Labour needs to connect with Rural Scotland

Scottish Labour has started to look at what went wrong in the Holyrood elections in 2011, but we must also look back at another defeat and see what lessons we can learn from that. Labour did badly in the local elections in 2007, and we must not forget that in our rush to fix our problems at Holyrood.

Even though this election was fought under STV, there still remain areas without Labour representation. As it is, there are even whole councils with no Labour councillors at all, let alone enough to form a viable working group. After 2007 – using a voting system designed to make it easier for parties to get elected representatives on low levels of the vote, we still had 5 councils without a Labour councillor (Aberdeenshire, Argyll & Bute, Orkney, Borders and Shetland) and 5 more where the numbers of our councillors were so small as to be of limited effectiveness – with less than 10% of the council members being Labour, (Western Isles, Angus, Perth & Kinross, Moray and Highland).

You may have noticed that there is one thing that all these councils have in common – they’re rural. For far too long Scottish Labour has been seen as the party of the West of Scotland and the party of the big cities such as Glasgow.  We must develop policies which not only appeal to the majority of Scots who live in the urban areas of the central belt, but also ones which will attract voters in the small rural towns and villages across Scotland.

These voters have many of the same concerns as the city-dwellers – Housing, Jobs, Transport, and anti-social behaviour. We should develop ideas to improve all these areas, taking account of the different circumstances of rural Scotland and work to communicate them to people. Many rural towns and villages are losing their sense of community as young people move away, unable to afford to live in areas becoming dominated by second homes, with few job opportunities. We must come up with a plan to build the much needed affordable housing not just in the inner city areas, but across rural Scotland too. By doing this, we can also create jobs in rural areas, helping people to stay within their communities to work.

We need to ensure that there are more job opportunities for folk in rural Scotland, recognising that the existing dominant industries are Farming, Fishing and Tourism. We need to work with the farming and fishing communities to develop policies which support them, while not undermining our values, such as our commitment to the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board. We need to come up with ways to boost tourism in to these areas, and ensure that visitors to Scotland do more than visit Edinburgh for the Castle and the festival. Improving transport links to the regions will help here.

But transport isn’t just for tourism – we need to improve the vital transport links in our rural areas – roads need to be improved as the car remains almost a requirement, while busses and trains need to be supported in order to ensure equality of access for all.

What we need to do is to tie all these areas together into a cohesive, strategic policy for rural Scotland, to show that our mission is to reach out beyond our traditional vote. By doing that, we will win more councillors in 2012, delivering Labour values across Scotland.

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4 Responses to Labour needs to connect with Rural Scotland

  1. Great to see you blogging again John. I agree that Labour needs to reach out to rural areas and the towns and villages within them. Whilst the same broad areas of policy are relevant in both urban and rural areas (transport, housing, jobs), we need to be flexible – because the problems and solutions within these areas may be different.

    One of the main differences between rural and urban areas is scale. Instead of one big housing estate, a massive transport project, or one multinational employing thousands of people, what rural areas need are smaller, smarter projects that can be replicated if successful in other areas. We need to help local communities be sustainable and resilient. This model of working might actually benefit cities too, if we treat them as many smaller communities that are linked together.

    For housing, for example, we could look at making existing housing more affordable for first time buyers working in the area, helping people to self-build/renovate their first home, as well as small developments of new affordable houses.

    For transport, more frequent and affordable bus and rail services could make a huge difference to local people and small businesses and don’t require costly major changes to infrastructure. We could also support local community district heating schemes, co-operatives that buy heating oil at a discount, or innovative schemes such as a community creating recycled diesel from used cooking oil.

    Local jobs can of course be helped by the above measures. But other solutions might include supporting small and medium sized businesses through regional development agencies and improving high speed internet in rural areas to allow people to work from home or local offices.

    Other rural issues such as keeping small schools viable could also benefit from thinking small but connected. Instead of bussing students into town schools, could lessons happen remotely through telecommunication? I think this may already happen in some areas, but it could definitely be used more.

  2. I share many of your sentiments John. It is vital that a party which seeks a key role in national affairs has representation in councils across the country. We need to listen to and engage with rural as well as urban communities and demonstrate clearly what lies at the heart of Labour values.
    Transport is clearly an issue across the country – further education, employment and leisure activities can often only be accessed by public transport but at the moment the service appears unco-ordinated and is very expensive.
    But other concerns are shared by urban and rural areas across the country – youth unemployment, effective local pre-school provision, safety on the streets, affordable energy.
    We need to show more clearly that we can respond to each of these through our participation in rural communities.
    Listen to and engage with.

    • jruddy says:

      I agree, Alison. Engagement is vital. We shouldnt write off any areas simply because there is little or no chance of Labour getting representatives there. It becomes a vicious circle then!

  3. Al Brown says:

    Labour probably has a chance of gaining representation in at least couple of these councils if it targets the right wards properly and has a transfer strategy.

    Aberdeenshire: North Kincardine, Stonehaven and Lower Deeside
    Argyll and Bute: Helensburgh Central, Helensburgh & Lomond S, Dunoon
    Borders: Tweeddale East

    Orkney and Shetland have strong independent tradtions so it’s trickier there.

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