In considering the particular needs of rural communities and individuals, the Labour Party must appreciate that these are as much in and of the mainstream as city-dwellers. We share the same concerns for the big issues of the national economy, defense, jobs, immigration etc. A Rural Manifesto focused solely on our special issues would be incomplete.
Having said that, our particular needs are unquestionably points of difference which should be addressed. To ignore rural and minority Labour clusters is to fail the notion of One Nation. It may seem to our metropolitan policy-makers that these minorities should not drive policy but I would argue that the issues which Labour should prioritise are highlighted by the rural reality. In leafy, green parts of England and Wales as well as much to envy there is much to improve. Isolation and higher living costs contribute to making rural life hard for many who live here.
Isolation – or obstacles to access to essentials – is occasioned by living in small communities lacking services. In towns and cities most facilities and services are to hand round the corner. In the country these may be several miles away, with no public transport links. Overcoming distance requires transport, with accompanying costs. This factor alone means that essentials like healthcare, food, education and energy are far more expensive for the rural householder than the urban. Add to this Council Tax at levels not merited by services provided – in essence subsidising urban services; and being deprived of the same level of broadband speed available to others, and isolation and cost of living can be seen to be issues of even greater impact in the country than the city.
“Move to the town, then” may be your response. Does this make sense for the country or the individual? Depopulation of villages to impose greater burdens on towns already lacking housing and school capacity will only serve to remove a workforce needed for those aspects of rural economy which can only be practiced in the countryside: agriculture, horticulture, arboriculture; let alone the workers who keep the assets of the wealthy going. And to what employment can they go if they seek affordable homes in towns because none are left in the countryside?
Affordable homes, transport, digital connection and energy for all must include rural dwellers. Without these being part of Labour thinking and action, this will continue to become 2 nations – rich and poor, divided further between the haves in cities and have-nots in the country; and Labour will fail to win the support of millions of voters living in the countryside.
Tom Serpall is a Labour Member from Wealden CLP