Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Labour's Role in Rural Politics

I have been thinking about the role, or currently lack of, for the Labour Party in the rural areas of the UK.

The fact is that as a party, we seem to be virtually non-existent in many rural constituencies. Of course, there are historical reasons behind this situation. We are a party who came in to existence fighting for the causes and needs of the urban working class, and our fortunes have remained closely tied to that cause. However, there are equal concerns about solidarity and poverty amongst rural constituencies as in urban, and yet we as a party are not seen as fighting these causes. Instead the Tories, Lib Dems and SNP are seen as being concerned with rural issues, pushing us out of the way.

Of course, specific policies have increased this feeling of neglect in the rural seats. The ban on fox hunting was seen as an attack by urban dwellers on rural inhabitants, underpinned by a snobbery on behalf of those in the cities. Now, I don't want to dwell on the issue of fox hunting itself, but the perception of the policy was very important, and very negative to the party. Added to feelings that we do not do enough for the Farming and Fishing industries, we are dismissed as irrelevant, and indeed hostile, to rural communities.

However, there are a variety of crucial issues challenging these communities which we should be championing as issues of social justice. I would like to explore some of these, and propose some policies which may help to demonstrate that we are a party for all, not just those in the industrialised centres.

Housing
The lack of affordable housing is a key issue affecting rural communities, particularly in areas where holiday homes have become prevalent and have forced prices unnaturally high. Some approaches are being tried out, but I would suggest:
  • Implementing maximum numbers for holiday home purchases
  • Ringfencing money for councils in rural areas to use for building affordable social housing
  • Subsidies for young people purchasing homes in rural communities
  • Suspension of right to buy

Loss of Young People
This is one of the most damaging challenges facing rural communities. For example, Dumfries and Galloway region is facing 28% drop in school leavers, and a 38% drop in working-age residents by 2013. This poses massive economic and social implications for the regions. I know, growing up in the Highlands of Scotland, that having left I would not return. I know that there are some attempts being made to encourage young people to either stay in the areas, or at least to return, but more must be done to ensure that opportunities exist that will encourage young people to decide to make their homes in the rural areas. This issue of course ties closely into the issue of housing outlined above, and the job creation issues that I will turn to next.

  • Financial and technical support for rural colleges and centres of learning
  • Widen access and support for distance learning in a variety of courses
  • Council Tax subsidies for young people choosing to stay and work/study in the area
  • School exchanges/link ups between schools in rural and urban locations
  • Increase support and resources for sports and leisure facilities
  • Create a youth forum for each rural area with support from Local Authorities and direct say in the provision of youth, leisure and other related issues

Employment and Enterprise
Job creation is key to vibrant rural communities, and to sustaining the policies implemented for the purposes of retaining young people and encouraging inward migration to our rural regions. We need to ensure support for the traditional industries such as farming and fishing in a sustainable fashion, whilst also rewarding businesses who create work in the rural regions.

  • Subsidies/tax breaks for companies investing in job creation in rural communities
  • Strong enterprise agencies with focus on rural communities, like the existing Highlands and Islands Enterprise
  • Start-up funds for local people to create businesses that meet needs and gaps in their communities
  • Support traditional industries, and work with them rather than against them in regards to modernisation and required changes to their structures.
  • Support and develop co-operatives as a sustainable means for meeting needs of communities - this also encourages ownership and localised solutions

Immigration
Immigration is currently a hot topic, but it has an additional relevance and importance to rural communities. There is a real need for immigration to rural areas to counterbalance population loss, however, due to the smaller communities live in rural areas changes and challenges presented by immigrant populations are more noticeable. Support is needed to ensure that the benefits of immigration are demonstrated to the existing communities, but with resources to help these immigrant communities become part of the regions, contributing to their future.

