There are a relatively small number of fundamental truths which underpin the noisy business of party politics and changing those truths can be a slow business. For decades elections have been fought in the middle, suburban ground. Margaret Thatcher successfully wooed ‘Essex Man’. Tony Blair won successive huge election victories by targeting ‘Mondeo Man’. David Cameron rebuilt the Tory brand and came to power by focusing on ‘Worcester Woman’. In 2019, however, Boris Johnson’s target was further from the centre ground metaphorically, but also physically. ‘Workington Man’ hailed from North West Cumbria across the Solway Firth from Scotland. He had voted Labour for 100 years in a constituency with a long industrial history of coal mining and steel making, but had been left behind economically in the post-industrial era. From our perspective it is also very important to note that he lived in a rural constituency. Perhaps not the stereotypical countryside of the home counties or the iconic scenery of the Cumbrian Lake District, but rural nonetheless.
In 2019 Workington was represented by Sue, now Baroness, Hayman who was also Labour’s Shadow Defra Secretary. Despite the seemingly obvious risk to her own political future, not to mention that of her party, she led Labour into the General Election with what, by general consensus, was the most anti-rural manifesto Labour had ever produced. Not only did Labour pledge to bring forward legislation to ban hunting (again) and prohibit grouse shooting, but it made such issues its rural priorities. Sue Hayman even tweeted about hunting being one of Labour’s rural priorities two days before the election in which she, and her party were roundly rejected by the countryside and the country as a whole. As I wrote at the time, I am not suggesting that the voters of North Cumbria were directly swayed by issues like hunting and shooting, but they were symptomatic of Labour’s failure to connect with the real concerns of rural communities, and that definitely did have an effect.
Roll forward two years and this week the Alliance held a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton which focused on Labour’s rural problem. Our report, The Elephant in the Countryside, published in the aftermath of the 2019 General Election, suggested that Labour now holds just 17 of the 199 rural seats, although Luke Raikes of the Fabian Society noted that on one measure of rurality, Labour holds just two rural constituencies. Critically, it is also now accepted electoral reality that if it is to form a government in the future, Labour will have to win a large number of rural seats.
In the fringe meeting, shadow Defra Secretary, Luke Pollard, acknowledged that the Labour Party had “become too comfortable with being too urban”, which at least suggests that Labour has started to accept a new and difficult political truth. This comes in the wake of meetings between the Alliance and the Labour leadership and Labour leader Keir Starmer’s speech to the NFU earlier this year in which he accepted much of our critique of Labour’s approach to rural affairs. Luke Pollard also announced that a Labour government would have a rural minister in each government department responsible for considering the impact of policies on the countryside, which is a new and positive approach to delivering the ‘rural proofing’ promised by every Prime Minister since Tony Blair.
There will be plenty of cynics who suggest that this is all party conference fluff and that it is a long way from delivering real change to Labour’s rural agenda. There does, however, appear to be a greater recognition within the Labour Party of the challenges it faces in rural areas, for the need to listen and for an agenda that is not dominated by animal rights and attacks on farming, shooting and wildlife management.
And as much as it is important that Labour accepts fundamental political truths, it is also vital that we do. The wheels of electoral politics might turn slowly, but it is an incontrovertible truth that governments fall and oppositions rise. One of the founding and continuing aims of the Countryside Alliance is to remove rural issues from party politics which would be of huge benefit both to the countryside and to our wider politics.