We were surprised when Donald Trump became President of the United States. We were surprised by the vehemence of the yellow vest protests in France. We were surprised that the UK voted to leave the EU.
Perhaps we would have been less surprised if we better understood the rural communities of these countries.
In the 2018 midterm elections in the USA, the Democrats won every congressional district in most urban areas, while Republicans won 87% of rural districts. Rural France is La France Profonde and it is aggrieved that elitist politicians in cities misunderstand and penalise rural life. While it’s true that the French are often aggrieved, rural populations in the UK and USA also have a strong sense that their way of life is neglected by urban-dwelling policymakers.
In the EU referendum, there was a leave majority in most rural areas of England. However the story is more nuanced and the London School of Economics conducted an analysis that probed a bit deeper. One of their findings is that rural areas have experienced significant change in the last twenty years through shifting migration patterns. While we tend to think of rural areas as unchanging, they have become more ethnically and socially diverse. They have also become less understood and the LSE acknowledges a need for: “…a more situated and granular focus on post-Brexit and rural geographies.”
The academic – Professor Rahsaan Maxwell – argues the political divide in the West is increasingly a geographic divide between urban and rural; a trend that will continue. In some cases the divide is a source of bitterness. A better understanding of rural lives would be in everyone’s interest.
In their 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to level up every part of the UK and promised to make life easier for farmers and fishermen in particular. A taskforce has been created and plans will be set out later in the year. The effect on rural communities remains to be seen.
For brands, rural communities are perhaps more important (and sizeable) than might be assumed. Ninety one Local Authority Districts are ‘predominantly rural’ (compared to 181 that are ‘predominantly urban’).
One fifth of the English population live in ‘predominantly rural’ areas. Contrary to townie prejudice, not all of these people are engaged in tilling the fields or attending fetes. In 2019; “…the highest rate of home workers was found in rural hamlets and dispersed areas, at 32%, compared with 13% in urban areas.” At the time the ONS found that home workers were more likely to be working in higher skilled roles and earning a higher hourly wage.
In 2018/19 there was net migration of 84,000 from predominantly urban areas to predominantly rural areas. Post Covid, a growing number of hybrid workers may be tempted to move to more rural areas, further changing the local dynamic. Government investment in ‘gigabit Britain’ means that most rural areas will benefit from faster broadband, making home working feasible in the glens, valleys and dales.
It is not possible to understand the changing consumer mood in the UK without understanding rural life. A theme we will be returning to.