Nothing can be taken for granted in politics these days. The results of the EU elections last month are just one example of the pace and scale of change our political system is undergoing. One of the norms being challenged is the politics of the countryside.
The election map of Britain is shaded blue in most areas outside major towns and cities. But the Conservatives dominance of many rural areas has not always been the case and it could change in the future.
A survey of Countryside Alliance members and supporters earlier this month revealed deep frustration with life in rural Britain and the ability of the Conservative Party in government to address these challenges.
Only 8 per cent of people surveyed thought that life in the countryside had improved in the last five years, and only 30 per cent thought the Conservative Party understands rural Britain (compared to 11 per cent for Labour and 9 per cent for the Liberal Democrats).
Perhaps most worrying for the Conservatives is that only 4 per cent of people surveyed strongly agreed that the Conservative Party understands rural Britain, while 15 per cent strongly disagreed with this view.
A recent report from a Conservative think tank found that young people in rural areas were more likely to vote Labour than Conservative. The polling results showed: “A total of 59 per cent of under-35s living in villages say they will vote Labour, compared to 16 per cent for the Conservatives. This changes to 57 per cent and 18 per cent respectively for young city-dwellers, suggesting that location is less of a factor than the age of the respondent”. Age is increasingly the fault line for differences in opinion, including voting intention.
On this basis, the current dominance of the Conservative Party in rural areas is largely due to the lack of younger voters living in these areas, and not because of any deeper sense of connection between the Conservatives and rural Britain.
Neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Hunt have contributed much on farming and countryside issues during their time in the Commons. They will need to get up to speed quickly. Delivering a new agricultural policy emerged as the top priority for the next Prime Minister in our survey, followed by tackling crime and anti-social behaviour, and addressing the housing crisis in rural areas. Unless these issues are addressed, the Conservatives risk sleep walking into electoral defeat in the shires.
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Boris Johnson is holding a 'Telephone Town Hall' at 6pm on Monday 1 July as part of his leadership campaign. This is a great opportunity to raise rural issues with Mr Johnson, including the results of our survey. You can register online to take part at www.backboris.com/call. We will promote similar events from Jeremy Hunt’s campaign as and when we receive the details.