For too long our heavily-centralised political and economic model has failed to deliver for towns and villages across Britain. Both the Brexit vote and last year’s general election laid bare the gap between urban and rural areas. Cities which voted overwhelmingly to Remain also turned out to support Labour in large numbers at the election, while the majority of people living in towns and villages backed Leave and voted Conservative. Never have we been so divided by geography and place.
By contrast, class no longer provides the guide to voting intention it once did. The Fabian Society’s new report reveals that the Conservative lead among ABC1 voters in rural England and Wales is 28 per cent. Among voters of the same social grade nationally, Labour has a one-point lead. The pattern is repeated in C2DE voters, once seen as Labour’s traditional working-class base. While Labour has a four per cent lead in this group across Great Britain, the Conservatives have extended a 14-point advantage in rural areas. As Rob Ford at Manchester University wrote, with the gain of Canterbury and loss of Mansfield in 2017 “class politics has turned on its head”.
As smaller towns and villages have leaned right, and our large towns and cities have turned left, politicians and journalists have been left floundering. But for those who live and work in towns across the country, the frustration expressed by rural voters through the ballot box is not a surprise. For decades, there has been a growing sense that mainstream political parties have failed to speak to the values and priorities in rural Britain. A widespread belief that successive governments have failed to adequately address or even acknowledge many of the challenges facing towns and rural areas, in so many case actively making them worse.
Research by the Centre for Towns has shown how in recent decades towns have aged significantly while cities have grown younger. Where in previous decades young people who left rural areas to work or study would return, increasingly this is not the case.
This has dramatically altered life in rural areas. As populations have grown older, the proportion of working age people has reduced, with an inevitable impact on local economies. Libraries, banks, local pubs and high streets have struggled. Public services like health and social care are under greater strain and in too many areas, a lack of investment in public transport has left many people cut adrift from work and family. No wonder then that for those voters living in communities that have felt this change, the current political landscape is ill-equipped to address their concerns.
The academic Will Jennings found that 68 per cent of those living in towns believed that politicians “did not care about areas like theirs”, significantly higher than the 54 per cent living cities who agreed with the statement. But little wonder, when the political debate is so dominated by the issues that affect cities, and so dismissive of those that impact the rest. There is endless debate in Westminster over train services and billions have been invested in transport projects like HS2. But in rural areas buses, not trains, are the primary mode of public transport. Since 2010, £99m has been cut from those services considered economically unsustainable. Entire communities have been isolated not only from one another, but from jobs, educations, arts and culture.
With urban and rural areas increasingly divided by age, voting intention and social attitudes, there is a temptation for Labour to pick a side. This would be electorally catastrophic as the Democrats discovered in the US Presidential Election in 2016. This strategy would abandon longstanding Labour areas and fuel polarisation in the country. Our challenge is bigger than this: to build a consensus that unites two increasingly polarised groups in a shared vision for Britain.
It demands that we move beyond the narrative that our rural areas have been “left behind” and requires us to see the assets, energy and potential and energy in those places. It will require a political vision that matches the ambition of people in rural Britain, not ‘one more heave’ but a fundamental reimagining of what is possible.
Labour Country is published today by the Fabian Society in partnership with the Countryside Alliance.