Before I came to Norwich as a student and became properly involved in party politics, I grew up in Arundel & South Downs: one of the safest Tory majorities in the country. It might have been tempting to have painted my left wing politics as the product of rebelliousness or a rejection of the suffocatingly middle-class surroundings I grew up in, but the reality is something very different. My left wing views are not a rejection of a stale, middle-class, conservative environment, but a product of a very different kind of English socialism that was in abundance where I grew up. It is this countryside socialism which the Green party must tap into if the left are ever to win in Britain again.
the policies of the Conservative members of parliament that the rural South keep voting in are the very policies which lead to these community battles taking place
The first political act I was ever involved in was a campaign to prevent my local youth centre from being shut down and sold off to build houses. The Conservative dominated council had decided that the number of young people in the village I grew up in was not high enough to justify an independent youth centre, despite the fact that, being in the countryside, it was nearly impossible to get to any other towns without a car.
That battle was lost, as was the battle to prevent Costa and Sainsbury’s opening in our village and pricing out local businesses, the battle to prevent new estates being built on green areas and the battle to keep open our local fire station (remember the whole “everything is far away in the countryside” thing). What was difficult for me to understand as a teenager was that the policies of the Conservative members of parliament that the rural South kept voting in are the very policies which led to these community battles taking place. Even the Liberal Democrats who were, until 2010, the default opposition believe in the economic policies which lead to overcrowding in the South, corporations pricing out local businesses and public services being cut.
So why don’t people in the South vote Labour? The answer, I think, lies in where the Labour party comes from. It is a party born from industrial relations: an urban, state socialist party that represents a part of the population that doesn’t really exist in the South. People in the South have a strong sense of community, but they also strongly value their sense of independence and autonomy. They are instinctively concerned about environmental damage and corporate homogenisation, but this comes from a place of valuing continuity and tranquility, not a place of class struggle. A socialist message targeted at urban populations falls on deaf ears in the countryside, despite whatever values may be shared.
The village I grew up in now has a locally sourced, organic café where an HSBC once stood, a combined coffee shop and bike maintenance workshop, and a growing number of solar power sources: things that most Conservatives would presumably sneer at. Simply put, it’s not the left that can’t win in the rural South, it’s Labour.
It’s not the left that can’t win in the rural South, it’s Labour
The libertarian, eco-socialist policies of the Green party have succeeded in Brighton Pavilion and have drawn the attention of residents of Balcombe due to the anti-fracking protests. The Greens came third in the Isle of Wight and managed to keep their deposit in my home constituency when running for the first time. These are not yet indicators of a southern Green surge, but neither are they phenomena to be ignored by any political strategist.
The fundamental point is this: left wing populism is a cul-de-sac for the Green party. We will take votes off of Labour (or, in some cases, force them to put up a much more left wing candidate) but we will never fundamentally change the political landscape of the UK. Instead, as UKIP have established themselves as a capitalist party for the working class in the North and the East, the Greens should now fill the gap that the Liberal Democrats have left and become the default opposition in Conservative heartlands: a socialist party for the countryside.