Written by Grace Davis, Co-Chair Elect of OULC.
Campaigning in rural areas serves as a challenge to the party. This was a challenge I was introduced to in 2016, when I became heavily involved in my first ever campaign, for the Welsh Assembly Elections. With eager eyes and leaflets in hand, I began door-knocking with high expectation. I had one of the most amazing candidates and couldn’t (and still can’t) think of anyone I would have preferred to be my Assembly Member. But the count revealed to me that even the most competent of candidates will face huge difficulties in rural constituencies such as mine in Brecon and Radnorshire.
I learnt a lot during this election: I learnt about the problems that happen within rural communities and the need to adapt Labour Party policies to suit. This was the election that I fell in love with the Labour Party, and so too was it the election that I fell in love with my small local community.
There are a series of practical challenges for campaigning which need be overcome if we are to run efficient campaigns in rural communities as we do in urban ones. These include the problems involved in reaching more dispersed populations. Firstly, often houses can only be reached by cars, and subsequently the cost of petrol stacks up for candidates and campaigners. Running for an election becomes a financial burden and potentially good parliamentarians are prevented from standing due to the current lack of support for working class candidates.
Secondly, “local” activists never are that local. I found myself having to travel for sometimes longer than an hour to reach leafleting sessions. Until I moved to Oxford and began campaigning with OULC, I thought this was normal. My campaigning was restricted by bus times (of which are underfunded and do not run frequently or until very late) and often I could only help out if someone was able to drive me places. We did hold sessions in my local town, but with little turnout, usually down to the difficulty of those living out traveling into town, and the small population transpiring into only a small group of Labour activists. I stood for the county council in 2017 for a ward in Llandrindod town (of which I eventually became a town councillor for), and found that for nearly every campaign session, I was the only person to turn up. Almost every activist in the branch who was willing to campaign was a candidate themselves, and therefore were unable to spare time to campaign elsewhere. We had a lack of resources, both human and monetary, and when it came to the results of our election this showed.
But these are problems that occur for campaigners from all parties. So it follows that our inability to win seats in rural areas is down to something far more deep-rooted than these practical issues. We are unable to attract rural voters to our policies or to act as the local champions who often win these highly community focused elections. Our party is moving away from its once local and rural ways, and towards being an increasingly metropolitanised party.
Rural communities are suffering from the effect of austerity in a way which leaves them far behind cities. There is a narrative that young people have two options in rural areas: to move out or to remain poor. This was the case that was presented to me in high school, and is in part behind the breakdown of our community. For many young people, who can’t afford the high cost of travel (or are left stranded by unreliable bus services), and also can’t find jobs in such a small area, they are left to relocate, which in itself is a costly endeavour. Alternatively, many find themselves relying on government benefits, being unable to afford to live and find decent, well paid and stable work. The idea of locals knowing and supporting each other has died out, and with it any trust they once held in elected politicians.
So, given these problems, it can be easy to see why rural communities feel left out: because they are.
My solution to this, then, would be to bring back the community element of our party which rural voters value so much. We aren’t going to persuade these voters any time soon on issues such as the badger cull or fox hunting, but if we focus instead on talking about the destruction of our communities, as the result of austerity, I believe we could be far more successful.
One of the policy areas which we have the potential to focus on, in a way which tells rural voters that we are listening to them, is housing. Rural housing is becoming a problem for these communities. There is an increase in the number of people buying second homes in rural areas: driving up house prices and driving out communities. Second home owners only find themselves staying in their holiday homes for a small part of the year, and leave our streets empty for the rest.
Transport also serves as a huge issue for rural communities. Towns which are not sufficiently connected find themselves as isolated islands within a sea of fields and sheep. With young people unable to travel to work and elderly people unable to access hospitals, these areas drive out those who cannot drive. In Wales, work is being done to improve this with the Welsh Labour Government providing a subsidy which now means that buses in the Traws Cymru bus routes are free on weekends. This is a huge step forwards for rural communities, and one which should be celebrated given the limited resources passed onto our Welsh Government by the National Tory Government. However, whilst we remain out of power in Westminster, resources remain limited and the necessary work needed to expand on this and help rural areas will not happen.
In order to help rural communities, then, we need to get elected. But in order to get elected, we need to be seen to help rural communities. This seems like a vicious cycle, but does not need to be if we shift our focus in these areas of Britain towards local activism. We have thousands of committed and talented local activists, and when we are seen to be engaging in local issues as community champions, then we will find once more Labour’s lost rural seats.