The Lib Dem pitch to the rural left

Those of us who are left of centre in rural areas are often completely missed from political discourse, despite our long history of distinctive political belief.  Rural people are, obviously, spread out both geographically and economically. We live in smaller communities and have much smaller workplaces. The result of this is a more individualistic yet supportive community where people rely on themselves first and their neighbours second. Liberal philosophy is ideally placed to appeal to these rural values, giving a hand up when needed while getting out the way when not.

How can our liberal message best appeal to the many areas of the country that are represented by the Conservatives yet badly let down by their safe seat apathy?

Our economic message must fit both rural reality and rural values. We must build a framework that allows small and micro businesses to thrive by busting monopolies that are especially damaging in rural areas. Across the country, monopoly power is costing ordinary people billions. The uncompetitiveness of the energy market costs the country £1.7bn but the renewable revolution allows us to rebuild the energy market around communities and their needs, returning the profits of relatively small-scale renewables to the areas in which they are based. A new model of distributive rather than concentrative markets must be built, in which ownership and control are shared widely through mutuals, cooperatives and small enterprise.

We must also build the infrastructure rural areas need to succeed. Our support for universal high-speed broadband as well as better public transport is vital to helping fledgeling businesses to survive, while we also need to be building affordable and social housing to ensure we can halt the rural brain drain. I, myself, am an example of that drain, moving from the village I grew up in to the nearby city of Lincoln for work and to study.

Bold ideas to rebuild community support across the country are instinctively liberal. Our policies must aim to build a platform to work from and open every door of opportunity to all.

The idea of a Universal Minimum Income appeals to rural values of supporting each other while also relying on ourselves to make the best of our circumstances and trials of this are already party policy. Rather than everyone having to negotiate their way up from nothing, we should ensure everyone has a minimum which cannot be taken away. Giving such negotiating power to those who previously had none would allow them to bargain up wages to be spent locally, boosting growth.

A Land Value Tax will redistribute much-needed money and control from big developers and landowners in favour of the small farmers and homeowners. Our initial push for commercial land is welcome but we must push to implement this across the board. James Dyson owns more of England than the Queen, with much of that in my home constituency of Sleaford and North Hykeham. Some have suggested that this may be to avoid inheritance tax as farmland is not included. They also suggest that this unfairly bumps up land prices, hurting ordinary, hard-working farmers who are happy to pay their dues to society. Such a tax would also encourage housebuilding, alleviating the crushing rural housing shortage.

Finally, our support for small business must fit within how rural areas operate. We need support that allows new small shops to thrive without being taken over by larger chains. Our enterprises need to be free from monopoly exploitation, whether that’s through controlling vital infrastructure and services that they need or using their economic might to reduce the price that they can pay for our goods due to a lack of other trading partners. We need a broader definition of monopoly in a new age, but I will cover that in another article. We also need to rebuild technical education across rural areas and make it much more accessible, something which our skills wallet idea will make a reality.

Our economic message is on the way to fitting within rural values. When we’ve come to the rural electorate with bold, rebalancing ideas before, we’ve been rewarded for it. It’s time that we take the fight to the lazy Conservatives who badly represent our areas. It’s time to stop being scared of having people disagree with us and realise that with straight-talking comes respect. It’s time we came forward with our message that will create better jobs, support our small business and allow everyone the basics from which to make a good life.

* Oliver Craven is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham.

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  • John Marriott 5th Dec '19 - 12:39pm

    Oliver Craven appears to be forgetting that a large proportion of the vote in his constituency comes from two towns, both with populations over 15,000. Add to that expanding villages such as Bassingham in the north and Ruskington in the south and I reckon that much of the constituency‘s population could be classed as urban or indeed semi rural, with interests to match.

    Unfortunately, whereas a decade or so ago, both the main towns had significant Lib Dem representation, that has all but disappeared. As someone, who campaigned hard for Liberal Democracy back then, particularly in North Hykeham, it pains me to see how the next generation of activists, if they even exist around here, have failed to build on the undoubted success of those who went before and who, for various reasons, have hung up our clip boards.

    You see, Oliver, to be successful in true blue Lincolnshire, requires hard work all year round. As we used to say in our FOCUS newsletters (at least four per year delivered to most of North Hykeham for most of the 1990s) “You don’t just hear from us at election time”.

  • Good lord what a fantastically snide and patronising comment

  • James Baillie 5th Dec '19 - 3:33pm

    Regarding Mr. Marriott’s comment above, having grown up in about as rural a place as England has to offer before moving to cities, the idea that a place of 15,000 people counts as “urban” is more than a little nonsensical. The needs of rural towns, even those with some commuter belt element to their population, are very different indeed to those of cities, and the lack of thought about those differences in local issues needed to categorise them as urban is to say the least surprising from someone claiming to have a strong local campaigning record.

    As to why previous rural successes for the Liberal Democrats have fallen back in a number of areas, perhaps the older generation of activists should consider why their gains have proven ephemeral beyond simply trying to blame their successors. A large part of the answer is that Stakhanovite campaign tactics may win council seats but do not create liberal voters who will stay with the party. To rebuild a more solid and long term base in rural areas means ensuring we have a meaningful, distinct offer in terms of values and policy as well as putting in the work on the doorsteps. Those of us who want to see a revived rural liberalism should be saluting, not making patronising comments towards, people willing to build the intellectual groundwork for doing so. Thanks to Olly for a very well written and clear article.

