We need to talk about villages

Penny C.S. Andrews


I grew up in a hamlet. Six or so houses on one side of the road, a mile from the nearest village, and fields on three sides of my house. lt sounds like a rural idyll, but my parents couldn’t afford to ferry me everywhere and I was on free school meals. The “library bus” came once a fortnight and I’d read all the books on it by the time I was nine years old. Towns? Labour has never stopped talking about towns – as can be seen on the Lisa Nandy Memes For Town Loving Teens account, which is collecting as well as creating some of the best content (and responding to Lisa’s desire for Britney and Taylor Swift videos).  But towns are too big a unit of analysis.

Anyway, we need to talk about villages and hamlets. We need to talk about how the left have never really tried with people who live in rural areas and don’t have money or nice commuter jobs in the market town. How the buses stopped, the mobile library went, the broadband is terrible … okay, Labour talked about broadband, with a city eye on how to sell the offer to older people. But they didn’t really get what it’s like to live in a rural area and not have choices, to not just be a NIMBY who likes nice views and sees the Conservatives as a benign apolitical voting choice. The Fabians did a report called Labour Countryside in 2018, and it makes a good stab at explaining why people don’t vote Labour there, but doesn’t really engage with how to help people who are struggling – regardless of whether or not there are any votes for the party in it.

In constituencies like East Yorkshire or Harrogate and Knaresborough or Skipton and Ripon there are plenty of places that aren’t the town (many of which are mostly doing alright actually), and are rammed with elderly and young folk who can’t get on a bus, free or otherwise. Because there are only two a day, if you’re lucky – one to work and one back if you work the right sort of hours – because the Tories cut the subsidy. People don’t make the association between Conservative cuts to local government funding, or Tory councils determined to keep council tax low, and the loss of their bus services. Too often, they see it as inevitable. When it comes to campaigning, the size of the constituencies doesn’t help – it’s difficult to get the boots on the ground anywhere near a lot of these places, let alone cover the whole lot and make the people who live there feel like they’re not a photo opportunity. Nobody expects to see the leader or a celebrity supporter on their doorstep where I grew up. I didn’t see a PPC (or even a councillor) from any party – other than Norman Lamont, who went to my school concert (and my school wasn’t in my constituency, it was in the nearest town) when he was running there looking for a new seat – until I was about 25.

When I tweeted about this, people currently active in rural CLPs told me that their candidates and volunteers were run ragged trying just to get around their prospective seat, and that’s without doing any of the community work many have been flagging up as the future of the left. Somewhere like Doncaster North is seen as an urban seat, due to the name, but Ed Miliband represents a constituency that’s half villages – villages that aren’t spoken about in the same way as the communities most often featured on Countryfile because they’re ex-mining villages and not remote. Two generations of teenagers have grown up there since the miners’ strike; neither they nor their parents work down the pit and never have. They’re rural, have farmers, and they’re not wealthy, as we saw in the flooding of Fishlake. Even my nearest village had a council estate with its own issues, and countryside snobbery didn’t help. Candidates are often drawn from the towns and cities nearby and don’t understand local issues in more than general terms.

Rail nationalisation doesn’t chime with people who have to get two very expensive buses at awkward times before they can get anywhere near a train. And bus chat is overrated because they just aren’t functional for many people, even in cities. Re-regulation would definitely help, given the profits involved, and Leeds council are talking about taking over franchises as First and Arriva up their prices and treat both workers and bus customers badly. Buses are spoken about a lot by people who don’t travel on them regularly outside of London and are horrified about the use of cars elsewhere in the country. But they would also be horrified by how unreliable they are in practice. Trams, trolleybuses and underground services, as well as barring private cars from busy roads and making it easier to walk as well as cycle, all have to be part of the plan, as does all of us ordering less online, so having fewer lorries and Ubers on the road. More mass transit, more subsidies for public transport, fewer sops to drivers, please.

Not all countryside is the same. The West Country, lumped into the South by people who mean London and the commuter belt, is often idealised. But not every village has a beach or a B&B or a gastropub on the foodie map. Lots of it is just normal countryside. There was a good Greg James documentary eight years ago for BBC Three where he spoke to rural young people who were unemployed and living at home, how many saw it? Some of the stories were ones of hope, but it was easy to see why young people feel unrepresented and just don’t vote in those places, as they couldn’t get to decent work, had limited access to amenities if they couldn’t afford to drive, and couldn’t see a route to improvement. More recently, the sitcom This Country, about the Cotswolds outside the Chipping Norton chums, has been popular. But wonks don’t write policy for people who live like that.

This article focuses on England, because Labour lost Scotland long ago – although the reasons some constituencies went SNP are worth looking at, given it would be difficult for the left to gain a majority without them. Voters breaking the ‘red wall’ in England often just stayed home as much as went to the Tories or Greens. We need to have something more to offer than defensively shouting that it’s all the Tories’ fault (that don’t butter no parsnips on the fells and Wolds) or that Jeremy couldn’t be everywhere. We need to give people in rural communities something to vote for, rather than against. Maybe CLPs in highly populous areas could twin with those in smaller communities with fewer resources? They could feed each other ideas, volunteers and solidarity. Big trades unions could use some of their resources to be the support network for the many, not the few, offering bursaries to events and funding organisers embedded in communities outside cities and towns. We need hope.