With a British general election schedded for May 3 or earlier, the party machine is geared to turn out again those who gave us victory in 1997 — traditional Labor voters and those who voted Labor for the first time — to win that elusive second term. Yet this is not enough. We must also win the battle to replace the Tories as the natural party of government.

To do this we must take the offensive. Labor’s weak point in 1997 was liberal voters in rural seats. It makes no long-term sense to continue to meekly surrender large swaths of rural Britain to the Liberal Democrats. Voters must be offered the real thing rather than an inferior substitute.

There is a myth that in the southwest the Liberal Democrats are the main contenders to the Tories. So if you hate the Tories you have to vote tactically for the second-rate Liberal Democrats. Not so. In 1931, the Independent Labor Party came within a few hundred votes of winning North Cornwall. Since then it was not until 1979, during Labor’s civil war, that the Liberals outperformed Labor. Eighteen years later, Labor is back in second place with 15 seats, one more than the Liberal Democrats.

In the European elections in 1999, this resurgence was confirmed with Labor leapfrogging over the Liberals into second place in 14 more seats, and in the process demonstrating that public relations might have a sting in its tail. With the right campaign, Labor could retain all its current seats in the southwest and even add to the number. Jim Knight lost Dorset South by a mere 77 votes.

So in May we can and must take the message to liberal voters in rural areas. We can campaign well. At last year’s conference it was Devon organizer Eddie Lopez who received the award on behalf of the Exeter Party for a result in last year’s local elections, which if replicated nationally at a general election would have given us a majority of 150 seats. So what is the message?

It’s the economy, education and transport, law and order and the health service. No different from anywhere else. But in the past, rural has lost out to urban. These old discriminations have to be redressed and new ones prevented from arising. The recently published Rural White Paper “Our Countryside — The Future” is a program designed to do just that.

If the Tories know so well what the countryside needs, why didn’t they deliver during their generation in power? In contrast, Labor in government can demonstrate its own growing understanding of rural issues and concerns, with real policies and hard cash to sustain and enhance the rural environment. We should let the Tory and Labor records speak for themselves.

There was a Tory government from 1979 to 1997. Cornwall didn’t become the poorest county in the whole of Britain overnight, poorer than the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, poorer than Northern Ireland. Yet the growing Tory estrangement from the rest of the European Union meant they were unable to deliver. Labor obtained 350 million pounds of Objective 1 money within two years.

The Tories did nothing to tackle the education and transport problems faced by people living in rural areas, closing between 1983 and 1997, on average, 30 village schools a year and devastating public transport, leaving only one in four parishes with a daily bus service by 1997.

Labor, in contrast, intends to build upon the existing public-spending plans and provide an extra 1 billion pounds to implement these improvements in the white paper. The government will not only provide the services but also modernize them by using new technology to widen access to ensure that in the coming telecommunications revolution that the countryside is not left aside, but wired up like the cities so that rural voters will share the same opportunities as their urban counterparts.

Labor will deal with the real problem of social exclusion in rural areas with those on low incomes currently having minimal access to affordable housing and in certain places children as they grow up being driven into exile in the cities as second-home ownership prices them out of the market in the towns and villages where they were born. The government is intent on repairing and restoring all this damage done to rural communities.

The social needs to be married to the economic, with plans to use European money to support farmers and rural entrepreneurs, especially in market towns, to find and exploit new business opportunities. Labor will make local government much more responsive to local needs by giving the local community power to provide services directly. It will establish new consultation mechanisms for ensuring that government is attuned to rural concerns.

A shift to Labor will not happen instantly and the Tories will continue to be the first party in the southwest and similar regions, but if the Labor Party gets its message across we can clearly replace the Liberals as challengers, starting to re-establish our rightful place on local authorities in such areas. This will be the first stage in a two-stage process. Let’s start now.

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