In 1997, Labour could assert with a straight face that it was ‘the party of the countryside’, because it genuinely competed with the Tories for rural votes. Today, an electoral map of England is a sea of blue rural constituencies dotted with clusters of urban red.
Looking forward to May, the latest polls have the two main parties neck and neck, with the Tories on 34 per cent and Labour one point behind. This reflects an unhealthy urban-rural political divide that has rarely been more extreme. Labour is as unlikely to make in-roads into rural Conservative heartlands as the Tories are to win large numbers of seats in northern urban seats, making a clear victory for either party almost impossible.
The Conservatives’ failure to penetrate urban areas, particularly in the North, is well-documented. Far less attention has been paid to the same problem Labour has in the countryside. Rural voters would be best served by two parties willing to fight for their votes. Instead, they have a poor choice – one party that badly misunderstands them and another that takes them for granted.
Labour has not always been an urban party. In the early to mid-twentieth century it was far more popular in the countryside than it is today. In 1997, even in the 50 most rural seats, Labour won 31.5 per cent of the vote against the Conservatives’ 40 per cent. Yet Labour’s rural vote has shrunk dramatically and its urban vote expanded. In 2010, Labour won an average of 41 per cent of the vote in urban areas, and just 18 per cent in the 150 least densely populated constituencies. As it stands, Labour holds nearly half as many rural seats as the Tories. Yet rural voters aren’t exactly fervent supporters of Cameron’s party. In fact, 86 per cent of rural residents polled in September last year said they felt ‘taken for granted’ by the government.
There is little for the countryside to celebrate after five years of coalition government. Average wages in rural areas are £4,000 lower than in urban ones. Rural house prices may be lower than in London, but as a proportion of earnings, housing costs have risen tremendously. Broadband speeds are still pitifully slow. At the same time, cuts to rural transport and services have been felt deeply. In February, the Rural Services Network, a group of 125 mostly Conservative rural local councils, wrote to the Prime Minister to warn that the depth of cuts threatened the ‘long-term viability’ of many rural communities.
Urban councils receive far more funding than rural councils per resident. Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins has pledged a notional grant to address this gap in the short term: £15.5 million more for the most rural councils in 2015/2016. It’s not the new deal the countryside expected when the coalition came to power. What’s more, much of the rhetoric regarding English devolution focusses on ‘City Deals’, which suggests that urban areas will be given more power over their future than rural ones.
The alternative – a Labour government – has little to offer rural people. Poverty, disempowerment and cuts to services in rural areas should be bread-and-butter politics for Labour. But Labour still gives the impression that when it thinks of the countryside it thinks of posh, rich people doing posh, rich things.
The ban on foxhunting remains the enduring centrepiece of Labour’s relationship with the countryside. It was not solely motivated by concerns for animal welfare; as one Labour MP put it, ‘the struggle over the Bill was not just about animal welfare and personal freedom: it was class war.’ For many, it felt like an attack on the countryside at large. While little more than 50,000 people hunted foxes at the time of the ban, 400,000 rural people marched in protest.
Today, much of Labour’s current agenda – for example its housing policy – is still defined by urban-rural antagonism, designed to appeal to their urban base and not the needs of rural people. A shame, when the needs of the countryside are so great, and the opportunity for Labour so obvious.
Rural people are being let down and this seems unlikely to change. Labour still doesn’t think clearly about the countryside, while the Tories know that rural voters have nowhere else to go – for now. But the lesson from Scottish politics is that if you take voters for granted, an alternative eventually emerges. If that lurking Ukip threat makes the larger parties work harder for rural voters, it can only be a good thing.
Louis Reynolds is a researcher at Demos. He can be found tweeting @L_EH_Reynolds