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Tim Bonner: The battle for rural votes

‘Labour will treat the countryside with respect’. ‘Only the Conservatives can be trusted on rural issues’. These are the messages of the two main parties to the countryside in the General Election and both were on display at The Countryside Alliance Foundation’s Future Countryside conference in the West London rural oasis of Syon Park on Tuesday. Both parties can further their case by endorsing our Rural Charter which we are publishing today.

Labour’s Shadow Defra Secretary, Steve Reed, said that if his party is elected “people from urban areas – like me – will not tell people who live and work in the countryside how they should live their lives”. He outlined Labour’s vision for rural Britain and ended with a rallying cry for the environment: “Without nature there is no economy, no food, no health and no society.”

Later, current Defra Secretary, Steve Barclay, reiterated the Conservative’s commitment to the countryside and the farming community saying that: “For me, the priority for the countryside is to ensure that food production is uppermost, as the golden thread through all our policy”, and he added, “we are committed to nature, we are committed to the environment, but we are doing so in a way that works with our farming and our food production.”

Their contributions were part of an impressive day of speeches and discussions involving a diverse range of influential rural figures including the Duke of Northumberland, who welcomed us to his London home, Welsh farmer and NFU representative, Abi Reader, Marks and Spencer Chairman, Archie Norman, National Trust Chair, Rene Olivieri, and Dame Fiona Reynolds.

His Majesty The King sent a letter of support to the conference saying: “The shared passion demonstrated here for a vibrant future for rural communities and landscapes is inspiring”, and sent “warmest good wishes to all those who are gathered at Syon Park.”

The themes of Future Countryside, especially sustaining rural communities whilst tackling the huge challenges of climate change and nature recovery, are reflected in the Alliance’s Rural Charter which is published today and which we will be promoting to all political parties.

The Charter asks politicians to make five pledges to:

  • Recognise the role of wildlife management and the value of trail hunting, shooting and fishing
  • Tackle the blight of rural crime
  • Champion British farmers and producers
  • Deliver a connected countryside
  • Respect rural communities

Most importantly we need you to deliver the Rural Charter and as soon as we have contact details for all relevant parliamentary candidates (nominations close tomorrow) then we will be emailing you next week with a link to our election lobby which will allow you to contact all candidates in your constituency with one click.

Meanwhile, we also expect the launch of the major parties' manifestos next week. Labour has signalled a commitment to legislate on trail hunting which would seem to contradict the claim that it respects rural communities, the Conservatives will need to explain how its repeated commitment to the countryside will deliver better outcomes than it has in recent years and the Liberal Democrats will have an opportunity to show that they have a coherent rural agenda, rather than seeing the countryside as a series of target seats.

A wise man once said that you never have more influence as a voter than in the weeks before a general election, and that you never have less than in the months after. Take the opportunity to lobby candidates now, face to face and through our lobby when we send it to you next week.

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