1

LABOUR’S RURAL PROBLEM – WINNING AGAIN IN COAST
AND COUNTRY

Contents
1. Introduction

2

2. Where are we now? Our rural problem

4

3. Where are we going? The rural challenge

7

4. Where we need to be winning

10

5. What are our members saying?

16

6. What are senior Labour figures saying?

27

7. What are key stakeholders saying?

29

8. The alternative story – Labour and rural Britain

33

9. Conclusions

35

Confidential – for internal uses only

2

1. Introduction
At 9.59pm on 7 May 2015 the Labour Party was largely united in the belief that Ed Miliband would
be walking into Number 10 Downing Street as the next Prime Minister. The shock exit poll which
followed, and the vast scale of the defeat Labour suffered, has prompted countless post-mortems,
dissections, and initial conclusions about what went so wrong. John Cruddas’ Independent Enquiry1,
and Alan Barnard and John Braggins report ‘Listening to Labour’s Lost Voters’2 in particular have
revealed some hard truths which the party must face up to.
However, one aspect which has been neglected (as it often is) was Labour’s dire electoral
performance in rural Britain. The more rural the constituency, the worse Labour performed. In
market towns and villages across the country, the party hurtled backwards in areas which not long
ago regularly returned Labour representatives. From North East Somerset to the rural hinterlands of
Corby, Labour was routed.
If the party is to have any chance of forming the next government, it can no longer afford to neglect
these communities. As a recent Fabian Society report has indicated3, the uniform swing required to
win in 2020 will be twice that required in 2015 – this means that many rural seats have become
must-wins in ways they have simply never been before. We cannot win again without a concerted
effort to become at least competitive in these areas.
However, this is far more than just an electoral mountain to climb. The perception problems are
huge – not just rural votes’ perception of Labour, but more crucially Labour’s perception of rural
voters. This problem goes from the top of the party to the bottom – for too many rurality is
synonymous with Conservatism, and engaging with these communities is at best an afterthought,
and at worst a complete waste of time.
The lack of concern for these areas has inhibited the development of a coherent Labour vision for
rural Britain. Instead, we allow organisations such as the National Farmers’ Union and the
Countryside Alliance to define the rural agenda – to ‘stand up for rural communities’ has become
synonymous with supporting badger culling and fox hunting (an absurd situation when these policies
impact only a modest proportion of those in rural communities). Clearly, an alternative Labour vision
needs to be developed.
But the question, ‘what is Labour’s vision?’ can only come after a more pressing question is
answered: ‘how do we even develop a vision?’ Time after time in our enquiries an image of Labour
emerged as insular, metropolitan, and remote. Developing a vision and changing how we organise
are therefore two sides of the same coin. The party at present lacks the structures, connections, and
mentality to develop a compelling vision for rural Britain.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. This is not simply a lamentation of the way Labour engages with
these communities (though there is much to lament). This is not an account just of what went wrong
1

The first findings from the Independent Enquiry were published on LabourList here:
http://labourlist.org/2015/08/labour-lost-because-voters-believed-it-was-anti-austerity/
2
http://www.scribd.com/doc/271940748/Listening-to-Labour-s-Lost-Labour-Voters-bbm-Research-July-2015
3
Labour’s Mountain to Climb: the 2020 Challenge: http://www.fabians.org.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2015/06/The-Mountain-to-Climb.pdf

Confidential – for internal uses only

3
at the last election (though much did go wrong). It is an attempt to attract attention to an
opportunity – for Labour to become to the authentic voice of the countryside. The Conservative
Party at present certainly is not; from the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board to their neglect
of rural public transport, Conservatism is destructive, complacent, and has little to say about the
most pressing challenges these communities face. Similarly, the wipe-out of the Liberal Democrats in
many of these areas has created a vacuum that Labour can, and must, fill. But this effort should
begin immediately, if we are not to slide further into irrelevance.
Finally, there is nothing inevitable about Labour’s poor relationship with rural Britain; from the
Tolpuddle Martyrs to the 1945 Labour government’s creation of Britain’s National Parks, there is a
long tradition of the Labour Movement as the principle defender of all that it good and cherished in
the countryside. To reclaim that tradition, Labour must first accept it currently has a profound rural
problem, agree it is a priority to overcome it, and then change its structures and create a compelling
narrative to do so. We should be as proud of creating the national parks as we are about creating the
National Health Service. This is essential if Labour is to truly represent rural Britain once more, and in
the process make it possible for us to win the next General Election.

Top-line conclusions

Developing a coherent vision for the countryside: Labour must develop a compelling new
narrative about rural Britain which challenges the dominant agenda of our opponents’. Rural
policy development has to fit into a wider vision about the kind of countryside we want to
see and build. The party should open itself up and engage more with stakeholders and
relevant groups so that they are part of building the compelling new narrative.

Reorganising and developing new methods of campaigning: focusing narrowly on target
seats has led to immense long-term neglect in rural areas. Targeting often relies on
reasonably arbitrary metrics, and has created a culture of shunting resources around before
each parliamentary election, whilst neglecting the importance of long-term strategy. PPCs
should be selected earlier, and rural CLPs fighting local election campaigns should be given
more support. Rural policy documents should be published much earlier.
Current methods of campaigning (primarily Voter ID) are inadequate in many of these areas
– as such there should be a renewed focus on community campaigning. We should organise
differently in seats where the Tories are embedded. No one size fits all and we should seek
to empower rural CLPs to try and do things in a different way that suits their circumstances.
Radical new approaches to campaigning should be trialled in rural seats deemed
‘unwinnable’.

Coming to terms with the ‘rural problem’: rural/urban distinctions are important, and
Labour needs to recognise this. It is concerning that some Labour activists in rural areas do
not accept the areas they work in are rural. This underlines the extent to which
misconceptions about rural Britain need to be challenged within the party. Shadow DEFRA
has an important facilitating role to play, linking up Labour campaigners with relevant
organisations to develop campaigns and narratives. Labour Coast & Country also has the
potential to play an extremely important role in helping to organise in rural communities.

Confidential – for internal uses only

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2. Where are we now? Our rural problem
Rurality is complicated to define – for the purposes of this report Office of National Statistics (ONS)
definitions will be used. On this definitions, there are 199 rural constituencies in England and Wales.
Labour’s performance in these seats in May 2015 was very poor, winning just 30 – only 15% of all
rural seats have a Labour MP, in contrast to 80% for the Conservatives. In its list of target seats,
Labour performed worse in those classified as rural than those classified as urban. Labour’s ‘rural
problem’ is deep and profound, and requires drastic change to overturn it.

What does ‘rural’ mean?
The problem of defining rurality
Defining a place as ‘rural’ or ‘urban’ has always been an endeavour fraught with difficulty. There are
many competing understandings of what each constitutes, and no absolute objective means to
characterise a place firmly as one or the other. Rurality conjures up a variety of different and often
conflicting images. Yet such classification also provide an essential framework to understand, in the
words of the Office for National Statistics, ‘the opportunities, challenges and barriers’ facing different
communities4. Moreover the geographical make-up of places, and how such make-up is classified, is
closely related to regional cultures and identities. It is therefore unsurprising that definitions of place
are hotly contested – no more so than in the responses we received to our surveys, analysed later in
this report.
The 2011 Rural-Urban Classification for Output Areas by the Office for National Statistics (ONS)
provides the most recent framework for rural/urban geographies. Information from the 2011 Census
has been utilised for this at a local authority level, but has not yet been released for parliamentary
constituencies (it is expected to be released in the coming months. For this reason the most recent
classification system at constituency level has to rely on data from the 2001 census. This provides a
significant handicap to building an accurate picture of the politics of contemporary rural Britain –
either an explanation, or perhaps a symptom, of the lack of understanding towards such
communities in Westminster.

How rurality is officially classified
The rurality of an area is classified at the smallest scale, that of the Output Area (OA)5. Each
individual OA is classified as urban or rural based on whether its (population-weighted) centre is
within or outside a built up area of greater than 10,000 people. This allows the residence of each
individual in a constituency to be defined in rural/urban terms. Classification at a parliamentary
constituency level is determined by the proportion of its population residing in one of the two.

4

ONS Rural-Urban Classification 2011 (small area geographies) Leaflet
DEFRA Rural/Urban Classification of Parliamentary Constituencies of England and Wales 2007
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/137668/classification_parlia
-constituencies-method.pdf
5

Confidential – for internal uses only

5
For a variety of reasons, this classification system only applies to England and Wales, so Scotland has
been excluded from this report.

Parliamentary constituency classification
There are three constituency-level rural classifications6:


significant rural: constituencies with 33% - 49.9% of the population living in rural
settlements and larger market towns.
rural-50: constituencies with 50% - 74.9% of the population living in rural settlements and
larger market towns.
rural-75: constituencies with at least 75% of the population living in rural settlements and
larger market towns.

