The Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, Tim Bonner, has responded to a speech given by Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer to members of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), urging him to translate words into action.
In advance of the speech given to attendees online, Labour List, an influential Labour supporting blog, described it as an opportunity for Mr. Starmer to bring Labour ‘closer to rural and farming communities.’
Speaking today, the party leader said: “Labour’s history owes as much to the countryside as it does to the city” and the “perceived distance that’s grown up between Labour and the countryside” cannot be ignored.
“It’s more perception than reality, because in the last year Labour stood with British farming and stood up for rural communities, from fighting for high food standards to protecting family farms,” Starmer added.
Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the rural campaigning organisation said in response: “It was positive to hear Keir Starmer touch on much of what the Alliance has expressed about Labour’s disconnection from the countryside and it does now appear the rural elephant in the room has been acknowledged.
Now, however, words need to be translated into actions. If Labour is to be taken seriously in the countryside it needs to focus on the issues that matter to rural people, not those policies its urban activist base wants to impose on rural people. This needs to stop and warnings from groups like the Fabian Society need to be heeded. Labour must understand that without the countryside, it will never form a government again.”
Labour currently holds just 17 of the 199 rural seats in England and Wales. Their historical struggle to connect with the countryside has been well documented.
Maria Eagle, Labour MP for Garston and Halewood, came to the conclusion in 2015 in a paper – Labour’s Rural Problem.
Tobias Phibbs of the Fabian Society published a paper, ‘Labour Country’, following the 2017 general election that also argued that Labour must engage with the rural electorate if it is to have any chance of making the significant gains in rural seats necessary to form a government.
However, their warnings were ignored which led to Labour being virtually wiped out in rural constituencies in 2019.
In September 2020, the Countryside Alliance launched a detailed report on Labour’s inability to connect with rural voters. Titled, 'The Elephant in the Countryside: Labour's rural problem', the report concluded: ‘Labour needs to pursue policies relevant to the countryside and work with stakeholders who represent their interests. Labour cannot continue to ignore the countryside because to do so will spell electoral disaster for the foreseeable future. It must recognise where it has gone wrong with regard to the rural electorate and follow a new path that resets its relationship with them.’
Tim's response also made the front page of the Yorkshire Post.