How Starmer’s Labour plans to prioritise rural and coastal communities

Sienna Rodgers

Voters in rural and coastal communities are considered a key target by Keir Starmer’s Labour ahead of the next general election – the online conference held today by Labour Coast and Country was evidence of that. Joined by seven shadow cabinet members and two other opposition frontbenchers, as well as councillors, candidates and an MSP, the conference saw all these speakers agree: “There is no path to power that doesn’t see us winning seats in rural, semi-rural and coastal communities,” as Luke Pollard put it.

The importance of next year’s local and mayoral elections was recognised by the panellists, as were the difficulties. Labour’s typical advantage of a huge and active membership base hitting the doorstep cannot be used in the same way during the pandemic. The Shadow Environment Secretary nonetheless made his level of ambition clear: “The next elections in 2021 will be a barometer for whether Labour can win again, whether Keir is going to be PM, and whether Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are doing a good job or not. We have to win.” And although the Zoom conference featured heavy participation from attendees, there was very little factional discussion but a singular focus: rebuilding trust in rural and coastal areas.

Education and poverty

Kate Green’s contribution to the ‘building back better on the coast and in the country’ panel set out the priorities in her new education brief, including a focus on “the importance of working-class aspiration”. She noted that despite not supporting Rebecca Long-Bailey in the leadership election, the previous Shadow Education Secretary was “on to something” with that theme in her campaign.

Green said: “I want us to open up a conversation between Labour and the the voters we really need that says: ‘You’re rightly aspirational for your children, for your families. Labour is aspirational for your children and your families too.’”

She also emphasised the need to prioritise early years investment, which she said “pays the greatest dividends”, and revealed a rights-based approach to education when saying: “Everybody going through our education system has the right to the very best of education.”

Green told attendees that her other priority in the role was child poverty, as “Keir, in offering me to be the Shadow Education Secretary, asked me to take the child poverty brief into the education portfolio.” This reflects her previous brief in the work and pensions team and background as a former chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group.

“Tackling rural and coastal poverty has too often been overlooked, I think, in the work that we have done as a party,” the new shadow cabinet member said. But she also told us that, when appointed to replace Long-Bailey, fellow frontbencher Steve Reed advised her: “Kate, your job is not to generate policy, it’s to get out there and attack the Tories.”

Devolution and local empowerment

Steve Reed, a former council leader and Labour’s local government spokesperson, said a focus on rural and coastal issues was “long overdue” in the party. He emphasised the value of participative democracy, and told the conference: “Labour needs to become the devolvers and the empowerers.”

In contrast to “one of the most centralising governments I’ve ever seen”, Reed argued that Labour should be looking at opening up data, models of co-production, engagement via digital platforms, and other means of ensuring that people are involved in taking decisions that affect them. To rebuild trust in politics, Labour must “trust people to participate in exercising power”.

Reed touched on many of the themes embraced by Labour Together, the group that he co-launched in 2015 and that had Morgan McSweeney as a director before he became Starmer’s chief of staff. But the communities lead also made a point that came up repeatedly during the conference: with an 80-seat majority, the Tories are implementing policies – especially in planning – that are effectively “waging war” on towns and coastal communities.

Housing and net zero

The whole of Labour agrees that we need to build more homes, Thangam Debbonaire said, but “everybody’s got an opinion on how we do that”. The Shadow Housing Secretary highlighted the need for high-quality housing and linked that aim to the climate crisis.

“Homes need to contribute to net-zero carbon emissions targets, and housing traditionally does the opposite,” she pointed out, and mentioned that the shadow cabinet is in the processing of setting up its subcommittee on climate change. Her focus is on where housing should be built and how.

Debbonaire also reiterated Labour’s policy to scrap no-fault Section 21 evictions, and suggested there was a need to change Section 8, which is usually used to evict private tenants on rent arrears grounds.

Brexit and unity

Rachel Reeves talked about the shared values of voters and stressed the need for unity. While the Tories try to divide people over issues such as Black Lives Matter, she said, both Labour’s values and electoral strategy must be “to bring people together, wherever they live, whatever their background”. She summed it up as “not a triangulation strategy, but one that speaks to the whole country”.

In specific terms, she said Labour needs to talk about things in a way that is more reflective of the places where all of us live. There are “relentless campaigns on trains rather than on buses”, she said, but Labour needs to be heard on manufacturing, farming and industry, plus crime and anti-social behaviour, which she said Labour had “neglected over recent years”.

