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Tim Bonner: Will Labour attack the countryside?

The Welsh Government’s decision to push back its proposals to license the release of gamebirds and United Utilities’ rapid reversal of its plans to ban game shooting on its land are welcome moves by institutions which have faced massive opposition from the rural community. The Welsh government’s agency, National Resources Wales, received an overwhelming response to its consultation on licensing and we believe the vast majority of those who commented on the proposal were from the shooting community. Meanwhile, United Utilities was inundated with emails and was hammered in the media in response to its announcement that it was to end game shooting leases on its land, with at least 7,000 emails coming from our members and supporters alone.

What this reaction proves, again, is that the countryside will react with anger to unjustified attacks on activities like game shooting, especially when they seem to be ideological or ignorant. The obvious question is what bodies like the Welsh Government and United Utilities think they might gain. Game shooting is irrelevant to the vast majority of the population. Several hundred thousand people take part in it and tens of thousands rely on it for their jobs, meanwhile, a small number of extremists - usually with a political motivation - oppose it. For the rest of the population it simply does not register as an issue.

That is a message that some in politics understand, but others do not. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party went into the last General Election with a manifesto commitment to restrict game farming and consult on banning grouse shooting. It, like the Labour Party in Wales, was openly hostile to game shooting and many other rural activities. This was part of a divisive agenda which it sought to impose on the countryside and which the countryside roundly rejected. Famously, Labour went into the last election with an agenda so out of touch with the concerns of rural communities that it was ejected almost entirely from the countryside.

The issues have not changed as we approach an election in 2024, but the question is, has Labour? Keir Starmer may be assiduously courting farmers and the wider countryside, but will Labour policy match his rhetoric? Game shooting will be a bellwether issue along with Labour policy on an extension of right to roam, firearms ownership and, of course, hunting. Would Labour, in government, revert to ideological attacks on minorities it wants to identify itself as ‘against’ or would it work with rural communities on an agenda that addresses their needs, from affordable housing and transport to the development of a sustainable, managed countryside? That is the question that will in large part decide both its success in rural constituencies and the immediate future of the countryside in the event that Labour does form the next government. Keir Starmer would be wise to learn from the mistakes of his colleagues in Wales and focus on those issues that matter to rural people, not those that would enrage them.

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