Newly-elected Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has published a “Rural renewal” report to address priorities for rural parts of the country after winning the Labour leadership election, in which he polled 60% of the vote.
The report saw him consult around 1,600 members and supporters from rural areas to identify the most pressing issues affecting them.
Corbyn is MP for Islington North in London, but he is originally from the countryside. “I was born in rural Wiltshire and grew up in Shropshire where I first took part in Labour politics. Labour must become as much a party in the communities like the one in which I was born as it is for people in inner city constituencies like the one I represent”, he says.
“Too often the old machine politics writes off ‘the Tory shires’. It can seem to abandon communities struggling with issues such as housing costs, public service cuts, and social exclusion – issues that communities in inner cities are also facing too. If Labour doesn’t offer those communities solutions, no one else will. There shouldn’t be any no-go areas for Labour.”
The report lists housing as the “biggest priority”, with Corbyn already having made housing a key issue during his campaign and chosen to use the first question he put to David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions to ask about the housing shortage and “extortionate rents”.
Farming and infrastructure
The second and third issues listed are “Improving infrastructure like broadband and transport” and “Increasing support farming and fishing industries” respectively.
Referring to this summer’s dairy protests, the report says “It is simply not right that any worker should have to sell their product for less than it costs them to produce them, and this is acutely felt by dairy farmers. A combination of a small number of very large milk processers operating as suppliers to retailers, supermarkets operating a ‘price war’ forcing down the cost of milk, and milk co-ops losing their power has resulted in thousands of dairy farmers finding it harder and harder to make ends meet, let alone make a profit.”
Saying “more needs to be done” to support British dairy farmers, Corbyn says “we will work with all parties to ensure that customers are offered a price they can afford for their milk, but not at the expense of farmers whose very livelihoods depend on it. This will include investigating regulating supermarkets to prevent below cost selling.”
Another focus, and one which the Corbyn team appears to believe has not been addressed sufficiently, is rural wages: “The wage gap between urban and rural workers is on average £4,500 and this has risen by £1,000 in the last five years.”
The report criticises the “ideological decision by the government to scrap the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB)” and pledges to reinstate it, “following the lead of the Labour Welsh Assembly government”. “We also need to strengthen the enforcement resources of the gangmasters licensing authority and of the minimum wage to ensure that agricultural wages are not undercut”, it adds.
Small and medium-sized businesses
“Rural renewal” also cites concerns about small and medium-sized businesses: “essential rural community institutions such as post offices and pubs have been decimated, with hundreds closing every year in rural areas. These are the result of botched privatisations and rising prices”.
Labour, it says, would “give local authorities the power to control rent increases to stop local businesses being priced out”. It is hoped that rent controls would ease the strain on pub landlords struggling at a time in which, particularly among young people, alcohol is increasingly being purchased in shops and supermarkets to be consumed at home.
Corbyn, however, has been criticised for the appointment as Shadow Environment Secretary of Kerry McCarthy, Vice-President of the League Against Cruel Sports and a vegan.
Farmers Weekly‘s Chief Reporter suggested “it’s a bit like appointing a pacifist as Defence Secretary”, but McCarthy says “I’m not opposed to the badger cull because I’m a vegan. I’m opposed to it because of very authoritative reports by scientists and experts in the field who have said it’s ineffective, it’s a waste of public money, it’s not the way to stop bovine TB. Vaccination would be a better solution”.
Photo: Chris Beckett