  • John Littler 5th Dec '19 - 3:49pm

    Rural areas are often not connected to the gas mains and are reliant on deliveries of fuel oil. These are run by a monopolist with fake competition between a bunch of named companies with obscured links between each other.

  • James Brough 5th Dec '19 - 4:25pm

    My thanks to Ollie for an interesting and thoughtful article. Great shame that some prefer to rest on their laurels and criticise, rather than offer support.

  • Rural Radical 5th Dec '19 - 10:40pm

    This is a great article, albeit on a theme that needs wider development outside the heat of an election.

    From the Chartists to the Ascott Martyrs and the perennial battle with feudal landlords, there are plenty of precedents for rural radicalism from which a convincing Liberal radical narrative flows. Meanwhile, in many larger villages and even towns, having any mobile signal at all let alone broadband is a bonus.

    John Marriott has completely missed the point. Perhaps in future we will explain why.

  • Most useful article here in a long time. Please can someone provide resources to build on this rallying cry? Part of it must be policy (including electoral reform, why not just take legal action to ensure that every vote is weighted the same, even if it loses, it can’t be as hopeless a cause as say, leaving out nearest and biggest trading bloc? We need useful structures too to build on support networks, not just demands for donations and focus delivery. We need policy and fora for the great blue swathes, and some energy too – Beto in Texas and seats like Westmoreland and Canterbury here show what can happen if progressives take courage. In the age of
    social media why is it hard to keep in touch in rural areas? Above all else we should be saying go for it Olliy, we’re with you all the way.

  • John Marriott 6th Dec '19 - 2:44pm

    @James Baillie
    You obviously don’t know the area where I live. North Hykeham might have been a village near Lincoln once; but its growth during the 20th century means that it has, to all intents and purposes, merged with its big neighbour. Rural it is not, and neither is Sleaford, which has grown even more.

    @Rural Radical
    Nice alliteration, poor conclusion. If you are in favour of ‘rural radicalism’, why not start with the peasants’ revolt or the Tolpuddle Martyrs? Is it really all about the ability to download a movie in 50 seconds or is it more about encouraging 20 to 30 years old not be succumb to the lure of the big city by giving them a reason and an ability to stay? ‘How can you keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?’

    You call it ‘snipe and patronising’ I call it speaking from forty years of campaigning, making mistakes and learning from them. Times do change; but some things stay the same. Some of us have been here before.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Dec '19 - 2:53pm

    There are almost no parts of England that are so rural that there are whole constituencies that have not even small towns in them. Historically, Liberal Party success tended to be in those towns more than the really rural parts.

    The issue has always been that the disproportional representation system means that there are almost no Labour MPs for that sort of area. So people who are not wealthy and have almost no representation in Parliament. The Conservatives speak out only for the rich, and Labour only for fully urban areas. Poor people in those places have no-one to speak for them, and the disproportional representation means many hardly even realise they exist.

    The lack of Labour activity, or the fact that the few members if the Labour Party who exist in the places tended to be more intellectual elite types than people with low income meant that working class people in those places tended to see little difference between Conservatives and Labour and so if they voted at all did so randomly for one or the other. That is why Liberal activity in those areas showing a genuine concern for wealth inequality issues was often so quickly successful. It revealed the Conservatives as winning only by default due to no serious opposition. It is why working class people in non-urban areas became the core support of the growing Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats.

    That is why the idea that to win the votes of people in supposedly safe Conservative constituencies, yet it seems to be what the urban intellectual elite who now run our party suppose. How we won those seats was often to be quite left-wing and get the support first of working class people, with the more intellectual middle class type coming over after the success that gave us.

    But now instead of doing what is necessarily to win their votes, we (or at least our leadership) are doing the opposite, leaving them thinking no-one understands them, and so being tricked into supposing leaving the EU will give the more equal society with better life chances for them that they want.

  • Contrary to the assertion, I don’t think Universal Basic Income (UBI) in general appeals to rural voters. Rural voters are more likely to value notions of independence and self-insufficiency, which – contrary to the ideology – UBI actually destroys.

    Of course UBI appeals to anyone on the left (rural or urban), because it feeds into the delusion of getting something for nothing and makes citizens dependent on the state (a mentality and outcome that the left can then thrive and feed off).

    I don’t think UBI can be seriously sold by serious politicians. And it’s popularity is far more likely to be found in an urban dweller than rural dweller.

  • Joseph Bourke 6th Dec '19 - 10:07pm

    Oliver makes an important observation when he notes “A Land Value Tax will redistribute much-needed money and control from big developers and landowners in favour of the small farmers and homeowners. Our initial push for commercial land is welcome but we must push to implement this across the board.”
    It exhibits a clear understanding that Land Value Tax is first and foremost about adressing inequality and poverty in society.

  • Peter Hirst 7th Dec '19 - 10:11am

    If geographical communities are to survive, it will be in rural areas. This is what drives people to remain, return and live there. It is also what fosters the sense of independence, and self reliance, knowing that there is someone who can help if necessary. They also act as a model for larger areas, showing how four generations can live under one roof, each living their own lives and contributing to the common good.

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