Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner writes:
Whilst Brexit and Boris continued to hog the headlines at Conservative party conference this week the Alliance ensured that rural affairs got plenty of exposure as well. On Monday we asked a hugely qualified panel whether the Conservatives represent the countryside, and later tackled the myths surrounding animal rights issues and elections.
At the first fringe meeting I put it to Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove, Baroness McIntosh and EFRA Committee Chairman Neil Parish that there was a risk that the Conservative Party’s political dominance in rural constituencies, especially in England, meant that it might take rural votes for granted. The panel defended the Conservative record on everything from tackling bovine TB to puppy farming legislation since the party formed the coalition government in 2010. There were, however, some concerned voices from the meeting including one Suffolk farmer who emphasised that the real animal welfare and environmental issues that were concerning rural communities like sheep worrying, hare poaching and fly tipping were not being addressed in Defra’s agenda. Michael Gove defended his department’s priorities, but I hope he was reminded that the real voice of the countryside is rarely reflected in social media campaigns or by the endless environmental and animal rights groups which lobby Defra on their obscure agendas.
Later we tackled the myth that animal rights issues have any effect on elections with Victoria Prentice MP, pollster Johnny Heald and animal welfare consultant Jim Barrington. Johnny has been carrying out public opinion research for the Alliance for many years but his input is particularly interesting as he has also carried out hundreds of political focus groups for the Conservative party, the BBC and others. As he told the fringe meeting in all those groups no-one had ever told him that hunting, badger culling or any other animal rights issue was effecting their family or their vote. He also shared the results of polling he carried out shortly before the last election which showed that hunting and badger culling had the least impact on people’s votes of all the issues people were asked to consider.
Victoria stressed the value of the support many pro-hunting candidates had from activists in their constituency and quoted figures showing how this help had improved their results. I reminded the meeting of our ex-Chairman Kate Hoey MP who once again romped to victory in her very urban Vauxhall constituency in the 2017 election.
Having attended the three major party conferences in the last three weeks the Alliance has ensured that rural affairs stay on the agenda even in the current political maelstrom. Finding a route to a sustainable farming sector whilst taking advantage of the opportunity that Brexit will bring to improve environmental standards outside the CAP remains the issue of overwhelming importance. But meanwhile the countryside carries on and we will continue to articulate the day to day concerns of the rural community to politicians of all parties.
A video recording of our Conservative fringe event titled ‘Do the Conservatives speak for rural Britain?’ can be found here and the recording for our event ‘Do animal rights influence elections?’ can be found here.
Follow me at @CA_TimB