Last night’s election result will have a profound and lasting impact on the countryside as Britain will now leave the European Union and implement post-Brexit agricultural and environmental policy.
It has also completed the rout of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs in rural constituencies which was begun in 2005. In England the countryside is now completely blue. The last few Labour constituencies with a significant rural element, mostly ex-mining areas in the North East, Cumbria and Midlands fell to the Conservatives, whilst in Wales rural seats in the North turned blue and only Plaid Cymru, who are consistently focussed on rural issues, stood between the Conservative party and another rural clean sweep. The Liberal Democrats lost their last significant rural seat in Southern England when North Norfolk fell to the Conservatives leaving the party which could only a few years ago credibly have claimed to have spoken for many of the most rural communities in England and Wales with just the rural constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale. Scotland had a slightly different election with the SNP winning seats from the Conservatives in rural areas.
What does this tell us? Well of course there were many and various influences on voters in this election, but the determination of the Labour Party in particular to treat rural policy as a playground for metropolitan fads and fashions clearly helped turn the countryside against it, whilst also raising questions about its priorities with other voters. The Fabian Society warned the Labour Party of the consequences of treating rural communities in this way in the report Labour Country jointly published with the Countryside Alliance early last year. The Labour leadership was warned and there was something sadly symbolic about the shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman who had campaigned to ban hunting again and prohibit grouse shooting losing her Cumbrian constituency of Workington. I am not suggesting that the voters of North Cumbria were swayed by these issues, but they are symptomatic of Labour’s failure to connect with the real concerns of rural communities and that definitely did have an effect.
The Alliance has a huge job ahead in engaging with so many new MPs, most of them Conservative, who represent rural and urban seats. Many are already friends and indeed have worked for us or with us in recent years. As I said this parliament will define the future of the countryside and together we could not have a more important job. Meanwhile, we will continue to engage with the Labour Party to challenge policies, especially those pursued by the animal rights movement, which have contributed to making it so unpopular in rural areas.
Finally this election has surely buried the myth that country sports and in particular the hunting issue have any impact on voters. Simon Hart, until recently our Chairman, was re-elected with a much increased majority in West Wales whilst in urban Ipswich, Tom Hunt, who until last year ran our press office, took the seat from Labour. They, and many other Conservative MPs, have been consistently attacked by Labour for their commitment to the countryside. Last night the voters emphatically told Labour that they don’t care.