In politics as in life, there is always a balance between the principled and the pragmatic. While Labour Coast and Country was established in 2012, its roots go back into the later days of the Blair government, and then the Brown administration, reflecting our principled ambitions then that “every child matters”, and the pragmatic reality that winning coastal towns is often the difference between winning, or losing, a general election.
This was true for elections before Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as the elections since. In 2014 we went as far as to say the people and communities of our coastal towns formed the “new centre ground” where “in contrast to the days of Mondeo man or Worcester woman the common factor in many of Labour’s battleground seats today is the view: a sea view – a third of the targets are coastal”.
In addition to the postcard views, coastal constituencies have many key attributes in common. They are, by definition, at the end of the line (even if they have lost the decent rail connections that they once had); they have a smaller economy by dint of their seaside aspect, and that in turn can mean they suffer from affordability problems in housing, in transport, in energy and in food.
That is why Jeremy Corbyn and shadow coastal minister Holly Lynch went to Southend this week.
Many of the people who live in coastal towns have made a big choice about where they live. In making or sticking with that bigger choice of a coastal location (whether that is for family, work or other reasons) there is a trade-off that Labour needs to understand. That trade-off typically means the loss of choices about which school your child can attend, reduced access to healthcare, and a different more limited local economy in which to work, rest and play.
The unique nature of this means Labour has to have an offer that speaks to the magnitude of these challenges. There will be no great appetite for state handouts but equally central government cannot be absent in the future of these places. This is an ideal frame for Labour to show a modern, strategic role for the state: a role that delivers affordable public services but stays focused on the reforms that will make seaside economies work for all members of their community, for working people, for the retired, and for young people growing up beyond the glow of the big city.
Given all of that, LCC welcomes the moves this week by the party leadership to take an active role in developing a new deal from Labour for the communities of coastal towns. It is also good to see MPs and shadow ministers getting out to meet people and listen to their concerns in coastal communities.
From our many and varied conversations with people in those communities there are a few things we can reiterate. Each place requires support to boost its economy. In future, local prosperity will have to be based on more than the sea, fisheries and tourism. There is too little employment in these sectors and tourism can never be more than half an answer, such are the seasons. In some cases, research suggestss that more local economic activity is lost through energy and other bills paid to distant owners than is made from incoming tourism expenditure.
So with the future economy in mind, Labour’s offer must mean coastal towns get to access the best in digital connectivity as a basic starting point.
As a next step such communities, singularly or in local groups, should be given the devolved powers we have granted our cities so they can make the most of their setting. This ought to include devolved powers over skills, local and connecting transport and public investment, not least in energy opportunities.
Locally-owned coastal energy projects are a clear opportunity to return economic output to coastal communities directly through energy generation and indirectly through ownership of those energy assets. So, for example, every coastal town should be guaranteed a stake, of perhaps 10 per cent, in any off-shore wind farm in its view. That might even help get a few more built, on the east and southern coasts of Britain.
We look forward to hearing what our shadow cabinet colleagues propose as Labour’s new offer to the communities of the coast. We have an opportunity to re-engage with these places and show we understand their concerns, as they are often the same as those of people in the cities we already represent. The party can come up with solutions that will make a real difference to the many.
Let’s make it an offer worth more than the sum of its parts.
Hywel Lloyd is co-founder of Labour Coast and Country.