  • Education
  • Money made available for easily accessible English classes and cultural classes
  • Money to make classes in immigrant languages (such as Polish) available for existing communities
  • Support for Community/Parish Councils to allow them to play role in helping immigrants to successfully integrate

Culture and Tourism
We need to start actively promoting the vital role that rural tourism plays in the local and national economy. Programmes such as the Year of Highland Culture emphasised the desirability of the Highlands as both tourist and business locations, and were successful in demonstrating that rural regions are positive contributors to the country. Furthermore, rural communities posses distinct and important cultures and histories, all of which contribute to our national identity. The UK is about more than just the cities, and more pride in our rural heritage would be economically and socially beneficial.

  • Follow-up concept of Highland Culture year to encourage further focus on rural communities
  • Change of language in national and political debates - the UK is about more than just London/the big cities!
  • Ensure that rural concerns are listened to in national debates - do not just dismiss them out of hand as being 'less sophisticated' than urban concerns and ideas
  • Encourage investment in tourism - main forms of economic investment in many rural communities

Infrastructure
Finally, the infrastructure available in rural communities is vital. Localism is a popular political concept just now - but in rural communities there is really no alternative. There must be investment in transport links for both the local populace and business purposes, with growing environmental concerns not automatically ruling out support for issues such as rural airports, which can be crucial to development of those areas.

  • Commitment to local hospitals and health centres
  • Support for air ambulance facilities for outlying areas
  • Investment in road and rail links - i.e. expansion of A9 to Inverness into dual carriageway, as being proposed by the SNP
  • Investment in rural airports - explore options for ensuring flights remain at reasonable prices
  • Dialogue with transport firms who stop services to explore why - introduce support for companies who commit to sustaining links to rural communities

Well, I've rattled through a range of ideas and thoughts - I am keen to hear what others think. I believe that for Labour to be the progressive party that we aim to be, it is vital that we are not just a party for some, but rather for all. In regards to the areas that I have outlined above, I believe that we can introduce policies that sustain our progressive commitments, whilst encouraging vibrant rural communities. There is a danger that we view the rural constituencies in a similar way to how the Democrats view the 'Red States' (those voting Republican) in the South and Mid-West of the US - namely, un winnable and therefore not worth thinking about. If our aim is to create and sustain a country where every citizen is able to play as full a role as possible, then we must listen to rural concerns, and work to celebrate the contribution that these communities make.

8 comments:

Wardog said...

Interesting observation and very relevant to the growing national, truly national support form the SNP in cities, towns & rural areas, north, south, east & west.

Something no other party can claim. to the same extent.

With regards to your proposals, good to see some thought being applied but many of your proposals are going backwards not forwards.

The council tax brought in by the Tories and supported by Labour has seen whole villages in Scotland be bought out as holiday homes, as those with wealth are given a tax break with reduced council tax rates...... how that fits with Labour's self expressed socialist ideals is beyond me.

In addition, rural areas often have a greater disparity between the very rich and the poor, a local income tax would spread that disparity base don an ability to pay, not on property values which are largely arbitrary and mean those on lower incomes and renting accommodation pay a much higher proportion of their income on local taxation...

LIT was opposed by 'red' Labour, indeed, like the conservatives, they support a property tax..... Have you every stopped to wonder WHY the tories support that?

Your option of 'subsidies', 'ringfencing' and 'support' is nanny state tinkering and the reason why self reliant rural areas do not return labour candidates.

The availability of housing is directly linked to young people staying in areas, coupled with corporation tax rates that do not encourage rural businesses and fuel duty that actively penalises against firms that are remote. Both issues Labour has failed on over 12 years in power.

Shameful.

Create a fair playing field and companies will thrive, we don't need centralised beurocratic 'support'..... these quangos feed off our taxes and simply create another layer of red tape.

Whilst I accept the need for immigration to Scotland, citing it for rural areas either shows that you really don't understand the issue or are completely naive.

Who do you think picks yer tatties, processes yer fish, waits on tables and cleans yer hotel rooms?

"Furthermore, rural communities posses distinct and important cultures and histories, all of which contribute to our national identity"

Welcome to Scotland

"Commitment to local hospitals and health centres"

Speechless, have you told Andy Kerr, about your ideas?

You've cited a large amount of SNP / Liberal / Tory policies in these offerings Jamie.