Reeves is responsible for Labour’s Brexit policy. The shadow minister for the Cabinet Office raised the issue of lorry parks, which are set to be imposed on rural areas – “our beautiful countryside areas” – without any local ability to oppose the plans. “This is not the Brexit that people in those areas voted for.”

Defence and the armed forces community

“I see my job as more political than policy,” John Healey revealed to the conference. “I am acutely conscious that we went into the last election and came out the other side with a greater deficit than the Conservatives on public trust for Labour on defence and security than on the economy… For many of us, the hardest doors to knock [in 2019] were those with stickers for ‘Help for Heroes’ or British Legion in the windows.”

The Shadow Defence Secretary’s view was clear. “It may not win us the next election but will help us lose the election if we don’t close that gap. And it’s not always been the case for Labour.” He also said defence plays a large part in rural and coastal communities as they are host to “most of the major sites” – not just military bases but also shipbuilding.

“There is no route for Keir Starmer into No 10 that doesn’t run through many of the constituencies that Labour Coast and Country is looking to speak for,” Healey said. His team have already got to work on this project, with a relaunch of Labour Friends of the Armed Forces.

Environment, animal welfare and fishing

Shadow minister Daniel Zeichner discussed the Tory positions on trade standards, food imports and the threat to farmers amid Brexit, explaining: “Rural communities don’t want any of this, and that is a huge opportunity for Labour. I think we could have a perfect moment when the Conservative government is deeply unpopular.”

He outlined Labour’s new approach well when he said: “I think there are many decent Conservatives who are not impressed by Boris Johnson and the antics of his government. If we can present ourselves as a credible, plausible alternative that wants to build an environmentally friendly, sustainable food and farming system for the future, that is our chance.”

Answering a question and whether Labour’s position on animal welfare and shooting risks losing support, Zeichner replied: “I’ve never been of that view in rural areas. We’ve got a principled position as a party. It’s something that many of us feel passionate about – and many, many people in rural areas share that view.”

His boss Luke Pollard is passionate about fishing. “I bloody love talking about fish,” he started. There is an idea that this policy area is owned by UKIP, the Brexit Party, the Tories – and yet “Labour’s fishing policy is materially better for coastal communities than all their policies together” because the policy, for instance, of requiring two-third of fish caught under a UK quota to be landed in British ports “creates overnight more jobs in those coastal communities”.

Organising and campaigning

Away from policy, shadow cabinet members also had a lot to say. The difficulties of targeting these areas was fully acknowledged, with Rachel Reeves saying of Labour MPs: “Most of us represent urban areas… That’s a real problem because it’s inevitable that the things we see at constituency level influence our thinking as shadow cabinet members.” But she added: “If there’s any hope of us getting back into government in 2024, we need to win back coastal and country constituencies.”

Nia Griffith, now leading on Wales in the frontbench team, said Labour “must improve our messaging” by “referencing rural areas whenever we speak” and producing graphics that don’t only show off cities. Members need more training, too, particularly on social media, she said. Although not every seat can have their own organiser, Griffith recommended: “Every constituency should have a named organiser that they refer to.”

Jessie Joe Jacobs, Labour’s Tees Valley mayoral candidate, shared lessons from her charity work, with a digital focus in campaigning and a data obsession being key. “If we can get a mobile number, we can text the vote out,” she said, which is particularly important in her seven-constituency patch and more broadly during Covid.

One recommendation that came through strongly from the party members watching the conference, who contributed via the Chat and asked questions, was a push for regional representation on Labour’s ruling body. Like the Scottish executive committee (SEC), they want the NEC to have a regional structure for local party representatives. This idea was unsuccessfully proposed in 2018 by Progress and Labour First, but could make a comeback under Starmer.

Demographic shift

Optimism was expressed by the Labour representatives not only on the party’s new electoral strategies and approaches to policy, but also on an aspect of the pandemic context in which it will now operate. Pollard was most explicit about this cause for hope. He said people living outside of cities now think:

“Why do I need to commute to a big city, when I can live in coastal and rural areas? Have a better quality of life, greater access to nature and the countryside…

“There will be, as one of the effects of the virus, a population shift. That will be a challenge for big cities, but it might also change the demographics of some of those communities that some in our movement have sought to rule out.”

The Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary is determined. “Labour will be the party of the countryside,” he said. “When you don’t start with that big idea, all we’re doing is excusing a poorer deal for those communities in our campaign work.”

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