Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Plus ca change, plus ca la meme chose

The nature of electoral politics is that towards the end of an electoral cycle all thoughts turn towards the next opportunity for victory or defeat. This is particularly true now that we have a fixed term for parliamentary elections. It was upon this line of thought that I decided to investigate whether my twitter friend @DorsetRachel had been selected as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for West Dorset. Rachelcurrently serves as a councillor for part of Weymouth, which is in the neighbouring constituency of South Dorset. I was pleased to find out that she has been selected, but then rather dismayed to find out that West Dorset has never even come close to having a Labour MP. In fact West Dorset has had only 6 different MPs since 1885 and all of them Conservative.
This may not be situation peculiar to this part of England, but causes me more sorrow in the knowledge that this constituency contains the village of Tolpuddle.  The village made famous for the 6 martyrs who, 180 years ago this March, were sentenced to transportation for the crime of making an oath. Their real crime, in the eyes of the landowners, was in forming a union to organise agricultural labourers.
Life in southern England was harsh then, the Enclosure Acts meant that rural people no longer had access to fields to grow their own food and instead had to buy food on the open market. An economic depression in the 1830s led to rural unemployment and more pressure on the Poor Law System. Technological innovation meant that the labourers had just had their pay reduced for a third time, from 10s a week down to 6s a week, but prices for food began to rise as London and the industrial north prospered. The labourers were starving as costs outstripped their income.
Poverty data for 2012 shows that there are still many people in Dorset who rely on the support of their community to survive.  One fifth of people in Weymouth and Portland live in houses that receive housing benefit, a figure that rises to 28.6% when you consider only those under the age 20. The adjacent West Dorset has seen the biggest proportional increase since 2011 and now almost one in five people aged under 20 live in households reliant on benefit.
Dorset, like many other parts of Great Britain, is grossly unequal. Pockets of mass deprivation reside cheek by jowl with the second-homes of affluent city-dwellers and the estates of the land-owning elite. The balance of income and opportunity is barely indiscernible from the days of Thomas Hardy.  Bridport, Weymouth, Portland and Somerford are among the 20% most deprived areas in the UK and appear like islands on the map of multiple deprivations with seas of affluence around them. The maps for income, employment, education and skills, health and disability, IDACI and crime all follow a similar pattern. There are two maps, however, that paint a different picture. 
These are the Living Environment Domain and Barriers to Housing and Services Domain.  Both of these are related to the quality of and access to housing and local services.

The reasons that these barriers exist are many. One explanation is the presence of second homes in the county that artificially increases the notional value of housing (a problem shared with Devon, Cornwall and Cumbria, among others). The main barrier to service provision is the geography of the county, a problem very different from those faced by cities. The relatively large proportion of retired people in both West and East Dorset also provides a different challenge. A problem that is shared with many other areas is the relative low pay received by peoples working within Dorset. The relative proportion of socio-economic groups within the county is broadly similar to the national average, however the median pay of a worker in Weymouth is less than 82% that of the national figure. Furthermore although the median pay of a worker in West Dorset is 31% higher than those in, for example, West Yorkshire, the price of housing is approximately 74% greater. I think it is also interesting to note the large disparity between the median pay of those living in East Dorset, a largely affluent area, and those who only work in East Dorset. An issue that those who live in larger urban areas will recognise, particularly London where the workers are being forced to travel greater distances to get to their place of work from places where they can afford to live.
In both 1834 and 2014 the population of rural counties have faced recession and falling wages; they have had limited opportunity to improve their own lot and are instead reliant on other agencies or relocation to provide subsistence.  It is important to note that these deprivation figures are from 2010. They were therefore recorded after 13 years of a Labour government that did much to help many, but did not do enough for some. I would hope, however, that were the electorate to return a Labour government in 2015 that next time around they would pay far more attention to solving the problems that have afflicted counties like Dorset and Lincolnshire for centuries.
Politics within Dorset, and much of the south of England, has been dominated by the Conservative Party or its forebears for centuries, a dominance that has resulted in the maintenance of the status quo. A county run by and for the interests of the wealthy and ignoring the interests of the young and disadvantaged. I hope that the next Labour government can deliver on their ambitious housing and infrastructure programme but the real leveller would be a land value tax. To make a difference to the quality of living environments and to remove barriers to housing and services we need to find a more progressive way of raising tax. The ownership of land within Dorset is emblematic of land ownership within the UK. A small minority of people own vast swathes of the countryside, some of them have even been Conservative ministers and some of them still are.  For people living in these villages they are trapped in a feudal lifestyle, unchanged for centuries, they work on the land, are paid a pittance and rely on the land-owner for accommodation. This inequality is not as visible as in the major cities, but it is just as important.
If Labour is to win a majority in the next election then I think they will have to win some seats in southern England (that are outside London). Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, has written that Labour cannot simply rely on the Conservatives losing the election, we need to win it. Jim Knight recognises this and has written about the need to deliver on the politics of the periphery and the need for Labour to gain seats in the coast and countryside. The key to this will be policies that improve access to housing and local services. This could be rural bus services, rural GPs and dentists and more and better housing.
Over the last 180 years the power of trade unions has ebbed and flowed but one thing remains certain, the power of capital over labour has never been truly challenged. To win the next election Labour will have to win seats in the countryside. Winning in South Dorset, the constituency that Jim Knight represented until 2010, would be a severe blow to the Conservatives. I would also like Labour to embrace the history of the union link and try to win what would be a significant victory in West Dorset, the home of the Tolpuddle martyrs and the seat of Oliver Letwin MP.
When the six men of Tolpuddle were sentenced to transportation there was a mass outcry and a campaign for their release was organised by the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. A march was held in April 1834 with over 100,000 people attending and over the next few months petitions were sent to parliament with over 800,000 signatures. In 1835 all six of the men were granted a conditional pardon, although they turned it down and continued the fight. The next year, on 14th March 1836, the government agreed that all the men should have a full and free pardon. Trade unions had won and survived their first big challenge. The six farm workers from Tolpuddle were on their way home as free men. This is proof, were it needed that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone. By creating a coalition of coast, country and city we can create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.

This article was amended on the 10th July to state that Weymouth and Portland are in the South Dorset Constituency, not West Dorset, as the original wording stated. 

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