For our purposes, the only seats which will be studied here are those officially classified by the ONS
as ‘significant rural’, ‘rural-50’, and ‘rural-75’. Unsurprisingly, this is not without its complications –
some coastal seats which are designated as ‘urban’ in this ONS designation are perhaps better
considered to be nominally ‘urban’ as they hold more in common with ‘rural’ seats than not. For
now, for the purposes of consistency and expediency such coastal seats have been excluded. This
arbitrary division should be challenged in future works.
On these classifications, there are 199 constituencies in England and Wales defined as ‘rural’, out of
a total of 573 (35%)7:
o
o
o

56 of the 199 are classified as ‘sig rural’ (28%)
55 of the 199 are classified as ‘rural 50’ (28%)
88 of the 199 rural seats are classified as ‘rural 75’ (44%)

Character of Labour’s rural seats
There are 30 seats with Labour MPs defined as ‘rural’8.
o
o
o

Labour holds 10 of the 56 seats classified as ‘sig rural’ (18%)
Labour holds 13 of the 41 seats classified as ‘rural 50’ (32%)
Labour holds seven of the 75 seats classified as ‘rural 75’ (9%) – six of these are in the North
East or West, one in Wales, one in the South West.

How did Labour perform in rural seats in May 2015?
Summary of electoral performance in rural seats




Of the 199 constituencies in England and Wales that are classified as rural, Labour only won
in 30 of them on May 7th so approximately 15% of rural seats have a Labour MP.
By contrast the Tories won in 161 of the 199 rural seats (approximately 80%).
In Labour’s list of 106 key seats there were 19 that are classified as rural. We only won in
one of those.
Of the nine seats we lost in England and Wales to the Conservatives, two are classified as
rural.
In our top five rural target seats, there was a significant swing away from Labour in all but
one.

6

ibid
House of Commons Library – statistical analysis (appendix i)
8
ibid
7

Confidential – for internal uses only

6

As the figures alone show, Labour’s performance in rural constituencies was very poor. The single
gain out of 19 rural target seats, and the regression elsewhere, is testament to this. Moreover this
gain – in Wirral West – was in a far from representative rural constituency, with very particular local
issues affecting the outcome.
The problem goes even deeper than the small number of rural seats Labour does hold (15%). The
most rural sub-category i.e. ‘rural 75’ constitutes close to half of total rural constituencies, but is the
category where Labour’s performance is by far the worst, holding less than one tenth of these seats.
Moreover, of the seven ‘rural 75’ seats Labour does hold, six are located in the North East and West,
mainly made up of former mining communities. The culture and political traditions of such seats are
unique. In essence, they obscure just how bad Labour’s performance is in ‘rural 75’ seats.
Labour performed better in ‘rural 50’ and ‘sig rural’ constituencies (though still very poorly,
compared with the Conservatives). In most of these seats are significant urban conurbations that are
the centres of Labour support.
The picture that emerges from all of this is broadly an inverse correlation between the proportion of
rural population in a constituency and Labour’s electoral prospects. It would seem reasonable to
attribute relative success in some of these constituencies to the urban concentrations.
This shows Labour unquestionably has a deep and profound ‘rural problem’. To generalise, the
greater the rurality of an area, the less likely it is to vote Labour. As an assessment of potential rural
target seats for 2020 in Chapter Two shows, even in the relatively ‘winnable’ rural seats, the
electoral mountain to climb is enormous.

Confidential – for internal uses only

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3. Where are we going? The rural challenge
If Labour has any chance of winning the next General Election, it must become competitive in rural
seats. In many of these constituencies there has been over 15 years of decline. Seats held by Labour
up until 2005 or 2010 now have enormous Conservative majorities. One of the problems is that for
too long Labour has been over-reliant on the ‘urban’ electorate within many of these rural seats, and
as such has neglected surrounding market towns and villages, at immense electoral cost to the
party.

The rural mountain to climb – what we need to do by 2020
A few weeks after the General Election, the Fabian Society published a report entitled ‘the mountain
to climb: Labour’s 2020 challenge’9. The report calculated that, taking into account the expected
boundary changes, Labour must gain at least 106 seats to reach a majority. The report published a
table of possible Labour 2020 target seats – 148 constituencies all requiring a swing of up to 12.4%
for a Labour gain. A slightly slimmed down framework has been used for our purposes – assessing
the top 142 constituencies, requiring a gain of less than 12.4%. Our attention is focused on the rural
seats that fall into this category.
The Fabian report notes how the electoral swing required in marginal in 2020 will be twice that
which was required in May 2015. This applies to rural constituencies in the list as much as urban.
There are 28 rural seats requiring a swing of less than 12.4% for a Labour gain. Of these:
o
o
o
o
o

Three require a swing of less than 2.5%
Nine require a swing of less than 5%
17 require a swing of less than 7.5%
20 require a swing of less than 10%
28 require a swing of less than 12.4%

If we are just to focus on the 106 seats requiring the smallest electoral swing for a Labour gain (the
number required to creep over the line for a majority), 20 are classified as ‘rural’. Indisputably, the
route map to Number 10 runs through rural Britain.

Recent electoral history
The Conservative majorities in these seats may now be huge, but it was not always so - far from it. In
fact, excluding two newly created seats, all but one of the 28 were Labour seats in 2001. In fact,
before the 2010 General Election Labour held 19 of these 28 seats10.
Since then, the change in electoral fortunes has been dramatic. To take one example, South
Derbyshire had a Labour MP from 1997 until 2010, elected each time with healthy majorities.
However, a 9.8% swing against Labour in 2010, followed by a 4.3% swing against in 2015 has created

9

Labour’s Mountain to Climb: The 2020 Challenge http://www.fabians.org.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2015/06/The-Mountain-to-Climb1.pdf
10
House of Commons library research – appendix ii

Confidential – for internal uses only

8
a Conservative majority of over 11,000. An 11.4% swing is required at the next election to gain this
seat – that is more than is required to gain Kensington (a seat which has never had a Labour MP).
There has been a decade of nose-diving public support for Labour in many of these seats. 17 of the
28 have seen swings against Labour in each of the last three General Elections. What is noteworthy
is how much more marked this decade of decline has been in rural areas compared to urban. For
example at the 2010 General Election the national uniform swing was 5% from Lab to Con – the
average swing against Labour in the 28 selected constituencies in that election was 7.6%.
One further point to note is the particularly concerning situation in Wales – of the seven Welsh seats
in the 28, five have seen swings against Labour in each of the last three elections. Indeed the two
rural losses in May 2015 were Welsh seats – Gower and the Vale of Clwyd. With the 2016 Welsh
Assembly elections approaching, this decline could well be exposed even more starkly.

The potential rural target seats
0 to 2.4% swing required


Corby (Sig rural) - WALES
Gower (Sig rural) - WALES
Vale of Clwyd (Sig rural) – EAST MIDS

2.5% to 4.9%





Keighley (sig rural) - YORKS
North Warwickshire (rural 50) – WEST MIDS
Stroud (sig rural) – SOUTH WEST
Calder Valley (sig rural) - YORKS
Sherwood (rural 50) – EAST MIDS
High Peak (rural 50) – EAST MIDS

5% to 7.4%







Cannock Chase (sig rural) – WEST MIDS
Preseli Pembrokeshire (rural 50) - WALES
Dover (rural 50) – SOUTH EAST
Scarborough and Whitby (sig rural) - YORKS
Aberconwy (rural 50) - WALES
Afron (rural 50) - WALES
Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (rural 75) - WALES
Elmet and Rothwell (rural 50) - YORKS

7.5% to 9.9%


Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (rural 75) - WALES
Camborne and Redruth (sig rural) – SOUTH WEST
Cleethorpes (sig rural) - CLEETHORPES

10% to 12.4%

North West Leicestershire (rural 50) – EAST MIDS
Forest of Dean (rural 75) – SOUTH WEST

Confidential – for internal uses only

9





South Derbyshire (sig rural) – EAST MIDS
Monmouth (rural 50) - WALES
Beverley and Holderness (rural 75) - YORKS
The Wrekin (sig rural) – WEST MIDS
Staffordshire Moorlands (rural 50) – WEST MIDS
York Outer (sig rural) – YORKS

Summary
A total of 13 of the 28 selected seats are classified as ‘sig rural’ (46%); while 11 of the 28 selected
seats are classified as ‘rural 50’ (39%), and four of the 28 selected seats are classified as ‘rural 75’
(14%).
Like most of the potential target seats, many of these selected rural constituencies have substantial
Conservative majorities. The vast majority of these potential target seats are ‘sig rural’ and ‘rural 50’
constituencies, despite the fact there are far fewer of those seat types than there are of ‘rural 75’.
As was demonstrated in the analysis of current Labour seats, our vote is inflated in ‘rural’
constituencies by the urban centres. Unless a drastic change in approach occurs it seems impossible
to gain a foothold in the rural seats which lack such conurbations. An approach to win the above
seats which simply cultivates the urban vote (as often occurs in campaigning and targeting practice)
fails to address the party’s structural weaknesses in rural communities – and is a recipe for longterm failure. We need to understand why rural communities, many of which would clearly benefit
from a Labour government, are simply not voting Labour.

Confidential – for internal uses only

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4. Where we need to be winning
This study reveals that many rural communities tend to be older, asset and income poor, less
educated, but with higher levels of employment. Most do not work in archetypically ‘rural’ sectors
(such as agriculture) but instead work in industries not altogether that different from their
counterparts in urban areas. However, there is no one uniform picture – some rural areas are very
deprived, whilst others are far more affluent. The factors common to almost all of the seats,
however, are agedness and high levels of employment. As such rural seats which Labour needs to
win back have their own unique profile and characteristics which need thorough understanding.

