Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has written for the Countryside Alliance's membership magazine...Read more
Labour’s relationship with the countryside has been soured for decades by the poisonous debate over the hunting ban, but in a new interview with Country Life magazine, leader Sir Keir Starmer has continued his attempt to rehabilitate its reputation with rural communities. In the past Labour has accepted the Countryside Alliance’s critique that its agenda for the countryside was out of step with the priorities of rural people and Sir Keir has talked about forging a new relationship between Labour and rural communities.
His latest intervention on rural issues perhaps goes a step further in stating that he wants Labour to do politics with the countryside not to it. He also says that he has moved Labour “away from the game of gesture politics”, which reflects Lord Mandelson’s speech at our Future Countryside event when he specifically warned that it was “wrong for the left wing to stoke culture wars against rural minorities”.
Putting party political affiliations to one side, it is arguable that the last Labour government’s approach to rural issues - from the CROW Act which increased access rights to animal welfare issues like tail docking - was at least not unreasonable. Some such legislation might not have been welcome, but in each case Ministers addressed the most unacceptable elements. However, the history of New Labour and the countryside is almost entirely coloured by the Hunting Act and it was that single piece of legislation that contributed so much towards making Labour unelectable in rural constituencies for a political generation. That is a lesson the Labour party, and its leader, must never forget.
If Sir Keir is Prime Minister after next year’s General Election, and the bookmakers currently make Labour 4 to 1 ON to form the next government, he will face significant pressure from the left of the party to indulge in exactly the culture wars with the rural community that Lord Mandelson has warned against. There will be calls to further restrict hunting, game shooting and gun ownership as well as to introduce non-meat diets and abolish trespass on private property.
In his Country Life article, and he is the first Labour leader ever to write for the magazine, Sir Keir suggests that he will reject those calls, but he will not be surprised that there will be widespread scepticism about his commitment in rural communities. It is welcome that the leader of the Labour party is seeking to engage with the countryside for the first time in well over a decade, but he, and his newly appointed Secretary of State, Steve Reed, have much more to do to persuade rural voters that they will not fold to the significant element of their party which values prejudice over principle on rural issues.