"There is a danger that we view the rural constituencies in a similar way to how the Democrats view the 'Red States' (those voting Republican) in the South and Mid-West of the US - namely, un winnable and therefore not worth thinking about"

Such a party is not worthy to hold power in Scotland and fundamentally misunderstands what Scotland is.

I suspect a few in Labour especially do think like this, the tragedy is that it's the victory of ideology over common sense and what is best for the people of the Scotland.....

salus populi suprema lex esto

Not a Village in Westminster said...

Wardog

The SNP do indeed boast a national support which the other parties are envious of. I do suspect an element of this is due to the very nature of the SNP itself - in many ways it is less a clearly defined political party and more akin to a religious movement united around a central 'faith', i.e. independence. All parties have wings to them, but the SNP in the North and rural communities appears to bear very little in common with the SNP in Glasgow, other than the shared constitutional goal. This is not necessarily a negative status, but it does imply that Salmond's skillful handling of his party is crucially keeping discipline in a loose coalition of very disparate political stances.

Labour's position as a party of the urban areas is a historical one, and it is positive to see, for example, a growth in the number of Labour MSPs elected on the Highlands list. However, I personally feel that there has to be much more work to improve this stance to make Labour the truly national party it has the potential to be.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

In regards to some of your specific points, council tax is certainly an imperfect form of taxation. I don't mean to skirt the issue, but it's one that I am not completely sure about where I stand, not fully understanding the subtleties of the issue - I promise I will go read up on it!

However, a query about LIT. You mention the extremes between rich and poor in rural communities - how would LIT counter-act this in the case of the wealthy who are primarily living from money that would not be covered by the LIT? Could this taxation not in fact further deepen these extremes?

Not a Village in Westminster said...

I don't think that the discussion of immigration for rural areas is either naive or lacking understanding.

Of course transitional workers fill many of the seasonal roles in the rural communities - I went to school in Dingwall so am well aware of the role that they played in hotels and the local fish processing factory. However the role of transitional workers is very different to that of immigration. Generally transitional workers spend a season in the community and then move on - this does not address population drain.

Immigration would do, however it also presents challenges to the communities themselves. I have been very encouraged by the efforts that Highland Council is putting in to their work with ethnic minority communities and community relations, as it is still a relatively small community that they are dealing with. However they are new populations and more immediately visible due to the size of the communities they are moving into.

Therefore a lot of work is needed to ensure that rural areas of Scotland are marketed as attractive areas to live and work; and furthermore that the reality backs up the marketing. Having moved from London to the Highlands I can tell you that I witnessed far worse racism in the North - the lack of contact with 'difference' meant that a far more virulent bigotry was able to simmer unchallenged.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

I may well have cited many policies of other parties, however I am sure by now people will be aware that I am not averse to listening to other political perspectives (I'm sure this could be seen as both a positive and negative trait!).

The issue here is that all political parties are constrained by resources and finances - certain parties are admittedly in an easier position due to rich progressively-challenged donors and/or more limited geographic scope - and this means that resources have to be directed to where they will have the most impact. This means that Labour will focus its resources on the urban heartlands and the Tories will not exactly shell out huge amounts in Glasgow.

The SNP circumvent this issue due to the independence factor, but will be increasingly challenged as the party of government to balance often conflicting demands from urban and rural communities.

At the end of the day, if you look at the majority of rural communities in Scotland, they are still represented by either the Tories or Lib Dems - the Highlands and the Borders remain (outside the urban hubs) largely Labour/SNP free zones in the constitutencies. It would therefore be rather complacent of the SNP to get too carried away with being the national party without having cemented this role.

Wardog said...

Fair points Jamie, apologies if I came across a bit aggressive, just testing yer metal.

Let's hope that Labour can come up with fresh rural policies that really empower local communities and help diversify local economies.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

No problems Wardog, what's the point of debate if it isn't forthright!

And in regards to Labour bringing through better rural policies, unfortunately this will rely to a large extent upon changes in attitude towards rural communities. Sadly I am not sure this is going to happen any time soon.

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