On the day of the launch of our report: 'The Elephant in the Countryside: Labour’s rural problem', the Labour Party was discussing that very issue. Labour Coast and Country held a conference on what Labour can do in, and for, the countryside. Contributions from seven shadow cabinet members, front benchers, and councillors focused on a vast array of topics, including education, housing and the environment. Our report made it clear that if ever Labour are to enter government, it needs to engage with the rural electorate. That message seems to have landed. Shadow Defra Minister, Luke Pollard MP, said in his opening remarks: ‘There is no path to power that doesn’t see us winning in rural, semi-rural and coastal communities.’ This sentiment was echoed by the other speakers, too.
Kate Green MP, Shadow Education Secretary, said her focus would be to help children and young persons fulfil their aspirations. Tackling poverty was at the heart of what she wanted to achieve. Thangam Debbonaire MP, Shadow Housing Secretary, is focussing on where affordable houses are built in rural areas. Rachel Reeves MP, Shadow Cabinet Office Secretary, said that Labour need to focus on farming and rural crime - areas they had previously ignored.
These are positive forward steps in Labour’s thinking, and hopefully policy ideas will encourage the government to develop and pursue policies for the countryside in turn. Ultimately benefitting those who live and work in rural communities.
However, there were points made by Luke Pollard MP, and Daniel Zeichner MP, Defra Shadow Secretary and Defra Shadow Minister, that did cause concern. Mr Zeichner did not recognise Labour’s animal welfare and shooting positions as problematic for his Party’s fortunes with the rural electorate. Mr Pollard expressed doubts over rural proofing with respect to producing effective policies. Such comments are concerning because it highlights that those in the Shadow Defra team do not recognise how their animal welfare policies often stray into animal rights. Rural proofing is something that all rural organisations agree on – needed to prevent increasing isolation in rural areas. We will wait and see whether Labour start to engage with rural communities, and if policies will be developed and pursued to match their ambition to be the ‘party of the countryside’. Despite recognition of their rural problem, and work to address it, they still very much have one.