Methodology
The 28 potential rural target seats listed above will be used as a framework to build up a picture of
the kind of rural areas Labour needs to be winning back. To help create this picture, we did some
work to understand the socio-economics and demographics of these constituencies, comparing
them both to the character of current Labour seats, as well as the averages in the country as a
whole.
There are many conflicting images of the UK’s rural communities and who resides in them – wealthy
landowners, impoverished pensioners, fox hunters. None of these labels tell even half the story of
the British countryside, as the statistics below demonstrate. The start point must be the facts, and a
few top-line indicators have been selected; median age, proportion of over 65s, house prices, wages,
unemployment, and educational attainment.
Findings presented here were produced by the House of Commons Library11. Figures have been
calculated at the constituency level. Any averages extrapolated beyond this are averages ‘above’ the
constituency level, or the average of multiple regional medians. National ‘averages’ have likewise
been calculated in the same way for the purposes of consistency.

Demographics
Age
One of the most notable aspects of the findings is the significantly higher median age and the
proportion of over-65s in these rural constituencies, compared to the national average. The average
of median ages for the 28 seats is 43, compared with a national average of seats of 39.5. This
compares even more starkly with the figure for Labour seats, which stands at 36.5. All but one of the
28 seats has a median age higher than the national average. A similar trend is evident in the
percentage of the population aged 65 or over – the 28 seat average is 20.9%; higher than the 17.8%
national average, and the 15% Labour seat average.
Eight of the seats have a median age 45 or over and a percentage of over 65s over 23%. This is
closely correlated with the degree of rurality – all four ‘rural 75’ seats fall into this category. It
therefore seems reasonable to assert that the more rural the seat, the higher the median age and
the more over-65s residing there. In ‘sig rural’ seats, the urban centres bring down the averages –
but this same characteristic is clearly present in their rural communities.

11

House of Commons Library research – appendix ii

Confidential – for internal uses only

11
It is worth noting that this distinction is particularly notable in the rural Welsh seats – for example
Aberconwy, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, and Monmouth all have median ages of 46.
So whereas Labour constituencies have relatively young populations, those in rural seats are
relatively old. This exposes a clear weakness for Labour – research by Ipsos Mori12 shows that at the
last election the Conservatives had a 24 point lead amongst the over 65s (47 to 23), a group with a
turnout almost double that of the 18-24s (78% to 43%). The more rural an area, the older its
population, and Ipsos Mori’s findings show the older a voter, the less likely they have been to vote
Labour.
Labour’s ‘rural problem’ is inextricably linked to its ‘grey problem’ – the two need solving in
conjunction.

Economic indicators
Salaries and incomes
The material characteristics of these seats are more in line with the types of seats Labour currently
holds. Whereas the average of median gross salaries across all seats in the country is £27,263, the
figure for the rural 28 is £25,893 – far closer to the average for Labour seats of £25,818. Clearly
relative material deprivation exists in these seats, but it does not correlate with support for Labour
as it does elsewhere.
There is a far less uniform picture amongst these 28 seats when it comes to income. For example,
Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, Camborne and Redruth, and Vale of Clwyd all have
median salaries below £22,500. In contrast, Beverley and Holderness, Staffordshire Moorlands, and
Gower have median salaries clearly above the national average – each over £28,000.
The contrast within this group of 28 seats ruptures any uniform sense of rurality. The low-income
seats support images of rurality as deprived and isolated, the other set conform to the leafy middle
class stereotype. This is no mere coincidence but inherently linked to geography – the three
aforementioned lowest income seats in the 28 are all on the coast.
In spite of the internal contrasts, on the whole median salaries in these seats are clearly below
national averages, and an image of rural material comfort is found wanting.
House prices
The least coherent picture to emerge from the seat profiles concerns assets and wealth – whereas
the other indicators group into clusters, house prices are spread across a very broad spectrum from
£121,000 as a median to £200,000 as a median. The average is certainly low - £149,616 compared to
the national average of £190,726 (and £161,353 for Labour seats), but this is inevitably the logical
result of the lower cost of land in these areas.
Unemployment
As has been shown, these 28 rural seats are somewhat cash and asset poor, compared with the
national average. Indeed these material indicators place them far closer to the usual character of
Labour seats than Conservative ones. However, looking at levels of unemployment the picture is
reversed. The Jobseekers Allowance claimant rate averages 1.4% for these seats, compared to the
1.8% national average, and the 2.5% average for Labour seats. As with the other indicators, there is
12

https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3575/How-Britain-voted-in2015.aspx?view=wide

Confidential – for internal uses only

12
clear variation – the claimant count in the coastal Welsh seats in particular is high, often above 2%.
But in many seats it is actually less than 1% - including in relatively deprived seats such as the
Wreckin and the Forrest of Dean (both with median salaries significantly below national average). A
picture emerges of low pay and in-work deprivation.
The coastal factor is a significant determinant – eight of the 10 seats here with the highest claimant
rates are all coastal. Excluding these seats from the 28, unemployment is very low indeed.

Social indicators
Educational attainment
Similar trends seen in incomes and salaries can be discerned in educational attainment. The average
number of students attaining 5 A*- C grades at GCSE for these 28 rural seats is 54.5% (this excludes
Welsh seats, where classification on these terms is not applicable), comparing unfavourably to the
national average of 56.4% (and marginally ahead of the Labour seat average of 53.6%). It is again
clear on socio-economic indicators that there is as much, if not more, that these seats have in
common with areas that vote Labour compared with those who vote Conservative. There is nothing
inevitable or structural about Conservative dominance in these 28 constituencies.
There are a few seats which certainly complicate the picture, with exceptionally high educational
attainment – in Cleethorpes, Stroud, and York Outer the numbers getting 5 A*- C grades is over 62%.
The latter two seats also have the highest house prices, showing how these characteristics should
not be viewed in isolation.
What emerges is a picture of two countrysides – one affluent and well educated, the other
materially deprivation with significant barriers hampering mobility (in all senses). Labour is
performing poorly in both areas.

Employment patterns
The most striking feature to arise from a study of employment in these 28 seats, is the small
numbers employed in agriculture and fishing. Indeed, these industries do not feature in the top two
largest employers in any of the seats.
Wholesale and retail is one of the two largest employers in 21 of the 28 seats, while manufacturing,
is in the top two in 11 out of 28, and Public service roles in health, social work, or education feature
in the top two in 15 seats. Combined, these three employment sectors account for the main
industries of employment across almost all 28 seats13.
Self-employment varies widely, but in a few of the seats it is well above the national average of 15%
- there are five seats in which almost 20% of the population are self-employed. The seats with high
levels of self-employment are disproportionately deprived and coastal, with particularly high
numbers in the Welsh seats14.
Employment patterns in rural areas are thereby not dissimilar overall to those in urban areas. The
employment base in archetypical ‘rural’ sectors is small, and many in these areas commute outside
13
14

House of Commons Library – appendix iii
House of Commons Library – appendix iv

Confidential – for internal uses only

13
of the constituency for work. Contrary to popular perception, employment does not seem to be a
political determinant that would be making rural communities less likely to vote Labour.

Rural profile - national picture
To demonstrate how the characteristics of the 28 constituencies studied are not anomalous, but
quite representative of rural Britain, findings from the ONS Rural Digest have been included below to
corroborate it15.
The picture that emerges remains that of a rural population which is older, more isolated, relatively
poorer, but with higher levels of employment.

Population by age

15

DEFRA statistical digest of rural England, June 2015
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/443228/Statistical_Digest_o
f_Rural_England_2015_June_edition_v2.pdf

Confidential – for internal uses only

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Unemployment rate

Median annual earnings

Confidential – for internal uses only

15

Employment at home

Number of businesses
Type

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5. What are our members saying?
The inadequacies of the Labour Party’s internal communications infrastructure made the task of
consultation challenging, and was just one example of how the party in rural areas is remote and
difficult to contact. Once contact was made, a common response from members was to refute the
rurality of their area – for most, rurality was synonymous with farming and fox hunters; if these
groups were not common, the area was deemed not to be rural. This was particularly stark in 2015
target seats.
Labour’s rural policies were referenced positively, but were seen as isolated and lacking coherence
as part of a wider vision for the countryside (and indeed the country). By far the best known and
praised policy document was the Protecting Animals document – it is no coincidence that this was by
far the earliest released rural policy document.
There was significant anger at how the party treats rural communities - often with irreverence. The
party’s approach was seen as short-term, obsessed with data accumulation, and failing to make
meaningful connections in these communities. There was a general view that Labour needed to stop
treating these areas as an afterthought – mistrust runs deep and Labour must actively actively
engage if it is to have any chance in these seats.

Methodology
To build as broad a picture as possible, we attempted to make contact with all 199 Constituency
Labour Parties (CLPs) in seats classified as ‘rural’. Contact was made (where possible) with the Chair,
Secretary and former Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC). In addition to a letter explaining
the process, a survey was sent asking for feedback on Labour’s performance in rural areas
(appendix). The questions differed slightly depending on if the seat in question was a Labour seat, a
potential target seat, or an ‘unwinnable’.
We were immediately struck by the difficulty in obtaining contact details for these CLPs, surprisingly
even for former target seats or those with current Labour MPs. The party lacked an infrastructure to
provide this to us so we had to use search engines and contacts to build up a database. This section
relies on the 25 full responses we received to our enquiry.

Member testimonies – a selection
A wide variety of topics and suggestions were raised in the dozens of responses we received. To
allow a coherent understanding of the views of these members, three broad categories of comment
can be identified - policy, narrative, and organisation. The first includes reflections on our policies for
rural communities at the last election, as well as suggestions for new policies relevant to the
respondent’s community. Narrative concerns feedback on overall message and tone in
communicating with such communities. Finally, organisation applies to suggestions and critiques of
organisational frameworks in the Labour party, and how better to physically connect with rural
communities.

