Our Public Affairs Director, James Legge, reports from the Countryside Alliance event at this year's Labour Party conference in Brighton.
Yesterday, the Countryside Alliance held a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton.
Delegates heard from Luke Pollard MP, Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Luke Raikes of the Fabian Society. The discussion was chaired by the Alliance’s President, Baroness Mallalieu QC.
The event focused on Labour’s rural problem as highlighted in our report, The Elephant in the Countryside, published in the aftermath of the 2019 General Election, which left Labour with only 17 of the 199 rural seats. How you define a rural seat is not an exact science and Luke Raikes noted that it was possible on one measure of rurality that Labour now only holds two rural seats.
The catastrophic decline in rural Labour seats is nothing new. It is a trajectory of decline since Labour held over 100 rural seats in 1997. After the 2015 election Labour’s Angela Eagle published a report called Labour’s Rural Problem, and after the 2017 election the Fabian Society published Labour Country. Both reports highlighted the growing disconnect between Labour and rural communities and that without winning rural seats Labour cannot win a General Election.
Despite these findings Labour ploughed on with an approach to the countryside which seemed to see an animal rights agenda as a substitute for substantive rural policies that reflected the genuine priorities of rural people. All the evidence shows that less than 1 per cent of the electorate seeing issues like hunting as determining how they vote, issues like housing and health are what matter.
As Luke Pollard acknowledged yesterday the Labour Party had “become too comfortable with being too urban”. Labour policy seemed driven by a desire to do things to the countryside and appeal to urban voters rather than do things for the countryside and its communities.
Following our post 2019 General Election Report, the Alliance has met the Labour leadership and shadow Defra team, resulting in a direction from the top of the Party that as part of Labour’s Rural England Policy Review, due to be published next year, all aspects of policy, across all the shadow ministerial teams, must consider rural communities, and Labour has announced that in government there would be a rural minister in each government department. Might we finally get the rural proofing that we have been calling for, for so long?
Luke Pollard highlighted that Labour cannot let the Tories take rural constituencies for granted, that Labour must turn up in rural constituencies, must listen to rural communities and act upon what they have heard. There does appear to be a greater recognition within the Labour Party of the challenges it faces in rural areas and for the need to listen and for an agenda that is not dominated by animal rights and attacks on farming, shooting and wildlife management.
Speaking at another event, The Rural Reception, Shadow Defra Minister Daniel Zeichner MP, echoed the need to listen to rural people and for a well-managed and regulated countryside. There was acknowledgment of the work of rural people in environmental management and protection. However, we have heard warm words about listening and respect before and the proof of whether Labour are genuinely in listening mode will only be seen if the apparent greater openness at the top of the Party is reflected among its activists, MPs and most importantly in the policies it comes up with, and where its policy priorities lie.
Luke Pollard promises the next Labour manifesto will be the “most rural positive manifesto since 1945”, but if Labour continues its campaign against hunts, shooting and much of the wildlife management of keepers and land managers, then we will know that little has changed. Warm words are not enough. In the end it is about whether Labour is serious about winning a General Election. It cannot do so without winning the rural vote, and it cannot win that while its position is dominated by hostility to much of the rural way of life, with policies that are not based on evidence and principle.
There is also a warning for the Conservative Party with Labour’s renewed interest in rural seats and that is not to take the rural vote for granted. At a time when so many areas of rural life are coming under Government scrutiny, the Conservatives should not make the mistake Labour made and must continue to listen to the rural voice and ensure that policies and laws are soundly based on evidence and not ideological agendas. The Government should ensure real rural proofing across departments and recognise that while things like genuine animal welfare measures have always had rural support, an agenda that does not also prioritise the welfare of people, leads to defeat at the ballot box.
It was encouraging to see a good turnout from Labour Party supporters and activists, and the Alliance will continue to make the rural voice heard across all political parties and at all levels.
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