It has been a hard election; our position has barely changed and my own small market town was no exception. Our terrific Lincolnshire police and crime commissioner candidate, Lucinda Preston, scored third place across the county, though a very clear first in Lincoln itself, one of our target seats.
Sadly it was the significant Ukip vote along the east coast that deprived her of second place; though a positive in itself, as it illustrates traditionally Tory electorates’ willingness to look elsewhere for representation. And this, to me at least, is a little silver glint around the edge of the thundercloud. Demographics are changing and the political makeup of our country has never been more dynamic.
So what chance does Labour have of advancing in rural Britain? We have always had our favourable neighbourhoods of course; usually a council estate or an industrial area where our candidates were always well received. Every little country town had its small nucleus of tribal Labour voters; they were just never numerous enough to make an impact on the national political psyche, being too easily outvoted by formidable Tory ladies, and gentlemen in tweeds with moustaches.
These were the first areas to change too; those working-class voters in the small terraced houses have mostly died off over the last twenty years, and been replaced by different ones; a motley assortment of uninterested non-voters, new arrivals from the east, and renters in buy-to-lets, which offer us little opportunity. But because these are our traditional areas we continue to knock on doors, and become downhearted at the responses, while often ignoring better opportunities elsewhere.
When I first became a Labour activist in Lincolnshire, the response we received on the doorsteps of the classy villages and modern estates was frequently hostile. It was an affront to the neighbourhood if a Labour canvasser felt that it was worth their while to knock on the door, and we were often left in no doubt of the fact!
The first chink in this rural veneer of respectability appeared at the 1995 local election. This was the time when little old ladies in modern bungalows leaned out and said they had never considered voting Labour before but ‘that Tony Blair’s such a nice young man!’ It was evident by the result that quite a few of them did too, as we had a raft of councillors returned from wards we would never even thought about canvassing before.
But though the Tories soon regained those areas, that base shift continues to this day; slowly and imperceptibly.
Twenty years ago my own town had a population of 12,000; now it is more than 17,000 and there are plans for a further 1,600 houses over the next few years. I used up the better part of 2,000 leaflets in the last couple of weeks on houses that did not exist in 1997. Where have all these people come from? Some are from eastern Europe undoubtedly, but others come from neighbouring cities, or London, lured by a better quality of life and good schools.
And what sort of people are they? These are mostly family homes occupied by the voters of Generation X, now in their thirties and forties. While older generations tend to stay tribally loyal, there is plenty of evidence that this group are much more flexible as to where they apply the stubby pencil; not least because they grew up during the Thatcher years and now populate the squeezed middle.
This is a huge opportunity for us and it leaves me seething with rage that our party continues to focus its attentions on the big cities and the ever-diminishing traditional working classes, whilst our small towns and villages are left to flirt with Ukip. We should be looking to fight these towns hard and make them ours for the longer term.
These elections were not as bad for us as some had suggested they might be, but I do not think we should take any comfort from that. Labour is not popular at present; the saving grace is merely the fact that the Tories are not either.
But reasons for optimism? Most certainly. Our country has changed beyond all recognition since 1979. Now as a party we have to understand that, and make the necessary adjustments to our values and rhetoric in order to appeal more broadly to the average voter. Tribal politics is dead; both ours, and theirs.
Christabel Edwards is a Labour party activist. She tweets @Christabel321
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