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Notion of rurality
By far the most striking finding that arose from the responses was the sheer number of officially
classified ‘rural’ seats which were not regarded as such by members of the CLP. Respondents who
questioned the classification ranged from the bemused to the outright dismissive. This was
particularly marked in respondents from target seats at the election.
An activist from Elmet and Rothwell: ‘quite a lot of people within the constituency would not consider
it to be rural in the first place, nor do I believe that the majority of people feel that they have rural
issues’. This comes in spite of the fact that 64.8% of the population are deemed to reside in what the
ONS define as rural areas.
An activist from Corby: ‘’rural’ in this constituency comprises many commuters to urban jobs or
residents of small towns where the original economic rationale for the town has disappeared’. He
stated that ‘the countryside has changed and provides little direct employment’ and ‘we did not lose
here because of perceived weakness on rural issues’. Assessing the election result, he said: ‘in the
urban centre of Corby, we actually improved our vote…however, we were completed routed in ‘rural’
East Northamptonshire’. Corby constituency nominally has a rural population of 49.3%.
By far the most surprising response of this kind came from indisputably one of the Britain’s most
rural seats – Beverley and Holderness. An activist said: ‘we didn’t see ourselves as a rural
constituency in particular’. Beverley and Holderness is a ‘rural 75’ with 97.7% of the population
calculated to be residing in rural areas. It was not a target seat last election, but features in the
Fabian publication as a potential target for 2020. The activist adds that most reside ‘in the key towns
which are all radically different in nature’.
Other seats with respondents (including former MPs) rejecting the rural classification included
Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and Stroud. When respondents did accept the significant amount of
rural population, such areas were often referred to as ‘hinterlands’ – and regarded with a certain
distance.

Policy
Feedback on 2015 policy documents
Potentially the second most noteworthy top-line theme was the lack of awareness of the three main
policy documents published in the run up to the election directly impacting rural areas - Labour’s
Better Plan for Rural Britain, Labour Protecting Animals, and Labour’s Green Plan. Those who
professed a lack of awareness were divided into two camps – the aforementioned respondents who
didn’t really regard the constituency as rural so believed the documents to be largely irrelevant (such
as respondents from Corby and Preseli Pembrokeshire), and then those who did perceive their
constituencies as significantly rural, and expressed disappointment that they had not been aware of
the documents’ presence.
A parish councillor in the very rural constituency of Lewes professed: “I connect with Rural Labour
on Twitter but…I was not aware of any of these documents, I had no idea they existed.”
An activist from New Forrest West CLP: ‘no members mentioned them, so I am not sure any were
aware’.

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An activist from Richmond (Yorks) CLP: ‘only two people were aware of these documents. No one
had read.(them)’
Those who were aware of them and had read them were largely positive about the documents. A
minority claimed to have incorporated the documents into campaign material.
An activist from Sevenoaks CLP says they (the documents) were ‘used for briefing activists/council
candidates and for articles for newsletters.’ He said: ‘there was some great stuff like off-grid energy
policy but I’m not sure it got across to people’ – demonstrating how even those well read with rural
policies felt the message was not being heard.
Of those who were aware of the documents, the Protecting Animals document received by far the
most relative praise. This is noteworthy because it was published long before the other documents.
An activist for Mid Dorset and North Poole: ‘I was aware of these and found the document in
protecting animals by far the most useful’. However he adds: ‘I did not think the other documents
contained enough detail/argument. Our rural plan was certainly no match for the NFU document
which was well presented and clearly argued’.
An activist from Labour South West, said ‘the protecting animals manifesto and the pledge to end
the badger cull was very popular in Stroud with Labour Party activists and the many animals rights
groups that operate in the area’, but added, ‘in the future we need to ensure that we focus on rural
issues that most people worry about. Rural issues shouldn’t be confused with animal welfare issues.’
Hence there was a paradox at the heart of the feedback; the Protecting Animals document gained
most acclaim, but it was regarded as the least relevant to the politics of rural communities. As
respondents implied, there was an absence of coherent message to challenge the NFU’s line on the
countryside.
The general mood of respondents to the policy documents was best encapsulated in the response of
an activist from South Suffolk CLP: the ‘proposals were good but we did not feel they were launched
and given the high priority they should have been by the party’.
Another complicating factor raised by members in Welsh seats was the documents’ relation to
devolved policy. An activist from Gower CLP, a seat lost to the Conservatives in May by the closest
of margins: ‘I was aware of these documents but not sure how they tied up with Welsh Labour’s
policies.’ This confusion prompted inaction. He advises in future in policy ‘much stronger
coordination with what is happening elsewhere (England and Scotland) to ensure that spokespeople
are aware of any policy differences’.

Key policy issues raised in the campaign
When asked about doorstep issues, most respondents’ replies had a more national focus.
Unsurprisingly, the deficit, Ed Miliband, and immigration were the most regularly cited. The latter
was the most frequent, despite the repeated caveats that very few immigrants or indeed ethnic
minority populations exist in most of these communities.
On more uniquely rural issues, transport, broadband connectivity, social care, and housing were the
most frequently cited.

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An activist from Richmond (Yorks) CLP: ‘like many rural constituencies, ours is a dispersed population
and with that comes the risk of isolation and exclusion from services and opportunities’ – this created
a variety of problems in terms of public services, jobs, and education. But the underlying similarity
common to rural areas was the lack of access.
An activist from Taunton Deanne CLP: ‘from my work with Citizens Advice there are major issues
around availability and cost of transport, also of social and genuinely affordable housing given
the wage/cost ratio’.
An activist from Wealden CLP: ‘rural transport, broadband connectivity…and the cost of
everything being inflated by lack of proximity to lowest cost supply”
An activist from Richmond (Yorks) mentioned the way in which agricultural issues were defined
worked against Labour: ‘farmers (were) concerned about milk prices but not engaged in debate over
Common Agricultural Policy’. However, he was in the minority in raising archetypically ‘rural’ issues
such as this in his response.
The issue of building on Greenfield stood out particularly amongst respondents – a South Suffolk
district councillor noted its significance. In addition, an activist from Horsham CLP said:
’overwhelmingly the issue within Horsham was the apparent hostility towards the local council who
are proposing to build 2000 homes on a Greenfield site’ – a key factor in the Conservative success
on the council.
The politics at play over the issue of development was frequently raised. It was the Conservative
ability to create political capital out the issue, often duplicitously, which aggravated many.
An activist from The Wreckin CLP: ‘development for housing and industrial development is a
significant issue. The irony being that those selling the land are mostly Tory and it is others of their
Party who stir up objections.’
An activist from Gower CLP pointed to a factor particularly pertinent in Wales: ‘cuts on the local
authority being blamed by the Tories on the Labour Council and the Welsh Assembly’. This point
was echoed by respondents from all of the Welsh CLPs in our survey. This is significant given the
relatively high proportion of rural seats in Wales, which Labour either holds, or has a chance of
winning back in 2020.
A particularly interesting response came from an activist in Wirral West, the only seat of the 19
rural targets which Labour gained in May: ‘across Hoylake and West Kirby (the rural areas of the
constituency), the responses were concerns over Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) happening in
the local area. The issue united environmentalists, local residents who were concerned about
property prices and local residents concerned about its potential impact in terms of wildlife and
tourism.’
This shows how environmental issues can bring together a variety of previously disparate groups.
More interesting was how political capital was gained from the issue. The activist adds: ‘it is
important to note that the UCG issue only surfaced when we raised it. Our local members recognised
that a protection had been revoked. We did some digging, noticed some concerns over the people
involved and brought this to people’s attention. That’s when we started to hear the issue back on the
doorstep.’
Clearly the Labour Party at a local and national level can have a far more proactive role in defining
(local) rural narratives, as occurred in Wirral West.

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Narrative
Where Labour has been going wrong
As suggested in the above responses – criticisms centred less on specific policy proposals, but more
on the thinking and presumptions underpinning them. Images of the countryside determined policy
– but these images were often inaccurate at best and woefully biased at worst. The inclinations and
biases of the Labour membership and its senior figures were frequently raised as the root of this
problem.
These criticisms were often identifying a long-term disconnection, not something peculiar to the
previous Parliament.
An activist from Suffolk County Council: ‘we desperately need our Party to be attuned to areas
outside of London and the Northern Metropolitans. The attitudes and pronouncements of the
Labour Party over the past few decades have often displayed complete disregard for, and woeful
ignorance of, the shire counties of this country in which a large proportion of our vital key marginal
seats are situated.’
An activist from Truro and Falmouth CLP: ‘our national message just did not seem to even be
interested in what was happening in the south west…we look and are an urban party’.
This disconnection led to false assumptions about the character of these communities. There was a
sense that Labour understood rurality purely in terms of employment type – an outdated way of
seeing things. The activist says ‘they are not all hunting and fishing – far from it – indeed it is the
idea that somehow rural areas are only interested in these issues that does us harm’.
An activist from Labour South West: ‘many people who live in rural communities are not farmers but
commute to jobs in their nearest city’.
An activist from Corby CLP: ‘it would be helpful for Labour to show that it understands that the
countryside has changed and provides little direct employment’
These false pictures inhibited policymaking, as several respondents made clear.
An activist from New Forrest West CLP: ‘as an NPF member who sees policy development in
action…almost all policy (is) set by MPs and SPADS who live in tradition Labour area and/or big cities.
So they do not give priority to voices who raise rural issues or “southern” issues, because their
knowledge of what is important, is driven by an urban life’. He says the party’s ‘rural’ focus is
warped: ‘giving animal rights pledges does not mean rural issues are taken care of. The Agricultural
Wages Board has only had traction because of the union involvement – if they weren’t unionised,
Labour (frankly) wouldn’t be interested’.
He articulated a trend in responses – rural policy was less determined by the needs from within
rural communities but from without; AWB and animal welfare only achieved salience because they
are championed by urban interests.
Criticisms were not just focused on the central party or MPs. There was some self-reflection from
members – some of this was implicit in the manner in which rural communities were still spoken
about as an ‘other’. But other respondents were more explicit about this.

