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Sunak or Starmer? The countryside decides

Rishi Sunak has called a general election on 4 July and the countryside will be a key electoral battleground. There are dozens of marginal seats up for grabs across rural Britain which were turned almost entirely blue by the Conservatives in 2019. As we have been telling the Labour Party for five years, its path to No 10 has to go through the countryside. The party that can convince the rural electorate that it shares their values, and most importantly their priorities, will go a long way to winning what looks like being an epoch defining election.

The Alliance has been preparing for this moment for a long time. We have been tracking the selection of candidates, engaging with them, and promoting the issues that matter to you. With your help we have also been carrying out a face-to-face lobby of candidates in the 150 most marginal rural constituencies. That is a job we now need to complete urgently, so if you receive an email asking for your help in your constituency, please respond.

As soon as candidates are confirmed, we will also be launching our Rural Manifesto and giving you the opportunity to send that to all those standing to be your next MP. It is critical that as many people as possible engage with this campaign, so please take part and, as importantly, share with as many people as possible who care about the future of the countryside.

The election in the countryside looks likely to be won and lost on the issue of priorities. At the last election the Labour Party campaigned in the countryside on an agenda that was largely about restrictions on the rural way of life. Unsurprisingly, that strategy failed spectacularly and even the Shadow Defra Secretary was defeated in a previously safe rural seat. Meanwhile, the Conservatives asked us to trust them on rural issues and then, in government, pursued an agenda which included legislation as damaging and irrelevant as the Animal Sentience Act and the Trophy Hunting Bill, whilst signing trade deals that undercut animal welfare and farmers.

Since the current prime minister took charge, the government has realigned its rural agenda with the priorities of rural people, but trust is hard to regain. The Liberal Democrats are looking to win back many of the rural seats which they have lost since 2015 but, after nearly a decade in which they have sometimes seemed to be disengaged from rural issues, they need to prove that they see the countryside as more than an electoral opportunity. In Scotland, the SNP will be battling both the consequences of its ill-fated partnership with the Greens and a series of legislative attacks on rural Scotland.

A significant moment in the battle for the countryside will come with the publication of the parties’ manifestos. The Alliance has provided input on what we believe they should be prioritising: tackling rural crime; spreading the burden of renewable energy generation; delivering fair funding for rural services; maximising digital connectivity; and promoting sustainable livestock farming. The first major hurdle for all parties is whether they have taken those proposals on board, or whether they revert to policies that are more about doing things to the countryside than doing things for it. Hunting will, as ever, be a totemic issue and if Labour follows through on its commitment to more legislation that will overshadow everything else on its rural agenda. It will also be a direct challenge to the claim that Keir Starmer has changed Labour, because nothing is more symbolic of the party’s historic detachment from rural Britain than its obsession with hunting.

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