Although he is wrong that it need necessarily take several electoral cycles (unfortunately, it looks as if it is going to), Jack Eddy writes:
Between April and September 2012, nearly 21,000 people used food banks in the south-west of England, while, in this year alone, 5,000 people have regularly used food banks in the county of Norfolk.
These figures are both an irrefutable sign of a growing rural poverty and a call to Labour to reach out to rural Britain in a way it has not attempted since the 1920s.
There is an ever-increasing problem of living standards in the rural world. For a start, we are suffering from a housing crisis different to our urban cousins. The issue of house affordability, which is worsening everywhere, is particularly acute in the south.
In order to secure a typical mortgage, a rural resident needs to earn at least £66,000 a year. With the average income in rural areas standing at just over £20,000 a year, you can see the problem. This is only made worse and more widespread by the prevalence of second homes throughout the UK – but especially in Norfolk, the Lake District, Northumberland and the south-west.
There is also far less social housing in rural areas (13 per cent compared to 22 per cent in cities). The situation is compounded further by protectionist planning laws and a general urban containment, so the few houses that are built are rarely in the rural areas that need them most.
The net result of the rural housing crisis is that the countryside is an increasingly unaffordable place to live for rural Britons, with severe potential effects on rural communities and local identities as more and more rural natives are forced to relocate.
That said, there are many other issues that are worthy of mention – rural fuel poverty, rural public transport and infrastructure, unemployment, small businesses, rural health and social care, to name just a few – all of which are important contributors to rural poverty.
Yet, the reason I talk about housing is that this issue has technically already been met with an ambitious response from Labour. Ed Balls has outlined a new national policy that will instigate a massive housebuilding programme of 400,000 new homes. So, what’s the problem?
This policy, and others like it, does not have a rural dimension. In this case, greater detail is needed:
- How many of the 400,000 new house builds will be where the rural housing crisis is most acute?
- Will planning restrictions be modified or lifted? How will Labour ensure that building is environmentally friendly?
- What proportion of these new homes are to be ‘affordable housing’ and social housing?
- How will Labour prevent new rural builds becoming second homes?
The second problem is that, quite simply, Labour’s message does not carry in rural areas, where the population – used to being ignored, especially by what they see as an urban Labour party – is disinclined to vote Labour to begin with.
A Rural Manifesto with a broad and ambitious mandate provides the answer to both problems. First, such a document, which would enable the Labour party to take a big view of the difficulties facing rural Britain, provides the medium to give national policy that specifically rural dimension that the Labour movement has hitherto lacked.
Moreover, a project of this scale, sympathetically developed from the viewpoint of rural voters, with the extensive involvement and contributions of every rural CLP and other rural groups, will enable Labour to reach out to new voters in the countryside in a way that no other political party has attempted.
The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have fundamentally failed their rural constituents, and UKIP would be a disaster for the rural voter. However, Labour cannot win in rural Britain overnight. We must build rural support slowly over several elections.
But some unexpected rural seats can be won at the next general election and the rural vote can make a significant contribution to Labour party victory in 2015. The Rural Manifesto represents the best way to achieve both a short-term election contribution, as well as a long-term ambition to appeal to and win the rural vote.
This is a battle that can be won. We must now start preparing for that victory.