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An activist from Horsham CLP: ‘I have always worked in the rural economy (horticulture) but
although I enjoy the countryside I do not see myself as being able to genuinely reflect the interests of
rural communities.’
Feedback was not entirely centred on criticism. Some referenced Labour’s success on rural issues in
the past, and creating support around certain issues and bodies – it was suggested that this work
should be revisited to aid the creation of new narratives.
An activist from Richmond (Yorks) CLP: ‘study the well-received work of the Ministry of
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in past Labour Government, when National Marketing Boards for
Milk, Potatoes and Wool ensured fair prices for both farmers and consumers and these Boards
ensured viability for upland and hill farmers’.
New narratives
Coherence was the central issue for most respondents. As a couple of identified – opposing
narratives, such as those purported by the NFU, were clearer and more coherent. Labour needs to
offer an alternative rooted in the real interests and concerns of rural communities, and not inhibited
by urban-bias.
An activist from Sevenoaks CLP called for ‘a more ‘joined up approach’ to rural issues that tells a
story’.
Suggestions for what should be included in this ‘story’ included explanations and solutions to the
issue of rural low pay, new conceptions of the role of farming, and defending communities (in the
wider sense, not just their public services).
An activist from Bexhill and Battle CLP: ‘the whole constituency is a low-wage area, with one of the
lowest levels in the south-east – reflecting low agricultural wages and low wages in local service
industries’ – he said whilst Bexhill and Battle has a very large Conservative majority, this focus could
lead to gains in other rural seats with similar profiles.
An activist in Mid Dorset and North Poole: ‘one thing to stress is the concept of the farmer as a
steward of the land. To my surprise I met some ‘poor’ farmers…but they all seemed to want to do
a better job of looking after their land for the future. We need to find a better way of rewarding
this.’
An activist from New Forrest West CLP: ‘I would like to see more from the party on village and
small town issues – protecting vital services (not just public, but post offices, shops, libraries, pubs
etc.)’
The above responses point to three important potential narratives on rural issues – material
deprivation, honour and pride in rural work, and protection of community identity.
However, when these narratives and stories are developed it is crucial to identify who is being
spoken to, and the considerable variety within rural constituencies.
An activist from Labour South West, makes this point: ‘issues that were consistent in rural
constituencies such as Stroud and North East Somerset are that they are made up of different towns
and villages with their own identity and did not identify with either being known generically as
“Stroud” as this is just one town of many in the constituency, and so campaigns have to work
around this and ensure that each town’s identity is reflected in campaigns and literature’.

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The contribution suggests that narratives cannot simply be created from the centre – local
campaigners must be empowered to tell stories appropriate to the specific identities at the lowest
level. Recognising difference within rural constituencies is as important as recognising difference
between them. Campaigns should always be alive to this.
An activist in Wirral West: ‘the universal party message won’t work without local focus’.

Organisation
Connections with rural seats
Most of the responses relating to Party organisation were concerned with the issue of feeling
ignored. This was expected to a degree, as most of the respondents came from constituencies
deemed ‘unwinnable’. However, some of these seats did have Labour MPs only a decade ago – yet
since their loss they have been severely neglected.
The most pertinent demonstration of this was the response from a Truro and Falmouth activist:
‘while in the year running up to the GE a couple of Shadow Cabinet spokespeople visited (notably
Maria) at the election itself the whole of Cornwall was a Labour free zone while Cabinet minister
after Cabinet minister poured into Somerset, Devon and Cornwall on, literally, a daily basis promising
the earth from new railways to international rugby stadiums.’ She says ‘we promoted some of the
messages that Maria put out but she was pretty much a lone voice bar Andy Burnham committing to
‘save’ a local hospital – by email.’
Responses such as the above show how ignoring such communities breeds electoral disaster. The
short-termist focus on nominal target seats narrows the party’s field of vision, and leads to neglect
of areas which have previously had Labour representation.
The feelings of being ignored were even stronger amongst those in seats which have never had
Labour representation.
An activist from Beverley and Holderness: ‘we feel like the abandoned aunt at the wedding over
on the East Coast. Who at Region and at national level is interested in us?’
From responses such as this it is clear that the party is alienating the only foothold we have in these
seats. Moreover, Beverley and Holderness is one which features in the Fabian document; electoral
fortunes change with the wind, and years of neglect could make the comebacks required very
difficult indeed.
Activists in Suffolk County Council both saw support for the Labour Coast & Country group as a key
way to end the neglect in such constituencies.
An activist from Richmond (Yorks) CLP: ‘better linkages need to be established within the party, eg
rural constituencies should be given the right to associate with an MP in a nearby constituency’.
Clearly a stronger twinning arrangement needs to be development.
An activist from New Forrest West CLP offers some other suggestions: ‘make every Labour frontbencher go once a year to spend a day with a rural CLP, to hear how their portfolio works in a rural
context’ in addition to the leader. He also suggests: ‘have policy discussion meetings in each region
once a year – BUT NOT IN A TARGET SEAT. In fact, only invite members from non-Labour seats.
Labour policy events held in target seats are dominated by media stunts for

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PPCs…members from unwinnables have stopped going to these types of meetings as no-one seems
interested in our voice.’
The importance of engaging with such seats in non-election contexts was raised frequently. This
criticism was closely related to scepticism about methods of electioneering – notably voter ID and
the process of target seat selection.
Campaigning – voter ID
The emphasis the Party places on Voter ID in its campaigning canon came under particular focus in
the responses. Feedback on this fell into two camps – on the one hand, some argued that the
disproportionate focus accorded to it was legitimate and worthwhile, but that it was an activity far
better suited to urban than rural areas, and thus justified greater attention being paid to the former.
On the other hand, some argued that it was ineffectual and an overhaul of campaigning was
required.
The former viewpoint was articulated by Alex Warlow, the treasurer and agent in the 2015 target
seat of Preseli Pembrokeshire: ‘the professional organiser we had actually concentrated very much
on the urban areas where he felt the Labour vote is…He is probably quite right in that the problem is
how do we get the Labour vote out in those areas …the rural relating villages are very difficult to
canvass…analysis would suggest that a third of our vote is rural but the question is how do you get to
these people. You can knock on 100 houses in an urban area in an hour, but in the rural areas you’re
lucky if you can do 10 houses in an hour and therefore it was seen as being not the best use of
canvassers’ time. For this reason our data on contact creator for the rural area is very poor.’
A contrasting view came from another 2015 target seat. An activist from Elmet and Rothwell CLP
called for: a ‘better campaigning strategy and a move away from data-gathering / contact rates
(with cash and resources used as a carrot / stick) and move towards actual conversations and
engagement with people.’
An activist from Richmond (Yorks) CLP: ‘better use needs to be made of intelligence gathered during
canvassing; in particular we need the candidates themselves to respond to individual voters who
raise particular concerns when canvassed’.
Whether or not Voter ID is regarded as the most effective strategy in theory is really beside the
point. As an approach it was almost universally found wanting in rural areas.
Whilst not criticising Voter ID per se, an activist from from Labour South West, said: ‘there are several
logistical challenges faced by organisers when organising a rural seat. There are far more challenges
moving activists from village to village because local transport is often more difficult, road groups are
difficult to plot because of low population in many villages’.
Clearly new forms of campaigning need to be devised more appropriate for the geographies of these
areas.
The problem with a data-driven approach was likewise directed towards the policy of target seat
selection. It is unsurprising that non-target seats would harbour such feelings, but the fact that nontarget seats performed as well as their heavily-targeted neighbours should raise doubts about this
approach to campaigning.
An activist from Beverley and Holderness CLP: ‘we felt we were in an uphill battle as we were not
seen as a target seat or a marginal. Strangely we increased our share of the vote when others
nearby in target areas didn’t. Why?’

