This weekend I’ll be in the Norfolk village of Burston, where we will be commemorating the Burston School Strike at the annual rally that celebrates the longest strike in British history.
The Burston Rally is a regular feature in my diary. Each year, we line up behind a horse and cart and go on a “march” around the village, that unlike most trade union rallies and demos always feels more like a country stroll - there are even blackberrying opportunities if, like me, you are so inclined!
The strike was called in 1914 when two teachers at the local school were sacked after a dispute with the area’s school management committee. The school children then went on strike to show their support for their teachers, husband and wife Annie and Tom Higdon. Annie and Tom then went on to set up an alternative local school, supported by the local labour movement. Norfolk has a truly radical past.
Burston is an opportunity for rural East Anglian CLPs not known for hogging the limelight to have their moment in the sun (sometimes quite literally) with stalls on the village green. The speakers from the main stage address issues that matter to rural voters, whether it was the Tories decision to scrap the AWB or the impact of austerity on residents in the countryside. Given the preponderance of urban seats Labour holds, this rural focus is often a welcome novelty.
Inevitably this year, my thoughts are on what challenges lie ahead for people living in the countryside in Brexit Britain.
My constituency (made up of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk) is made up of 58 Westminster parliamentary constituencies, of which 41 are officially classified as rural or ‘county constituencies' so many of the meetings I now attend across my constituency focus on how we can support our rural communities once we leave the European Union.
Sometimes a discussion of what Brexit means for the countryside can turn into a discussion simply on what Brexit means for farmers. This is an important subject and whilst Labour and Britain has rightly criticised the CAP, currently EU subsidies make up 50-60% of farm income. That is some cliff edge!
Like all other parts of the economy, farming and the food and drink industry is intrinsically linked to the Single Market. The UK exported £18 billion of food and drink in 2015, with much grown here across East Anglia. The rural economy in reliant on seasonal migrant labour with the soft fruit industry alone employing 80,000 workers from the European Union at harvest time. An end to free movement will likely need to see the reintroduction of a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme to keep British fruit and veg on our shelves for years to come.
Yet the farming lobby is powerful and is making its case strongly to the government, other rural issues may need more amplification.
EU legislation affects how food is produced in the countryside and this has led to the UK producing some of the best food in the world, with the highest animal welfare standards. EU rules protect, not only the Cornish pasty from cheap imitations but also the Newmarket Sausage and Fenland Celery.
EU legislation led to the ban on potentially bee-harming pesticides (a big issue in my post bag) as well as on environmental legislation setting out ways to tackle climate change and support biodiversity.
All this poses questions on our new relationship with the EU, and any new trade deals with non-EU countries. How will we protect standards and allow our produce to be promoted globally and compete on the basis of quality? It is clear no-one wants chlorinated chicken on the supermarket shelves. What bodies will oversee enforcement of environmental rules?
The EU is key provider of funding for rural communities. If a Burston resident logs onto a Government rural grants website today they will find that there is nearly £10 million of European funding available for rural businesses to apply for in the Norfolk and Suffolk area. This is cash to support businesses to generate new jobs and for grants for rural visitor attractions to improve attractions, signage and footpaths to boost tourism.
In the last EU funding period of 2007-2013 in Norfolk and Suffolk, this EAFRD Programme funded 136 projects, awarded £6.28 million of grants and created or sustained 363 jobs. As well as this there is European structural funding, transport finance through the TEN-T programme and money for research and development.
The Local Enterprise Partnership that covers Norfolk says that since 2007 at least £1.9 billion worth of EU funding and finance is estimated to have been received, leveraging a total investment of £7.34 billion. What will happen going forward? How can we ensure rural areas get their fair share of resources and local control over spending?
The Conservative government has provided little certainty, few plans or assurances for our rural communities over Brexit. Meanwhile austerity has bitten hard in rural areas. Average wages are over £4,500 lower than those in urban areas while rural families often face higher living costs. A cut to transport funding in a rural area may well mean the only bus route is cut whilst a lack of affordable housing means no choice but to move away from family. At the same time it is surely unacceptable that 960,000 homes in rural areas still cannot access broadband with high download speeds. (Incidentally it is ERDF and EAFRD funds that have helped many rural areas get connected.)
With Brexit on the horizon, Labour has a unique opportunity to reconnect with rural Britain and show that unlike the Tories, Labour cares for our rural areas on and beyond the farm.
I have never seen any contradiction about Labour being a party for the countryside as well as for towns and cities. Indded my friend and colleague Daniel Zeichner, now MP for Cambridge, was once a Burston Labour councillor. Going back to 1997, 100 parliamentary seats won by Labour were classified as rural or semi-rural.
Going back 100 years to Burston's strike shows the countryside has a radical tradition that should not be forgotten.
As the Tories hard Brexit starts to harm the countryside Labour has a unique opportunity to connect with these voters and win across the whole of the UK.