Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Floods - The Final Betrayal?

The floods that are ravaging large parts of the south of England at the moment are nothing short of a national tragedy, not to mention a national emergency. Ed Miliband is not understating the case today by talking about the effects of these changes to our temperate climate as a national security issue.

Much of the coverage from the left has been of the outrageous statement from the Prime Minister that ‘money is no object’ and ‘we are a rich country’ when it comes to flood defences. Of course we are, but considering that the PM has been peddling nonsense about how we’re nearly bankrupt for almost six years now it is an absurd statement. Considering that the flooding in working class communities in Yorkshire and Humberside several years ago has still not received proper attention from government, this is a particularly salty ointment. Away from the direct comparisons over flood relief, it is obvious to anyone what an insult this is in a climate of public sector pay depression, the hacking back of benefits of the most vulnerable, and the sale of our welfare state.

However, the rural communities that are suffering through the floods know that their current predicament is as a result of a lack of proper spending, and restraint by the Treasury on the abilities of the Environment Agency to take sensible precautions to defend lives and property. They know that they are victims of savage cuts, and they need a different ideology in Downing Street.
This could mark a watershed (pardon the pun) moment for Labour. For a long time I’ve wondered why predominantly working class communities in rural areas across England have been no-go areas for us. Travel to Bridgewater and Taunton, or Gainsborough and Boston, you meet isolated communities, with poor quality employment, poor education and high rates of child poverty. These are working class communities on a par with any inner city, and with fewer opportunities for regeneration. The popular perception of these places as packed to the gunnels with the landed gentry is just tosh. These are our people, and if we are failing to speak for appeal to them, we’re failing in our basic duty to unite working people.

Through a combination of Labour’s historic unwillingness to engage with rural issues in manifestos, and an ingrained perception that we are the party for urban areas, we’ve never made headway here. This is despite the fact that we are experienced in defending rural communities from attack and have solid majorities in the old, largely rural, mining communities of South Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Durham and elsewhere. When I lived in Bassetlaw in north Nottinghamshire, John Mann MP not only commanded a strong majority from traditional Labour voters, but also much respect (and electoral capital) from farmers and agricultural workers familiar with his defence of rural communities. One of our most inspiring MPs, and certainly the most approachable, is John Healey in Barnsley who has been a real voice for ordinary people defending the welfare state as an MP and minister. What's often missed is that he is a popular constituency MP in rural South Yorkshire, widely respected in his constituency for ensuring that the needs of rural communities for housing and quality public transport are taken into account. MPs like Mann and Healey are putting the needs of rural communities at the heart of practical Labour policies. Understanding the importance of public investment in local transport, the precarious nature of agricultural work, and the importance of quality social housing are all key issues that have built legitimacy and respect for them and other Labour MPs and councillors.

Under Tony Blair, as under Harold Wilson, the Labour Party thought the unthinkable by challenging the Conservatives in their middle-class heartlands. This was a success, but a fragile one. It caused tensions within the party over the interests and issues we served, lost us inner city seats to the Liberal Democrats and has ultimately proved to be a short term strategy time and time again. Building strong and solid support in rural communities could be the key to a longer-term success; psephologically intelligent and absolutely in tune with our commitment for economic justice for the most vulnerable workers.

Meanwhile, rural communities have been taken for granted by Tories, and the working people that comprise them treated with the same disdain as working people in cities and towns. The abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board sums up how poorly the Conservative party supports these fragile but historically loyal communities.

It’s worth noting too that the old heartland of the Liberal Party, inherited by the modern Lib Dems, has been rural communities, particularly in the South West and Scotland. These conservative areas are unimpressed by harsh Tory values, but have never been reached out to by Labour. But with the coalition government leaving little distinction between Liberals and Conservatives, many will be open to a new change following a monumental betrayal.

The current weather presents a perfect storm. Against the backdrop of the end of the AWB, the savaging of rural services (flood defences, libraries and public transport), and the collapse of the finances, manpower and support base of the Lib Dems, this is a moment for Labour to redefine itself as a party for rural communities too.

It of course will not be easy, but no more difficult than convincing voters across middle England to come back to the Party. It’s not just a silly numbers game, however, this is also a test of our moral courage to stand alongside working communities wherever they are, and defend their interests. Miliband is seeking to define us as the ‘one nation’ party, and if there was ever a nation that needed uniting, it’s the urban and rural poor.

More thoughts on how will follow, but needless to say we can unite them through a commitment to public investment in infrastructure (whether ‘bus services or flood defences), improving the freedom of working people to bargain (whether distribution centres or fields) and the defence of a civilised welfare state (from local libraries to a compassionate benefits system).