I live in a county made up of eight constituencies, covering just over a 1,000 square miles. However, of those eight constituencies, North, West and South Dorset constituencies cover 80 per cent of that area. My constituency of West Dorset is easily defined as rural and I firmly believe that Labour needs a rural manifesto in order to win a labour majority in 2015.
I am not naïve enough to believe that in 18 months we can start winning rural seats that we have never won in the past nor have very little support at present. But we have had a voice in rural areas in the past and held the South Dorset seat from 2001 to 2010. Obviously resources are finite and particularly scarce locally in a lot of rural constituency Labour parties but that is no excuse for not having policy that is relevant to rural life. People of all economic and social means live in these areas and, contrary to popular opinion, given a valid alternative and feasible candidate would like the opportunity to vote Labour.
As a county Dorset has one of the greatest disparities between housing and rental price and average wage. Like many others, people in Dorset are struggling with making ends meet on a day-to-day basis so introducing policy like the energy price freeze and standing up to the utility companies is fantastic but has very little relevance to those of us who use tanks of heating oil – and struggle to afford to do that most of the time.
Rural SMEs are constantly disadvantaged by appalling quality of mobile signal and the broadband network. Their pleas go unheard yet policy arguments continue about 4G networks, which is a distant pipe-dream when you live somewhere where you cannot even make a phonecall or send a text message.
With no manifesto relevant to particular aspects of rural life, people living in these constituencies feel that no one is advocating on their behalf. We need to select good candidates who are able to relate to people living in counties like Dorset. There needs are not complicated but in the recent flooding I know people that have not been able to get to work for days on end because the little public transport that is in place has been non-existent. The situation with public transport is simply pathetic and in many cases people have just given up because services are continually reduced. At the same time fuel duty has continued to rise. In many cases I know of people have been made redundant but remain stuck on benefits because they are unable to take up new work opportunities because they can neither afford a private car nor find a bus to take them there.
In many of these areas people are little satisfied with the Tory-run councils. While these local authorities fall more and more out of favour, the party should give CLPs the tools to do the job in the form of a rural manifesto and policy that was shaped for rural constituencies. We could actually go and start some serious work towards winning back seats like South Dorset as well as making headway in local councils that will eventually lead to parliamentary seats.
Elizabeth Ralph is a member of Progress. She is attending Progress Political Weekend, which is taking place on the 15-16 March 2014. Further details are available here
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