To win an overall majority Labour must break with tradition and court the left behind voters of the deep countryside, argues Christabel Edwards
In October 1992 Michael Heseltine, then secretary of state for trade and industry, announced the closure of thirty of the United Kingdom’s remaining fifty deep coal mines, with the loss of thirty-one thousand jobs. Naturally there was an outcry which served only to juggle and delay a handful of closures, and all had gone within a year or two. But in truth the damage had already been done. Just fifteen years earlier there had been 240 mines employing three-hundred thousand people.
The result of such acts was that communities that had survived on mining for more than a hundred years were left bereft. The way of life that built up around them was gone, and living standards dropped. That was twenty-five years ago, a whole generation has passed, but still these decisions haunt the Labour party.
We have long banked on the mining areas as the bedrock of Labour majorities. But what is a mining seat without mines? Essentially these places are now becoming just like any other rural constituency. Pleasant enough commuter villages, towns with boarded-up high streets. The same long distances travelled to services, rural deprivation and lack of connectivity. And as I have written before the Labour party so often struggles for things to say about those.
The cost of this was beginning to become apparent at last week’s general election. While we rightly congratulate ourselves on an increased tally of seats, including some with rural issues; Stroud, Canterbury, High Peak for example, there is a worrying move away from us in those former non-urban heartland seats. Mansfield is gone, Sherwood drifts ever further away, while in Ashfield our member of parliament clings on by her finger tips. Bishop Auckland is now a key marginal, while all over the East Midlands, Yorkshire, and the north-east, majorities tumbled but seats were just about held.
Jeremy Corbyn and his team are worthy of our congratulations. The campaign was well fought, and the increased turnouts have bought us time that we cannot afford to waste. It will not always be like this, and when apathy kicks in again we will have a raft of neglected towns and villages ripe to be snatched away from us. The old men in the constituency Labour party’s keep on fighting the battles of the eighties, while those who can barely remember the pit wheels at all, struggle in the same low wage, non-unionised factory jobs as voters over the border in Lincolnshire.
In much of rural England, we have people doing traditional factory and warehouse shift work, the sort of working-class voters fetishized by many on the left, and yet they have never been courted by a Labour party which has always preferred to concentrate on the easy-pickings of heavily unionised labour forces. For the left behind voters of the deep countryside, and the seaside towns there has never been much on offer.
So what are we to do?
First, we have got to stop talking in ‘big city’ terms all the time. It is an unconscious habit by many in Labour, but it can be very off-putting when politicians suggest you can just nip down to the supermarket or the surgery without getting in the car and driving. Hardship is massively exacerbated by distance. Low incomes have even less reach when you need to buy and run a car just to earn those wages.
Distance also generates a frontier mentality. Fear of crime and immigration is stoked in quiet places where you lie awake listening to the shrieks and wails of animals rather than the sounds of other human beings. When you are cut off from humanity, feelings of connection to Queen and country are a lot more important. It does not make us racist or bigoted to talk that kind of language, and we should do more of it. We should reassure people that the Britain they take pride in is the same one we take pride in, and we can do it without compromising too far on our own principles.
The opportunities are there for us. The Tories have made enemies in the last few years through policies of austerity and division, culminating in a Brexit which will add to both. For the first time in my political memory, farmers have been asking us seriously what we think about issues that affect them. They are looking to us to offer something meaningful. If we can start to engage with them and other rural voters, then we can begin to stem the losses in former mining seats while winning new friends in traditional agricultural communities too. Let’s do it.
Christabel Edwards is a Labour party activist. She tweets at @Christabel321
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