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The general feeling from the responses was that target seats are selected reasonably arbitrarily, and
that the focus they are accorded thwarts the party’s long-term flourishing in non-traditional areas.
Any answer to the rural conundrum will have to respond to these criticisms.
Candidate selections and campaigning – starting early
Another key critique of campaigning concerned the issue of timing and longevity. There was a sense
of too little too late when it came to addressing political weaknesses in these areas.
One respondent referred to the “Right to Grow” policy in Bristol, which the Conservatives in
Kingswood said would lead to building on greenbelt land. She says Ed Miliband visited near the end
of the short campaign to ‘give a strong line on this…but unfortunately this was too late for it to
combat the problem effectively.’
There is a sense that the mistrust of Labour goes deep – press releases, big speeches or late
manifesto commitments are simply inadequate means of addressing it. Labour must start early and
reorganise to reflect the interest of these areas.
An activist from Beverley and Holderness CLP: ‘we need to choose candidates much earlier so they
can be better known’.
An activist from Richmond (Yorks) CLP echoed this point: ‘parliamentary candidates should be
selected early (just five months before the General Election equates to four and a half years without
and limits campaigning!) and they should hold as many public meetings (including Labour MPs,
MEPs, etc) as possible.’
The problems with communication and organisation in rural constituencies makes the amount of
time a candidate has to establish his/herself particularly pertinent there.
The activist also suggests another aspect to consider: ‘the party needs to build trust and credibility;
one way to do so is by taking local elections seriously and winning greater representation.’
A feeling was expressed that campaigning should be more linked up, amongst different elections
(parliamentary, local, assembly) and between them. Rethinking the role of organisers featured as
solutions to this quandary.
An activist from Preseli Pembs CLP said ‘we had an agent/organiser for the election period but we
really need one now, to help us build up the vote and keep in the news. Most of the organisers were
on short term contracts and this is a real waste, because they must have learned a lot about their
area and are now probably unemployed or working elsewhere’.
This issue is particularly pertinent in Wales, where there was a clear trepidation about the results of
next year’s Assembly elections.
Engagement with other groups
Engagement with outside organisations and local civic leaders was seen as a key way to rebuild in
some of these communities. This was seen as beneficial not just to organise but also to develop a
shared narrative (as articulated above).
An activist from Mid Dorset and North Poole: ‘I think we need a better dialogue with interested
groups/agencies/organisations involved so that we are talking the same language even if there is
some disagreement.’

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This stress on language was noteworthy – others had identified the strength of the NFU narrative;
the idea of working with likeminded (though very different) organisations to develop our own
language/narrative seems a positive way forward.
An activist from Taunton Deanne CLP suggests trying: ‘to collate information about Labour Party
members who hold public office (including such things as parish councillors and school
governorships) at community level in England’s rural areas. These are the gateways to local
opinion’. She says this ‘might help our messages to break through’. One particular example is
greater engagement with the National Association of Local Councils, as well as appointing ‘a
member of staff for a couple of years to support a rural impact project working with Labour Coast &
Country’.
Identifying such ‘gateways’ is important, and facilitates a Labour Party speaking not just about but
also from within these communities.
An activist from New Forrest West CLP suggests one small organisational change to aide this: ‘the
Association of Labour Councillors does not recognise parish or town councillors – this has to
change to allow these councillors to have a voice and get support.’
An activist from Wirral West gives the example of how the campaign against Underground Coal
Gassification (UCG) was built in the rural areas: ‘I think people’s community spirit played an
important role. In getting the message out, we held street stalls and community meetings where
local residents packed out the hall and got involved. We carefully ensured that, whilst it was clearly
Labour driving the issue forward, it was a campaign that we welcomed everyone getting behind.’
The activists emphasises how engagement with other groups was not just essential organisationally,
but also in setting the tone of the campaign: ‘it was not an overtly political hit at first…we planned
out a 12 month campaign to ensure that the issue remained relevant and would be a hot topic in the
last few months. People in these areas were mostly better off. Many would be involved in community
groups, residents associations and local activism. These networks were well established and very
useful in ensuring our message was communicated and kept from the toxicity of being seen as an
overtly political campaign.’ Not all rural communities are threatened by UCG extraction, but there
are often local equivalents which the Labour Party can engage with using a similar template to that
of Wirral West.
Communications
The absence of awareness of Labour’s rural policies and documents suggests the need for a
communications overhaul.
A parish councillor from Lewes: ‘communication is everything, Rural Labour needs to be a stronger
movement allied to the environment…a decent website, Facebook page, Pinterest/Instagram and
twitter presence would help…we need to use modern communications media much more efficiently
to meet, talk, discuss, decide, passive media is dead.’
An activist from Sevenoaks CLP says that whilst the rural policies were good many were unaware
of them: ‘a simple two page ‘rural Labour policies’ leaflet would have encourage all CLPs to get
the message across in rural areas…this could have been distributed well before the election’
He also adds that: ‘when national announcements are made, there should be a section/element “and
in rural areas this would mean…’

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It is a priority to end the sense of isolation many of these CLPs feel. Forums must be opened up to
link members with other CLPs, local campaigners, as well as stakeholders. Only through opening
these channels of communication can a narrative be developed to counter to dominance of our
opponents’.

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6. What are senior Labour figures saying?
Many MPs and Lords either representing rural areas or interested in rural politics expressed
frustration that many elements of the party simply did not ‘get it’. Any improvement in performance
must start from the simple factor of increased interest in these areas.
Labour was seen as having a long and proud history of representing rural Britain, and making
changes to protect and help these areas (most iconic being the creation of National Parks). Since
then it has lost its way somewhat – it is essential for Labour to reembrace its rural tradition.

Consultation process
We arranged multiple meetings with Labour MPs and Lords with an interest in the politics of rural
communities, and sought their views on how the Party needs to change to better reflect rural
communities.
Feedback has been broken down into policy, narrative, and organisation.

Policy
Policy which overcomes the problem of rural isolation was argued by many figures to be key priority
- an MP cited broadband connectivity as central.
Another MP argued that the other priorities for policy should be the cost of fuel, rural schooling,
housing and transport. She specifically raised the issue that some local schools will be decimated
under the new funding formula.
A peer emphasised how it was less about specific policies, and more a problem with overall policy
formation – there continues to be a lack of framework to understand the importance of ‘scale’. To
aide this, he suggests flipping around how policy is ‘proofed’ – instead of ‘rural proofing’ it is more
effective to design policies firstly with more sparsely populated areas in mind. He stressed how a
policy which works in a rural area will invariably also work in an urban area, but not necessarily the
other way round.
The peer argued Labour should also embrace symbolic policies to align itself with regional
identities – an example being the idea of local currencies.

Narrative
A recurring theme again emerged that the rural narrative is set by groups like the National Farmers’
Union and the Countryside Alliance; a distinctive Labour approach to the countryside gets frozen out
in this hegemony.
A peer offered some very useful suggestions about what that alternative narrative could constitute.
This is nothing new – there is a long history of organised labour as a rural

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force stretching back from the Tolpuddle Martyrs, to Labour’s establishment of National Parks. It is
that history which needs rediscovering and rearticulating.
The peer argues that the key is to frame the countryside in terms of national importance,
understand and support the possibility for Brits to ‘go to the seaside’ (in much the same way as the
Germans ‘go to the forests’). From here arises an emotional concept of access and wellbeing which
is not alien to Labour’s values and traditions, but very much emerges from within them. A narrative
of national wellbeing and legacy linked to health, food, and rural access positions the countryside as
a good for public benefit.
The health aspect within this is crucial –the peer argues that factors from antibiotic resistance to
obesity to air pollution will create a public health crisis in the coming years, and intrinsically linked
with an agenda for the countryside. It is about changing the metrics for success and rural wellbeing
away from short-term profit.
The political opportunities for this narratives are sizable. Indeed, it has the potential to tap into
existing community activism – the peer cites local food movements as an example.
Another peer echoed many of these points. He said that command and control politics is dead,
and Labour’s new rural agenda should be underpinned by ideas of empowerment, mutualism,
and localism.

Organisation
A recurring theme in feedback was that the form and aims of campaigning in the Labour Party at
present almost inevitably lead to a neglect of rural communities.
An MP said she was instructed to largely ignore the remote parts of her seat, as canvassing there
was ineffectual. Another MP echoed this point, observing how Contact Creator is poorly suited for
canvassing in villages.
An MP offered some useful and interesting suggestions to overcome these problems. His simple
point was that Labour must be and be seen to be a vehicle for ordinary people to change things. This
requires a shift away from just harvesting data to win elections, but to embrace more campaigning
on local issues. Labour must bring into its fold, as well as develop, civic leaders to represent the
community.

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7. What are key stakeholders saying?
Many rural stakeholders are crying out for a vision to challenge the dominance of the National
Farmers’ Union and the Countryside Alliance’s narrative and priorities. However, Labour was seen as
being unreceptive to this, lacking both the will and the ability. There was an appetite for drastically
increased engagement both with the Labour Party, and between likeminded stakeholders.
There was a sense that government rural policy at present is determined entirely by metrics hostile
to the overall wellbeing of rural Britain – namely judging success in crude material terms. Many
identified that an alternative agenda could be built around health and wellbeing, access, and natural
beauty.

The dominant agenda – assessing the National Farmers’ Union and Countryside
Alliance 2015 manifestos
A recurring theme of our enquiries was the perceived dominance of a rural agenda linked to the
successful lobbying of groups such as the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the Countryside
Alliance (CA). Before positing a potential alternative, it is first important to briefly outline what this
agenda constitutes, by summarising the content of their respective 2015 manifestos.

NFU Manifesto
The manifesto was divided into five parts; Investing for growth, Securing knowledge and technology,
Protecting animal and plant health, Building fair, safe, and secure food chains, Caring for our
countryside16.
The main focus was on investment in and promotion of British farming, support for exports,
deregulation and support for the badger cull.
Foreword, Meurig Raymond MBE, NFU President: ‘British farming provides 60 per cent of the food
we eat, it’s the bedrock of the food industry, which is UK’s largest manufacturing sector, it’s central
to the rural economy and it protects the nation’s countryside and wildlife.’
Calls for:



Significant reductions in government regulation.
Increased investment in public and private investment in agricultural science and
technology.
Continuing support for the badger cull.
Stricter country of origin food labelling.

