There is no Aldi or Primark in Witney.
The stone clad town has 4x4s dotted around the side streets and the local paper struggles to report on any crime except for a page three spread on a little bit of graffiti on a local wall. Yet, here in this affluent Oxfordshire town – at the heart of David Cameron’s constituency – Labour won the Witney wards on the district council.
But Labour gains in Witney were no flash in the pan. In nearby Chipping Norton – home of the infamous ‘supper party’ between James Murdoch and David Cameron – Labour also won.
It is not just wealthy Oxfordshire where Labour is winning. On the same night that Galloway trounced Labour in Bradford West, Labour won a remarkable victory in the affluent ward of Crokenhill and West Hill ward in Sevenoaks – the constituency of the ubiquitous Tory Party Vice Chair, Michael Fallon.
And further south in the pretty Kentish town of Sandwich – home to the 2011 Open golf tournament – around a third of all the people who voted in last year’s local election supporting Labour. This, in a town, that was as true blue as the nearby English Channel.
So why are people in the affluent rural towns and villages at last beginning to turn away from the shire Tories to give Labour a look in? While Labour in Government could have done far more to help these areas, the actions taken then are far better when compared to the policies of this Tory led Government. Rural bus services were funded, one stop shop access points for public services were set up and the Agricultural Wages Board was protected.
Now – ministers are ploughing ahead with the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. Farm workers are already one of the lowest paid groups in the country and the abolition of the board can only make matters worse for 154,000 agricultural workers in England and Wales.
When it comes to isolating hard up rural families from accessing essential public services and getting jobs, the decisions by councils in Northamptonshire, Cumbria and Somerset to cut bus services will make daily life even more difficult. On top of this, the watchdog, Customer Focus, has warned of the damage caused to market towns and rural life with the additional cuts in rural post offices.
The impact of Government policies is hitting the “squeezed middle” of rural and market town Britain. It is an urban fallacy that every person in the market towns and villages has large expense accounts. Yes, there is the case of the stockbroker who liked his Oxfordshire village so much he bought it for £37 million. But the day to day cost pressures on everyday rural and market town life has deteriorated under this Government.
Labour has much more to do, though, to convince rural and market town voters that we are the party that can be trusted to advance their interests. Too often, voters in these areas look to other options when it comes to elections. For example, in last year’s local election, a new party in Herefordshire made very significant gains. Despite the new party’s name – It’s Our County – having something of a UKIP air about it, its policy platform has a strong centre left bent to it.
It is now the second biggest party on Herefordshire Council – behind the Conservatives. It’s Our County’s manifesto includes the statement that has some synergy with the Clause Four of Labour’s constitution – “We believe this is an enlightened county that prefers to put quality of life before rampant profit and growth.”
Its focus on community echoes Ed Miliband’s view that this is the time to face up to areas where communities are fractured. And its condemnation of the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are sure to strike many a chord with Labour voters.
So Labour must present a robust programme aimed specifically at market towns and rural voters. This should include tackling the Government’s timid programme for broadband rollout. Decent bus services for local people are a must. But it is tackling the housing crisis that is really needed in these areas.
While, superficially, abolishing the Labour Government’s regional spatial strategies in favour of local decision making seems fairer, in reality a hotch potch of conflicting local housing policies combined with big cuts in overall house building programmes, has made the housing pressures in rural areas and market towns more acute.
I saw for myself how this was hitting local people. A year ago, in David Cameron’s constituency, I met a local man who had to hold down two jobs to keep things ticking over and was about to have to sell the family home in a local village. The home had been passed down from generation to generation and his distress at being forced to sell up due to rising cost pressures was clear for all to see. But he did not believe that Labour believed in aspiration or in rural areas like his.
In 2012, Labour has begun to change these views. But until we put forward a robust plan specifically aimed at market towns and the countryside, Labour may not get the electoral breakthrough we desperately need for next year’s county council elections and beyond in order to demonstrate that we are the natural party for shire Britain.=
James Watkins is a member of Unite the Union’s National Political Committee. This article is written in a personal capacity.