digital, rural policy

The Politics of the Periphery

IMG_0985Three years ago in Progress, I wrote about the need for what we would now call One Nation Labour. Welcome as this approach is, I remain unconvinced that we have a coherent rural and coastal programme to campaign on that makes the new brand credible.

Whilst the Tories take their rural heartlands for granted, and ideologically reject non-market solutions, these areas feel on the periphery. They feel on the edge physically, economically, and in social policy. Without the volume of consumers, services are unviable and the market increasingly just delivers retirement and second home communities.

Labour is the party that believes that where the market isn’t working, and social injustice follows, we should intervene. However rural areas are too often on Labour’s emotional periphery.  And yet the powerlessness, misery and injustice of rural poverty in Britain is as profound as anything in our urban areas.

So it should be no surprise that many in peripheral areas feel that none of the major parties offer any solutions. The cost of living crisis means that they are living on the edge financially as well as geographically.

But it need not be like this. We are now living through a technological revolution that is redefining geography. Industrialisation and urbanisation happened hand in glove, and were driven by the new ways of connecting people by canal, then rail and then road. We are now living through a digital revolution that is also about connectivity, as online and globalisation work as one.  Our personal geography is being redefined.  We now have to realise this opportunity to refine our sense of space in public policy.

Some of our cities are shrinking. As this BBC article discussed, some of the iconic cities of the industrial age in the Mid-West, like Detroit, are unviable in the post-industrial age. They are being reclaimed by nature. Industrial pollution saw off beavers from the Detroit river two hundred years after the city was founded as a centre for the beaver skin trade. But fast forward another hundred years to today, less manufacturing means less pollution – and now the beavers are back.  At this extreme we see re-ruralisation, an opportunity we could start to manage.

By contrast, London increases in size by two double decker bus loads of people each day. It cannot cope. Should we not be looking at how the new connectivity revolution can revitalise our rural areas as places for families to live and work, and thereby reduce pressures on our cities? Including making the Department for Transport the department for connecting people online as well as offline? Perhaps then the Department can decide which is the bigger priority for us socially and economically – high bandwidth connection for the many or HS2 for the few.

If we can change the culture of presence in our offices, as Dave Coplin discusses in this animated RSA talk, and measure productivity on output instead, then we could work wherever is convenient. If rail franchises included mandating a three day a week season ticket, some would choose to work from home or the town coffee shop instead. Mutual workspaces could be incentivised with great connectivity, video conferencing and fabulous coffee. Suddenly less pressure on the railways, on the cities, and a more viable rural economy.

I am hugely encouraged to hear Chuka Umunna talk about the potential link between digital exclusion and UKIP voters.  Many abandoning the three main parties for UKIP are doing so as a way of expressing their powerlessness and the extent to which they have been left behind by change.  Politicians must give these people hope if they are to gain their votes.  If you are excluded from the technology that is deskilling you, then you will be angry and fearful and hard right politics will be attractive.  We need to bring these people in from the economic and social periphery and get them skilled and confident online.

These are just some initial thoughts on how we need to paint a compelling picture of change and hope. We are all working, shopping, and socialising in new ways. Equally there are new ways of doing things in government for neglected rural and coastal areas. Labour has to deliver on the politics of the periphery.


This article first appeared on Progress online