and wtf there is for them to do is one I've been struggling with for 5 years now!

The other issues are of course planning and development - especially in the South East where the govt has decreed that 200,000 new homes must be imposed on us despite the already chronic water shortages and clogged up infrastructures.

The majority of new houses being built are huge 4/5 bedroom affairs with starting prices of £350,000. This means the majority of them are not affordable to local people, especially those involved in the rural economy. In fact, most are bought by people who live and work in places like Greater London, and who move here to get away from the city, but who then find it difficult to actually shop or integrate locally. Yet there are few applications for smaller, more affordable housing because the developers simply don't make enough money out of it. Perhaps a govt initiative to financially encourage affordable housing in rural areas? Of course, there could be an element of council housing re-introduced, but in rural areas unless people actually come from the locale, facilities are limited and less well off people could become isolated without a car.

Transport is another issue, and one where the left-wing platform is likely to appeal - ever since the buses became privatised the bus services (OMG I'm sounding like the bloody Vicar of Dibley now) are attrocious - expensive, unreliable, and far too infrequent, with hardly any running after about 6 o'clock in the evening. Cheap public transport run for service not profit would be very popular in these areas.

Doctor Dunc said...

Certainly agree on the transport issue - that's definitely relevant up here too.

Kevin said...

I stood in a rural ward in Kent in May and was stunned to get 220 votes. Two member ward, winners got about 540 and 520.
Platform was more affordable housing, keeping station opening hours and environment.
If we'd added common owenrship of land we'd have probably got more!
The support's out there, and it's on basic issues, if we make the effort.
PS: Cost the Lib Dems a seat too, so was well worth it!

Mike Baldock said...

Kevin - get a blog! We're planning some meetings in Kent and this kind of experience will be invaluable :-)

Dunc - By agreeing about transport but not mentioning housing suggests you're not to sure about what I've mentioned regarding housing?

I'm not surprised! It's such a tricky issue, and one that doesn't fit nicely within any left-wing strategy. Yet I can't think of what other options there are...

What do you (or anyone else) see as the main objections to what I wrote? How can they be addressed?

Cheers in advance

donpaskini said...

Hi Mike,

Housing is going to be a tricky issue for us. You refer to the government 'imposing' 200,000 new homes on the South East - I think these new homes are desperately needed because of the shortage of housing and the misery which that causes. You're right that we should campaign for housing to be affordable and for the needs of people, not property developers, but I think that the need for more housing is something that we absolutely have to stand up for even if it is unpopular, otherwise we are selling out the people who need Labour to stick up for them most of all.

The other thing is that the challenge in rural areas is not just about policy, but about campaigning and keeping people in touch with Labour locally (in some places this starts by giving them a Labour candidate to vote for!) This is in itself a leftie issue, in that New Labour doctrine is that these people and their views don't count unless they are living in a marginal seat.

Part of the way of building up ideas for good policies and also campaigning is to organise events which invite local residents to come and talk about what they think would improve their area with their local Labour team. When I was a councillor I found this invaluable - over time all the people in the local residents association became Labour supporters because we listened to them and campaigned on what they thought was important, and the chair even joined the Labour Party and is now an elected councillor!

Mike Baldock said...

Thanks for the input Don.

There's two (main) problems with the 200,000 (and rising) houses in the South-East (160,000 of which are destined for the so-called Thames Gateway).

At the moment nearly 80% of them are way over the pricing that local people can afford (tending to be £350,000 lowest in an area where the average local wage is c£22,000). Virtually none are being built in the £150,000 or under category, with those that are going straight to Housing Associations who virtually double the price before letting them on at 50% schemes. (ie some properties on one development were priced at £90,000 but had to be sold to a Housing Association who sold them at 50% shares of £160,000!)

Of course, a development area containg 300 4/5 bedroom houses copuld probably cater for 450 2/3 bedroom houses so you'd actually get more housing per acre than at current. It would be nice to have some infrastructure put in too! Because that raely happens locally.

My other main concern is this constant focus on the South East which contradicts the supposed intention to help develop other areas of the country. Instead of, for example, giving Northern England an international standar airport and the associated development of the Northern cities, the govt is constantly investing in London. North-south migration is continuing unabated and I don't think this is helping the North at all.

Also, in rural areas, where shops are shutting and the post office has vanished, without regenerating the infrastructure of villages etc, people who move into new rural developments are either isolated or have to use a car.

In some cases developments of 30-40 houses are going up in rural areas that have no amenities. This cannot be beneficial to the local communities or the people who move in. The country roads get clogged at commuting times, and cause bottle necks on the main arterial routes.

It all just seems incredibly short-sighted and the whole concept of 'joined-up govt' has gone clean out of the window.

I do like your ideas about rural camapinging - this is something a few of us have been doing locally due to the long-term neglect of any area which wasn't 'winnable Labour' in local elections. This meant we had no presenc in those areas come the General, and people quite rightly felt New Labour were neglecting them, both locally and nationally.

We are still seen as a pretty much irrelevant fringe group in the local party however!

Curlew said...

Mike says :-
"Virtually none are being built in the £150,000 or under category, with those that are going straight to Housing Associations who virtually double the price before letting them on at 50% schemes."

That's scandalous! I didn't realise they could add a mark-up. What is the cash for? They are merely sleeping partners - the occupants of share homes do all the maintenance to protect their own investment.