Among the dismal results for Labour at the last general election was the party’s performance in rural areas. It won just 30 out of 199 seats, a net loss of one. An internal report into Labour’s “rural problem”, leaked exclusively to the New Statesman, was subsequently conducted by the then shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle. But it is one that Jeremy Corbyn stands accused of ignoring. According to sources, neither Eagle, nor her successor Kerry McCarthy, received any acknowledgment when they contacted the Labour leader (the former emailing him on 15 September).
“We were so up for making it work and giving him [Corbyn] a chance. We tried to engage in good faith,” a source told the New Statesman. “It breaks my heart that this report got no attention from the leader’s office.” A spokesman for Corbyn said: “Having gone through all emails sent to Jeremy in September there is no record of this report ever having been received. Labour under Jeremy’s leadership is committed to reaching out to all areas of the country. It was Jeremy and our new DEFRA lead Rachel Maskell who led the way on responding to the floods that hit this year. In response, a source criticised Corbyn’s office for “totally ignoring Kerry [McCarthy]’s tireless work on the floods.”
The report, which can be read in full above, charts the causes of Labour’s parlous performance and advocates a series of solutions. It warns that “the perception problems are huge – not just rural voters’ perception of Labour, but more crucially Labour’s perception of rural voters. This problem goes from the top of the party to the bottom – for too many rurality is synonymous with Conservatism, and engaging with these communities is at best an afterthought, and at worst a complete waste of time.” Some Labour activists, the report says, “do not accept the areas they work in are rural. This underlines the extent to which misconceptions about rural Britain need to be challenged within the party.”
The analysis speaks of how “The lack of concern for these areas has inhibited the development of a coherent Labour vision for rural Britain. Instead, we allow organisations such as the National Farmers’ Union and the Countryside Alliance to define the rural agenda – to ‘stand up for rural communities’ has become synonymous with supporting badger culling and fox hunting (an absurd situation when these policies impact only a modest proportion of those in rural communities). Clearly, an alternative Labour vision needs to be developed.”
In 2015, the report notes, “the more rural the constituency, the worse Labour performed. In market towns and villages across the country, the party hurtled backwards in areas which not long ago regularly returned Labour representatives. From North East Somerset to the rural hinterlands of Corby, Labour was routed.”
Seats which the party won in 2005 and 2010 are now held comfortably by the Conservatives. Of the 28 constituencies requiring a swing of less than 12.4 per cent to win, 17 have seen swings against Labour at each of the last three general elections. Of the 106 seats that the party will need to win for a majority following the expected boundary changes, 20 are rural. “Indisputably, the route map to Number 10 runs through rural Britain,” the report says.
The party is described as hampered by “remote” and disconnected constituency parties. Once contact was made “a common response from members was to refute the rurality of their area – for most, rurality was synonymous with farming and fox hunters; if these groups were not common, the area was deemed not to be rural. This was particularly stark in 2015 target seats.”
The report continues: “Labour’s rural policies were referenced positively, but were seen as isolated and lacking coherence as part of a wider vision for the countryside (and indeed the country). By far the best known and praised policy document was the Protecting Animals document – it is no coincidence that this was by far the earliest released rural policy document.” The party’s Green Plan and Rural Plan were both published within a fortnight of polling day, the report notes, “far too late to achieve any cut through.”
It adds: “There was significant anger at how the party treats rural communities – often with irreverence. The party’s approach was seen as short-term, obsessed with data accumulation, and failing to make meaningful connections in these communities. There was a general view that Labour needed to stop treating these areas as an afterthought – mistrust runs deep and Labour must actively actively engage if it is to have any chance in these seats.”
Activists who contributed to the report named the most common doorstep issues as “the deficit, Ed Miliband, and immigration”. The latter was cited more than any other “despite the repeated caveats that very few immigrants or indeed ethnic minority populations exist in most of these communities.”
But following its stark assessment of the party’s standing (which contrasts with the sanitised general election report), the inquiry argues that there is “nothing inevitable about Labour’s poor performance in rural Britain”. In reality, it says, “the countryside is not the preserve of fox hunters and wealthy landowners. Material deprivation is often high, and physical isolation prohibits access to vital services and opportunities. Rural communities feel left behind in a world of globalisation which has seen booming city dynamism, and rural economic stagnation.”
The report calls for Labour to “shatter its false perceptions of rurality and re-embrace its lost traditions of mutualism, radical conservatism, and community. The party must also make an effort to place its rural achievements into the party’s own mythology – the establishment of National Parks should stand alongside building the NHS and introducing the minimum wage as a Labour triumph, and it should be talked about.”
The Conservatives’ failure to protect rural communities from “corrosive market forces” (with the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board) and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats are cited as political openings for Labour. “Instead of a narrative built on sectional interests and caving into powerful lobby groups,” the report says, “a story of rural Britain should emerge built on the ideas of access, wellbeing, and beauty.” It adds: “By aligning ourselves with the interests of rural communities across the country the whole Labour brand benefits by detoxifying our image as Westminster-centric.”
To develop a persuasive narrative, the report says, the party must better engage with stakeholders such as the National Trust, the RSPB and ACRE. It notes that just one prospective parliamentary candidate, from a London seat, has been on a walk with the Ramblers since 2013. The report also calls for the earlier selection of candidates to allow them to become “community champions”, a shift away from Voter ID towards issues-based campaigning, prompt publication of rural and green policy documents and the establishment of a “Rural and Coastal” group for the 54 Labour MPs who represent these areas.
It concludes: “With the Liberal Democrats wiped-out across much of the country, and the Conservative Party fixated on a narrow materialism unconcerned with the real issues facing the countryside, Labour can seize the moment to fill the vacuum and become the authentic voice of rural Britain.”