16

The National Farmers’ Union 2015 General Election Manifesto http://www.nfuonline.com/the-nfu-2015election-manifesto/

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Countryside Alliance Manifesto
The manifesto was divided into five parts; Digital Communications, Food and Farming, Rural
Communities Rural Services, and Wildlife Management17.
The main focus was on increased access to transport and services for rural communities, and
protecting countryside sports such as fox hunting.
Calls for:



Improve broadband connectivity and mobile internet access.
Stricter country of origin food labelling.
Increased access to basic services, goods and amenities. Specifically, calls for protection of
Royal Mail and the Post Office.
Deregulation of country sports; specifically repeal of the Hunting Act, resisting further
restrictions on firearms.

Assessment
There is a surprising amount of crossover between the NFU-CA manifestos and Labour’s agenda on
issues such as technological investment, protecting vital services, and improving access. However, by
far the most attention in the agendas of these organisations is placed on the issues of deregulation,
badger culling, and fox hunting. It is these issues which have come to define what it means to stand
up for rural communities and such a narrow definition will make it very difficult for Labour to rebuild
in rural areas.
We engaged in a consultation process to try to figure out what an alternative narrative could be.

Consultation process
We sought to meet with several key stakeholders to get their thoughts on Labour’s approach to rural
issues and rural communities – no holds barred. The stakeholders we spoke to included Action with
Communities in Rural England (ACRE), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Canal
and River Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), and the Ramblers.
These informal meetings sought feedback on three key aspects of Labour’s approach to rural
communities – policy, narrative, and organisation.

Stakeholder feedback – overview
Policy
The main criticisms from these stakeholders was often not about specific policies – the rural policy
documents were often said to contain good practical solutions to problems in the countryside. The
RSPB for example praised the CAP 2017 policy - but saw such positive policies as isolated from a
wider narrative. They also criticised how late in the Parliament environmental policies arrived.
Another key criticism from some stakeholders of Labour’s rural policy offer was their centralised
character. CPRE in particular said there was a lack of control transfer, a failure to offer power to
17

Countryside Alliance General Election Manifesto 2015 http://www.countrysidealliance.org/ca/file/Election_Manifesto_2014_Web_Version.pdf

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people. The Canal and River Trust echoed this and said the party came across as solving everything
from Westminster.
Each stakeholder inevitably suggested a series of policies they deemed to be ‘missing’, reflecting
their special interest, for example, RSPB said there could have been more policies to protect the
environment.
The Ramblers in particular were very critical of the Party’s main manifesto, which contained a
complete lack of offer to rural communities. They suggested that containing the policies in separate
documents reduced awareness.

Narrative
The consensus amongst almost all groups was that the development of a new, coherent narrative on
the countryside is absolutely key to Labour success. This involves telling a story about rural
communities, not just instituting individual popular policies.
There was a widespread recognition of the success of the likes of National Farmers’ Union and the
Countryside Alliance to define and dominate the rural agenda; usually around issues such as
foxhunting and the badger cull. The Ramblers in particular articulated this frustration – particularly
as it constitutes just one small, sectional aspect of rural life.
The government’s narrative on the countryside was equally found to be wanting. Many implied that
the Tory narrative is essentially a vision of the past; images of big farmers and landed gentlemen
running the rural economy, and going fox hunting in their free time. Moreover, the Conservative
view of the countryside is essentially materialistic – economism continues to be the sole means of
judging rural success (through focusing only on indicators such as productivity).
The RSPB cite the fact that on farming, the government focus is entirely on new markets, when the
real issue for farmers is diversifying what they do – the RSPB suggests considering paying them to
look after the land.
The Ramblers likewise say, while much of it is important, the government rural agenda is dominated
by material issues like housing, broadband connectivity etc. – there is almost nothing about the
inherent quality and sustenance of the countryside and access to it. The potential for such an
‘access’ agenda chimes with Labour’s historic championing of social justice and opportunity, not a
narrow competitive materialism. CPRE echo this and see the potential for a narrative on landscape
as an intrinsic good links to a wellbeing and health agenda.
Likewise there is the possibility to redefine the notion of ‘rural economy’. The Ramblers say the
aforementioned access agenda could reinvigorate tourism and diversify the rural economy (e.g.
through improving walking networks). ACRE observe how only a small fraction of the population in
rural areas work in agriculture, a number which is only set to decrease. Indeed most of those in rural
communities work in sectors not dissimilar from those in urban areas. Thus it is crucial to redefine
the notion of ‘sustainable communities’ away from the purely economic, to a wider conception of
the ‘social’ – this is what is unique about rural communities, not their employment base.
ACRE observe that the political narrative also requires redefinition – Labour should embrace and
understand ‘Parish council culture’, with greater attention to this lowest level of administration,
crucial to understanding community identities and interests. This is important because there are
vastly different experiences in different rural areas; a monolithic approach will not work.

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CPRE make the point that Labour is disregarded by many rural communities as ‘townie’ – any
narrative that develops should come from within these communities, and create a new vocabulary
on the countryside, quite apart from the party’s urban agenda.

Organisation
As has been demonstrated, the need for an alternative coherent narrative on the countryside is
imperative. To be supple enough to cater for regional differences, and to be authentic, it must come
from within these communities through a coalition of interest groups with broadly aligned aims. It
cannot be developed by the Shadow DEFRA team in isolation. This should include several of these
stakeholders – many of whom are all too keen for greater networks of support amongst political
parties, elected representatives, and civic leaders.
At the moment, these channels do not exist. To illustrate an example, the Ramblers are always
willing to organise walks with MPs, PPCs, or party activists, for the mutual benefit of both and to
provide greater attention/appreciation of Britain’s pathways. From Labour’s perspective, the
Ramblers have 120,000 members, and are a clear champion of the best of British countryside.
However, since 2013 only 11 MPs have taken up this offer, and just 1 PPC. The latter figure is
particularly stark – most of these organisations say that engagement with candidates on local, rural
issues are very limited.
This does not have to be the case, if a framework is provided to greater engagement. Most of these
stakeholders are federal organisations, with branches representing the interests of certain
communities – this particularly applies to the Ramblers and CPRE. These are forums for local opinion
and conduits for campaigning and change, and both organisations express enthusiasm for greater
co-operation.
The RSPB said if contact details were shared they could notify CLPs on campaigns, and work together
for mutually desired outcomes. On a more superficial level, the Canal and River Trust provide great a
great deal of opportunities for photos ops on historic waterways.
Whilst the national policies of such organisations are usually dictated form the centre, their
branches and regions provide forums for developing new narratives/campaigns in these
communities. Engagement with them is crucial to better understand interests, but also to allow
Labour to speak authentically from within these communities.

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8. The alternative story – Labour and rural Britain
There is nothing inevitable about Labour poor performance in rural Britain, but to turn it around the
party must shatter its false perceptions of rurality and reembrace its lost traditions of mutualism,
radical conservatism, and community. The party must also make an effort to place its rural
achievements into the party’s own mythology – the establishment of National Parks should stand
alongside building the NHS and introducing the minimum wage as a Labour triumph, and it should be
talked about.

The problem – a party that has lost touch
In 1834, a group of agricultural farm workers from the village of Tolpuddle formed a trade union.
Exiled for their troubles, the Tolpuddle Martyrs have since become immortalised in the mythology
and traditions of organised labour.
The Labour Movement owes a lot to a small village in West Dorset, but that truth can be easily
forgotten. A lot has changed, and the Labour Party has never been seen as more remote from the
interests of rural Britain as it is now. The disaffection is mutual - much of the party treats the
countryside with a polite indifference. Labour is not seen as speaking from within these
communities, and it is not seen as a force to ensure the preservation of what they hold dear.

The solution - Rediscovering our community-based traditions
In reality the countryside is not the preserve of fox hunters and wealthy landowners. Material
deprivation is often high, and physical isolation prohibits access to vital services and opportunities.
Rural communities feel left behind in a world of globalisation which has seen booming city
dynamism, and rural economic stagnation. The Conservative Party has failed to protect these
communities from corrosive market forces, but remains the default standard bearers for rural
Britain, largely due to the lack of a systematic Labour attempt to seize this mantle. There is a rich
history in the party to draw upon if we are to seize this; Labour is not destined to be a remote, out of
touch party, seen as disruptive to the rural way of life.
There is nothing to stop Labour stressing the importance of place and belonging to civic and political
relations and articulating these as part of the party’s tradition. Labour should be a force facilitating
greater bonds between neighbours, not a disruptive outside body concerned with impersonal
resource transfer and outside meddling. Furthermore, there should be an active effort to etch the
party’s achievements for rural Britain into our wider story. We should be as proud of creating the
national parks as we are about creating the National Health Service.
A new rural story can emerge from this; of a countryside free for all to enjoy, built on rural
communities coming together to solve their own problems – empowered by a community-focused
Labour Party.
Instead of a narrative built on sectional interests and caving into powerful lobby groups, a story of
rural Britain should emerge built on the ideas of access, wellbeing, and beauty. The countryside is a
British inheritance, but it is rarely treated as such, and too often seen simply a resource to be
managed for material ends. This goes beyond just those residing in such areas, towards a reappraisal
of what is important to the country – a rural Britain as an antidote to health problems, not a
propagator (e.g. through empowering local food movements instead of supporting agribusiness that

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degrades the natural environment), and as a right to be enjoyed by all (much the same spirit which
saw the creation of National Parks).
These are just vague initial contours of a narrative which could be built – but what is crucial is that
one is built, and articulated in a language which people can relate to. Rural policy must not be
disparate, but make abstract vision tangible and realisable.

