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Tim Bonner: Labour's damaging obsession

It would be difficult to find a more pointless campaign than an attempt to get a council to ban trail hunting on its land when no hunts operate on the council's land and the council does not even own any land that is suitable for hunting. Yet, in a move that is reminiscent of 1980's 'loony left' councils declaring themselves Nuclear Free Zones when no one had the slightest interest in storing a nuclear warhead or building a reactor in their leafy suburbs, some councillors in the most unlikely places are determined that trail hunting should not take place where it does not take place.

This week Bolsover Council in Derbyshire considered such a motion. Despite the impact of the pandemic on the citizens of Bolsover and beyond, Labour Cllr. Nick Clarke had decided that trail hunting was an urgent priority in the M1 corridor and the full council was set to debate this crucial issue. Cllr. Clarke's campaign, however, came to a rather ignominious end when the Council Leader revealed that it owned just 5½ acres of land, and an official confirmed that the car parks and allotments that make up the council's property portfolio are not visited by hounds.

You could just view this as a bit of silliness which has wasted a bit of council time and made Cllr. Clarke look rather foolish, but the political geography of Bolsover suggests it says something much more fundamental about the Labour party and the countryside. Bolsover could hardly be a better example of the 'red wall' seats that had voted Labour for generations, but were lost by the party in the 2019 General Election. Dennis Skinner, the 'Beast of Bolsover', had held Bolsover for 49 years, but was beaten by over 5,000 votes. All around in neighbouring seats like Bassetlaw, Don Valley, Rother Valley, Ashfield, High Peak and Penistone & Stocksbridge, the same story was repeated as Conservatives unseated Labour MPs. Bolsover was absolutely at the centre of the cataclysmic collapse in Labour's vote that led to the Conservatives' historic victory.

Much has been talked about the 'red wall' constituencies, but as we pointed out in our report 'Labour's Rural Problem – the Elephant in the Countryside' many in Labour have ignored the fact that most of these seats have a significant rural element, and that Labour's approach to rural issues was one of the factors that had progressively detached these voters from the Labour Party. Prejudiced attacks on people who hunt and shoot might amuse Labour's supporters in Islington, but in those constituencies where people actually carry out those activities it made Labour look at best out of touch with local priorities, and at worst openly aggressive towards a significant part of the community.

Shortly after the 2019 General Election I contrasted the crowd that gathered in Sedgefield, Tony Blair's old constituency - which was another rural 'red wall' seat that fell to the Conservatives - to support the South Durham Hunt, with the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who had called Boxing Day meets "disgraceful". Labour's leader has changed, but unfortunately as Labour Councillors in places like Bolsover and many Labour MPs in Westminster have shown, the attitude of many in the party to the countryside has not. Until it does, Labour will face an uphill struggle to win the many rural constituencies it needs if it is ever again to form a government.

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