by James W Aris

When the political tectonic plates shift, party rocks grind violently against each other, causing legislative earthquakes and eruptions. Political parties adopt populist policies and local councils feel emboldened to launch their own attacks on the rural way of life.

If the polls are to be believed it is becoming increasingly likely that we are facing a Labour government in the not-too-distant future. However, Labour currently holds only 17 of the 199 rural seats up for grabs in a general election, and if Keir Starmer is to enter No 10 he will have to find an accommodation with the rural community. In 2019 his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, launched what was hailed as the most anti-rural manifesto Labour had ever produced. Not only did it pledge to bring forward legislation to ban hunting (again), prohibit grouse shooting, and attack game farming, but it made such issues its rural priorities. But why? Even prominent figures within the Labour party agree that they have consistently missed the mark on genuine rural issues. After Labour’s 2015 general election defeat, Angela Eagle published her report ‘Labour’s Rural Problem’, and after the 2017 election the Fabian Society produced ‘Labour Country’. Both reports highlighted the disconnect between Labour and rural communities. Our research, The Elephant in the Countryside: Labour’s Rural Problem, published in the aftermath of the 2019 election, again highlighted Labour’s disconnect from rural priorities and in response Keir Starmer publicly accepted the critique of Labour rural policy. The left of the Labour party has, however, been fixated on treating rural issues as a sub-genre of class war for decades. Like any addict it is one thing for Labour to admit it has a problem, but another to do something about it. The real test will be the development of Labour’s manifesto as it moves towards the expected 2024 general election. Will it retain such delights as full-cost recovery on all firearms licensing which would put the cost of gun ownership beyond the reach of many ordinary working people? Will it retain a commitment to treat shotgun ownership much more difficult by licensing them in the same way that section 2 firearms are currently regulated? Will it retain the pointless proposals attacking trail hunting, grouse shooting and game farming? The argument now accepted by Labour’s leadership is that by prioritising this sort of irrelevant prejudice, presumably to pander to Labour activists in Islington, it alienates rural voters whose focus is on the practical issues of accessing public services, levelling up the rural economy and getting through the cost of living crisis.  

Meanwhile, even before we reach the next general election current and future Defra Secretaries of State will be wrestling with critical debates on agricultural support, biodiversity restoration, climate change, animal welfare and wildlife management that will shape our rural communities for decades to come. These burning issues have the potential to alter our entire existence and change the face of the countryside that our community have been custodians of for decades. There is a fundamental discussion about the purpose of the countryside that will span different governments over the coming decades. The question is whether the countryside is a working, food and resource producing landscape that needs to adapt to help tackle bio-diversity decline and climate change, or whether it should become almost entirely a tool for carbon capture and a home for nature, whilst we look to produce the majority of our food using new technologies. The latter scenario is the vision of many in the environmental movement and would have a profound effect not just on what we eat but on the very existence of rural communities.   

It is not only political parties that react to political volatility and pander to prejudice and emotion. There are any number of environmental and animal welfare organisations willing to jump on any bandwagon which they perceive as popular and potentially profitable. Sadly this is not restricted to extremists or single issue obsessives and even the largest and what should be the most productive of organisations can be dragged in. A few years ago the RSPCA was on the verge of implosion after lurching towards an animal rights agenda driven by extremists elected to its council. It was only a resolute rear-guard action by the Countryside Alliance which halted and eventually changed the Society’s direction of travel. Now the RSPB is showing signs of a similar affliction. It has ‘concluded’ that further regulation and better enforcement of existing rules will be required to deliver the changes necessary [to game shooting] in the face of a nature and climate crisis. It argues that there is ‘no evidence’ of the net positive impact shooting has, and that ‘evidence from other sectors on the widespread failure of voluntary approaches to deliver positive environmental change’ has forced them to this view.

Relying on the classic activists playbook it now sees every challenge is an opportunity to attack shooting. As Avian Flu spread across the UK devastating wild bird populations the RSPB prioritised attacking shooting and called for a complete moratorium on gamebird releasing despite having no credible argument whatsoever to support its call. Quite rightly, senior government wildlife experts responded to the call stating "There is (already) a ban on releasing gamebirds in all control zones, and businesses that wish to release them outside of zones are required to maintain stringent biosecurity standards and report any signs of avian influenza to minimise the spread of disease." and were clear that they were sceptical about the RSPB’s case, arguing that so far there is too little evidence to substantiate its demands.

And there is no getting around how much these organisations rely on and react to social media. The importance of online campaigns cannot be ignored in this fight. Watch any politician, from either side, walking through Westminster – most of them are heads down, leaning into their phones. In the current climate they are probably checking to see who the latest Prime Minister is, but in more usual times they will find social media exploding with the vitriolic nonsense spouted about heather burning, or the mistreatment of game birds, or raptor persecution. At the end of March 2022, the Alliance hosted political staff, including caseworkers, researchers and advisors, for a clay day at the West London Shooting School. As we walked to the first stand I was told by an MP’s office manager that the previous week they had received over a thousand emails in two days from an anti-shooting group’s organised campaign. A long-term supporter herself, she could cut through the nonsense it spouted, however another aide, overhearing our conversation, explained that they had received the same email in similar quantities and that their MP had sympathised with it – but only due to lack of knowledge. After showing him some research on the subject, he walked off to call his employer and they changed the planned reply to include it. This is the power of engagement and the only way to counter social media campaigns.

Many articles have been written about the importance of the rural community getting involved with social media, but we do have to understand that we are a minority and that on many issues we will never be able to win in a simple ‘click count’. The Alliance exists to rally rural opinion, but also to argue for evidence-based legislation and respect for the rights of rural people. We draw swords and battle every day both to promote our own arguments and to combat the spread of misinformation. As the politics becomes more uncertain and those tectonic plates continue to shift we will all need to stand together to protect our way of life.

This article was first published in FieldSports Journal VOLUME VI • ISSUE I.

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