To win, Labour must become the party of rural Britain
We start 2022 with the country reeling from a huge surge of pandemic infection, and the government reeling from a collapse in support in its traditional rural heartlands.
North Shropshire was a wake up that the Conservatives can no longer win based on Brexit and an unwavering rural vote. For Labour this is an opportunity for its message to be heard and to build support right across the country.
In 1997, we held 179 rural and semi-rural constituencies; that is now down to 17. In 2001 I won the beautiful coastal seat of South Dorset. In that year’s election campaign, I was sat on Tony Blair’s campaign bus as we came down from Portland, and the view of Chesil Beach and Weymouth Bay opened up before us. He gazed in wonder and looked over to me and said, “Can we really win here?”
We won because Labour had universal messages to unite the country wherever people lived. Tough on crime and tough on poverty; better outcomes for all children; better pay and rights at work; an NHS that was well staffed allowing waiting times to be slashed.
People have heard of ‘levelling up’ but now recognise that it is empty of policy
The Labour Party can only win as a truly national party, supporting people’s hopes and dreams. Individual aspirations can only be built in a stable nation where we equally care for ourselves, each other, and the natural environment. The future is bleak if our children have no prospect of being prepared for graduate level jobs in their own communities. We need to see jobs we aspire to in our own neighbourhoods, not in a distant city or virtual reality.
Secure local employment should also make housing affordable. It is not sustainable if only a few parts of the country, the economy, our politics, or our cultural life are thriving; and if those successful areas are having to bail out those we are failing. For Labour, success will mean that the answers for the “red wall” seats are also the answers for coastal and market towns. All share the same sense of being left behind by the economy and being on the periphery. Rural communities and former industrial towns both feel taken for granted by politicians.
Labour must be wary of different messages to different voters in different parts of the country. That spreads division. While that worked for the Tories and the nationalists, I believe that post-pandemic Britain will be ready for a vision of hope and unity. What are the steps to finding that vision? It needs to be more than a slogan. People have heard of “levelling up” but now recognise that it is empty of policy.
We must be embedded in, and listening to, the places we want to represent. Labour is the biggest political party and has members in every party of the country, the coast and the cities. Our members need to be encouraged and supported to be visible, as well as to be a source of ideas and understanding of the nature and state of their communities.
We must then commit to a better deal for those communities to have more delegated power, wealth and opportunity in their hands, out of Whitehall. The problems places have can only be solved locally by the people who live there. Giving power back to people over housing, skills, and infrastructure allows for bespoke solutions and strong local leadership.We have seen from the success of First Minister Mark Drakeford in Wales, Mayor Andy Burnham in Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London that place-based leadership works. Let us build that nationwide.
The country sees a tired government after 12 years. We want a return to a sustainable quality of life where we live and work. We need a confident competent government that will unite town and country, rich and poor, young and old – and across the four nations of our country. That is the lesson of 20 years ago and the basis for Labour’s future success.
Lord Knight of Weymouth is a Labour peer.
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