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Record-setting election stirs up apathy

With the dust settled on last Thursday’s election results, like much of the UK, the Countryside Alliance has been ruminating on what they signify for the future of British politics. The most obvious outcome, the best part of five years of Labour government at least, disguises an array of quirks that political scientists will pore over for years to come. 

It is said that oppositions don’t win elections – governments lose them – and the Conservative Party’s performance bears that out. The party’s vote share collapsed by 20% and its total vote fell to less than half: fewer than one in two of those who turned out for Boris Johnson in 2019 would do likewise for Rishi Sunak five years later. With Labour achieving a swing of only 1.7 percentage points and the Liberal Democrats a bare 0.6, a good proportion of the remainder apparently stayed at home. The result left the party with 121 seats, the worst in its history, and wiped out entirely in Wales. 

Despite winning its second-highest share of parliamentary seats, behind only the 1997 result, Labour’s victory with a 174-seat majority may prove deceptively soft. Turnout fell by nearly 7.5 percentage points since 2019, and for all Sir Keir Starmer’s talk of his ‘changed Labour’ the party attracted some 600,000 fewer votes than were managed by Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps Sir Keir’s greatest achievement was being electable enough to avoid sparking a protest vote against him. As William Whitelaw said of Harold Wilson, he has gone about the country and stirred up apathy. 

While it too received fewer votes than five years ago, it would be foolish to deny that ‘action man’ Sir Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats had a bumper night. Its 72 seats represent the party’s record highest, and more than the predecessor Liberal Party achieved since 1923. Rural politics, led by Defra spokesman Tim Farron, have loomed large in the Liberal Democrats’ extended campaign and paid dividends, with swathes of England’s rural south and south west turning orange. 

In line with expectations the more minor parties of the Greens and Reform UK also have much to be pleased with, returning with 4 and 5 seats respectively – although in Reform’s case it was on 4.1 million votes compared with the Greens’ 1.8 million. Reform delivered what UKIP never could – a parliamentary seat for Nigel Farage – and played ‘spoiler’ for the Conservatives across much of the UK. Indeed, the combined vote for Reform and the Conservatives exceeded that of Labour by over a million votes, but still fell around three million short of what the Conservatives managed in 2019. Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, improved its vote share by 0.2% but remains on 4 seats. 

If Thursday was a bad night for the Conservatives, for the SNP – at least in electoral terms – it was apocalyptic. The party’s vote did not quite halve but its number of seats plummeted from 48 to 9, proportionately the biggest loss of the night and barely more than the 6 achieved in 2005 and 2010. Although it stopped short of declaring the election a de-facto referendum on separation from the UK, the result is so far below the 29-seat Scottish majority that the party argued would give it a mandate to negotiate separation as seemingly to settle the matter for a generation. 

The new parliament will welcome 335 Members with no prior UK parliamentary experience; this compares with 300 re-elected members and a further 15 returning after an absence. Combining this with the loss of so many Conservative MPs from farming backgrounds or experience in Defra ministerial roles, and further considering the dearth of interest in rural matters shown in Labour’s manifesto, not just the challenge but also the opportunity facing the Countryside Alliance becomes clear. Our parliamentary operation exists primarily to help parliamentarians understand the realities of the rural way of life, guiding them towards policies and positions that work for rural communities, not against them: that is the focus of our Rural Charter. The same is true for the government. The stark gap in knowledge about the countryside, both in government and parliament, is one we are well placed to fill. 

Never has it been more important for a parliament to hear the voice of the countryside. To help us raise the volume, please consider joining the Countryside Alliance today. 

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