There is an elephant loose in the countryside, but the Labour Party does not seem to want to talk about it. Labour currently holds just 17 of the 199 rural seats in England and Wales. It is, therefore, a matter of simple electoral mathematics to say that if Labour are to have any chance of forming a government it must win over the rural electorate.
This is not a new observation. Maria Eagle, Labour MP for Garston and Halewood, came to the same conclusion in 2015 in her paper – Labour’s Rural Problem. Tobias Phibbs of the Fabian Society published a paper, Labour Country, following the 2017 general election that also argued that Labour must engage with the rural electorate if it is to have any chance of making the significant gains in rural seats necessary to form a government. However, their warnings were ignored which led to Labour being virtually wiped out in rural constituencies in 2019.
Labour’s failing relationship with the rural electorate cannot be ignored. It only holds 8.5 per cent of rural seats compared to the Conservatives’ 89 per cent. If ever Labour are to get into government, it must challenge the Conservatives’ dominance in the countryside.
Our report examines Labour’s presence in rural seats from 2015 to the present day. We begin by exploring Maria Eagle’s 2015 report and find that many of the issues she identified have remained throughout each subsequent election. The inability, or perhaps even unwillingness, to resolve those issues has meant that Labour has consistently failed to engage with the rural electorate. We find that this has created the perception that the Labour Party is an urban party and one that cannot, and currently does not, represent the countryside. We use the 199 rural seats as a metric of how effective Labour’s rural strategy was in that period.
Our analysis concludes by looking at where Labour stands after the 2019 election in terms of seats and the perception of Labour in the countryside, and what Labour needs to do to rectify its rural problem. Simply, Labour needs to engage with the rural electorate and focus on what matters to them, and not simply manipulate rural issues to appeal further to its increasingly urban base.
It needs to pursue policies relevant to the countryside and work with stakeholders who represent their interests. Labour cannot continue to ignore the countryside because to do so will spell electoral disaster for the foreseeable future. It must recognise where it has gone wrong with regard to the rural electorate and follow a new path that resets its relationship with them.
You can read our report in full here.