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9. Conclusions
Labour’s poor performance in rural seats in May 2015 was no short-term blip, but the result of
profound long-term problems both in how Labour organises and in how it articulates itself and
formulates policy. As this report has shown, the challenges facing the party are stark; but it is not
only electorally essential that we overcome them, it is a moral responsibility. By aligning ourselves
with the interests of rural communities across the country the whole Labour brand benefits by
detoxifying our image as Westminster-centric.
This will be no mean feat, but we have formulated some conclusions on how to start to overcome
our deep problems in rural areas.

Active narrative building
The recurrent theme of this report has been less that Labour has failed to develop appealing
individual policies for rural Britain, but more that it has lacked a powerful and compelling story to
tell about the countryside. The rural agenda has been determined too often by organisations hostile
to our values – there is nothing inevitable about this, and much of the countryside could be won
over to a Labour vision of access, wellbeing, and justice.
But the crucial factor to consider is that developing such an agenda is futile if it is not seen to come
from within rural communities. For too long, Labour has been seen as an alien force, imposing its will
on a passive countryside – even if policies are popular, this perception thwarts any political capital
gained out of them.
With this in mind, the Labour leadership cannot just formulate a convincing rural narrative in
Portcullis House. Organisation and vision are intertwined. Labour must work with stakeholders (such
as ACRE, RSPB, The National Trust etc.) holding similar aims. These organisations all said little
engagement was had with CLPs and Labour regional offices in the last Parliament. To give one
superficial example – just one Labour PPC has been on a ‘walk’ with the Ramblers since 2013 (and
that was a London PPC, too). We are not engaging with these organisations nearly enough.
We must work with these groups to redefine the debate about rural Britain onto more progressive
terrain – this should be done at national and local level. The shadow DEFRA team can and should
play a role in facilitating this; not just formulating policy, but working with stakeholders, and coordinating interest groups to formulate a vision for rural Britain at the top level, and also
empowering CLPs and PPCs to do the same at the grassroots.

Increasing Labour’s presence and accessibility in rural areas
An issue which repeatedly came up was how late many of these CLPs select their PPCs – sometimes
just months before the General Election. It is often impossible for candidates to make the links and
connections needed in such a narrow timeframe, and it acts to distance the relationship between
Party and public. Candidates should not just be names on a ballot paper – but community
champions.
The impending boundary changes will make this exercise far more difficult – they are unlikely to be
concluded until well into the Parliament. The usual process is to select existing MPs first, followed by
those in marginals, and finally those in ‘unwinnables’. The party should consider reviewing this

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chronology, and explore the viability of some form of selection before the boundary changes are
decided.
A related issue to this concerns CLP accessibility. One of the most frustrating barriers to carrying out
our member consultations was the lack of easily accessible contact details for CLPs. When we
attempted to locate contact details for officers in many CLPs through search engines we found
nothing – not just those in moribund parties but in actual 2015 target seats. One of the reasons for
this centres on the PPC/CLP dynamic. Once a PPC is selected they become synonymous with the CLP
– most dramatically illustrated online when CLP websites are replaced with PPC NationBuilder sites.
This means that after the election CLP websites do not exist, only moribund PPC ones. This was why
consultation was so hard to carry out.
PPCs come and go but CLPs should retain continuity in non-parliamentary campaigns, becoming
champions of local issues. This is a crucial way to build trust which will eventually manifest in
electoral gains. Regional offices should support CLP websites to ensure they are clear, accessible,
with full contact details. Consider moving away from NationBuilder to allow a less generic online
format that caters to needs of the CLP and the constituency.

Support for rural seats deemed ‘unwinnable’
There was a recurrent anger from Labour members in rural constituencies deemed ‘unwinnable’
about the neglect they feel from the party – both at the centre, and in regional offices. Seats not
identified as ‘targets’ inevitably have their members shipped off to those that are classified as such.
There are a couple of problems with this; it relies on reasonably arbitrary targeting, based on seats
with a nominally lower swing required for a gain, but this comes at the long-term detriment of those
areas which fall outside this metric but could be more viable areas for Labour support in the longterm. As a result the field of electoral vision continues to shrink and members become profoundly
alienated.
To illustrate with an example, the ‘rural 75’ seat of Beverely and Holderness was represented by a
Labour MP until 2005. Two elections with big swings against Labour led to it being classified as an
unwinnable in 2015, and activists were encouraged to campaign elsewhere. Ironically, the
performance here was far better than in the nearby targets; the Labour vote increased, and the seat
could well be a target in 2020. However, there has been no long-term plan in the area, members feel
alienated, and a huge effort will be required to gain the seat. This example shows how our electoral
strategy is too often like schoolboys chasing a football; shunting resources arbitrarily in and out of
seats on the basis of a narrow metric of winnability.
Longer term thinking is required in these areas. A useful model could include a focus on getting a
foothold in unwinnable seats with council elections, building up a profile on hyper-local concerns,
recruiting new members, and planning over a period of a decade. With the collapse of the Lib Dems
in the South West, Labour has an opportunity to fill the progressive vacuum in these areas.
We could take ten or so of the most unwinnable rural seats and trial experimental campaigning
techniques. We can use these seats as a ground for testing radical new organisational practices, and
replicate elsewhere is successful.

New methods of campaigning
Explicitly garnered from member responses, and implicitly from stakeholder meetings, was the
Labour Party’s over-reliance on Voter ID at the expense of community activism and issues-based
campaigning in rural areas. The inadequacies of the former approach was less a generic issue and

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more that it is inappropriate as the primary campaigning tool for winning again in many of these
rural areas.
Another problem with Voter ID is its in-build bias towards urban centres; to attain high contact rates,
it is far more expedient to canvass urban areas than rural. This is what happens even in many of the
‘rural’ constituencies – the urban centres are the primary focus points, and surrounding villages are
neglected. The party needs to widen its campaigning to include the whole of these constituencies –
and that may require shifting away from Voter ID towards new forms of community engagement.
This new form of organising and campaigning fits in with attempts to carve out a new vision for the
countryside; solving problems not with top-down diktats from Westminster but building a civil
society of groups coming together within rural communities to solve their own problems. New
campaigning methods would encourage PPCs and CLPs to do local politics differently, and be more
attuned to the hyper-local.

DEFRA policy
One of the most interesting and alarming findings of our consultations both with members and with
stakeholders was the limited awareness of Labour’s rural policy documents. This was not altogether
surprising given their very late publication. The Green Plan and the Rural Plan were both published
within a fortnight of polling day – far too late to achieve any cut through. Clearly by this point
campaigns are exhausted and overwhelmed by Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operations. In addition the
news cycle is inevitably focused elsewhere.
Important organisations such as the Ramblers had little awareness that the Rural Plan even existed –
explaining their disappointment about the lack of content for rural communities in the main
manifesto. In contrast the wider awareness and support for the Protecting Animals document makes
sense given its far earlier publication (February).
It would be helpful for rural and green policy documents to be printed earlier for stakeholders to
make the most of them. It is also an important lesson to ensure that the main manifesto includes
sufficient material from the side documents so that stakeholders feel their policy concerns are
valued.

Making more of our existing rural and coastal MPs
Labour has 30 MPs representing rural constituencies, and if that is combined with those
representing coastal seats there is a group of 54 Labour MPs who could perform an important role in
turning Labour into a champion of rural Britain. Gordon Marsden MP and Alan Campbell MP are
currently working on establishing a Labour coastal group – It would be a good to explore bringing the
soon to be formed Labour Coastal group into a wider Rural and Coastal 54.
At present, DEFRA oral questions is dominated by Conservative MPs. In the 5 DEFRA oral questions
which have taken place since June 2014, 42 questions are on average submitted by Conservative
MPs, compared to just 30 for Labour. At no recent DEFRA oral questions have more Labour MPs
spoken than Conservative. It would be positive to see Labour MPs outnumber Conservative MPs on a
few occasions. It would also be useful to create a mechanism for rural CLPs to ask nearby MPs in the
Rural and Coastal 54 to raise issues in Parliament on their behalf.

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Concluding words
These concluding points only begin to start the discussion of how Labour picks itself up after 3
elections of decline in rural seats. Such is the level of crisis that nothing should be off the table to
overcome this.
But if there ever was chance to reform our party, and create a new vision for the countryside, it is
now. With the Liberal Democrats wiped-out across much of the country, and the Conservative Party
fixated on a narrow materialism unconcerned with the real issues facing the countryside, Labour can
seize the moment to fill the vacuum and become the authentic voice of rural Britain.

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Appendix
Appendix i
Westminster Constituencies by party and rural/urban classification, May 2015 – House of
Commons Library

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Constituency profiles for seats requiring less than 12.4% swing for Labour gain – House of Commons Library

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Appendix ii

41

Appendix iii
Employee numbers by constituency of workplace: largest industries in selected constituencies,
September 2013 – House of Commons Library

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Appendix iv
Self-employment and employee numbers by constituency of residence, March 2011 – House of
Commons Library

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