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Labour’s rural vision

With opinion polls continuing to suggest a strong likelihood of the Labour Party forming the next government, few political questions could be more important to the countryside than how it intends to govern rural Britain. The Countryside Alliance Foundation’s fringe event held at the Labour Party Conference (Sunday 8 October 2023) saw another outstanding panel of speakers address that issue with a well-attended assembly of activists and parliamentary candidates.  

The headline speakers were Shadow Rural Affairs Minister Daniel Zeichner MP; Labour’s lead member of the Local Government Association’s People and Places Board, Cllr Amanda Serjeant; Senior Political Correspondent for The Times, Geraldine Scott; and Senior Researcher and rural expert for the Fabian Society, Ben Cooper.

Daniel Zeichner began by recounting what a difference a year had made since he spoke at the Countryside Alliance fringe event last year. He said speaking at the Future Countryside event in June was one of the highlights of his life, and it was interesting to see two Labour figures on that platform (the other being Lord Mandelson). Labour, he said, has a genuine desire to re-engage with rural communities. He found the polling for Future Countryside interesting, showing how highly the countryside is valued by the whole country. Keir Starmer, he argued, is telling a national story, recognising that Labour can only be a government of the country if it is of the whole country; and issues often thought of as urban have deep relevance in rural areas, such as crime and access to services. Regaining the trust of the countryside will require respect and understanding, and for Labour to avoid picking unnecessary fights.

Amanda Serjeant noted a return to Labour in rural areas at the local elections in May. She heralded Labour’s plans for further devolution as promising to put more power in local communities’ hands; rural areas face similar issues to urban areas, but they are not identical. One example would be devolving skills and work-related employment support: people in rural areas trying to access skills services find that they are far away and fragmented, so devolution would allow communities to respond to local needs. Everything runs through transport; areas that have control over it can drive their local economy. Lastly there is a particular issue with rural housing, caused by the growth of second homes and the loss of social housing. Labour, she said, does not want to concrete over the countryside, but to seek to ensure people don’t have to leave the countryside to get on in life.

Ben Cooper set out Labour’s electoral challenge. In 2019, the party received the votes of only 1 in 5 people in rural areas, 33 percentage points lower than the numbers who voted for the Conservatives. It has now identified 150 target seats, 50 of which are significantly rural mainly in Wales, Scotland and the north; just 34 of them have no rural residents. Boundary changes may increase the significantly rural proportion further. There remains a rural aversion to Labour and to address this, it can do three things: appeal to shared values, using language that connects with rural voters; develop a truly one-nation policy approach where rural and urban areas are not segregated; and address rural disaffection, so communities feel their concerns are being heard and understood. Doing these three things, he argued, will build trust in Labour’s ability to govern.

Geraldine Scott said that a lot of Labour’s existing policies already stand to benefit the countryside, but the Party isn’t always good at selling that message. Conservative politicians have, however, recently come to be received rather more poorly at rural events: people are feeling abandoned by them. She also wanted to address the issue of the Liberal Democrats, who feel they have a natural right to be the alternative in rural seats, but Labour will not want to stand back anymore. She asked, how will Labour challenge them? If they split the vote with the Liberal Democrats, will it let the Conservatives in? That said, following the pandemic there is more of an opportunity for Labour as its traditional voters have been able to move out of cities and work from home in the countryside.

A lively discussion with delegates on the floor began with a question about Labour’s intentions on environmental land management. Daniel Zeichner said that Labour agrees with it but worries that the Government’s approach is overly complicated. Ben Cooper said that agricultural policy is totemic in that getting it right can encourage trust, but it is unlikely to decide rural votes by itself. Geraldine Scott noted Labour’s increasing focus on securing the food supply but said the newly-appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Defra, Steve Reed, has yet to say much about farming. She also said that while talking about the ‘right to roam’ might be popular among party activists, it has very little relevance in the country.

Another question was from Lizzi Collinge, Labour’s candidate in Morecambe and Lunesdale: she agreed that people in rural areas are angry with the Government but still have an aversion to Labour and asked for advice. Ben Cooper said Labour should be clearer on the things it will not do, such as introducing a meat tax or restrictive 15-minute neighbourhoods. Daniel Zeichner said Labour is selecting a much higher calibre of candidate than in previous years and aversion evaporates quickly when a good candidate talks to voters, particularly in rural areas where people are more likely to vote for a candidate they know. Amanda Serjeant said Labour should emphasise its pledge to end competition for funding between local authorities, because if they need it, they should receive it.

This event concluded the Countryside Alliance’s party conference presence for this year, following one event at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference and two events at the Conservative Party Conference; one on the future of the countryside and the other on an animals in society. We are, as ever, most grateful to all the speakers and delegates for helping make the programme such a success. 

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