The Countryside Alliance is marking its 20th anniversary by asking supporters for their photographs...Read more
On Sunday the Alliance was in Liverpool for the Labour Party conference. In the 20 years I have been attending their conference the Labour Party has gone from being the long-term party of government, to defeat in four general elections, to an unelectable far-Left rabble, to a party now perceived by many as the government in-waiting. Whether or not Keir Starmer does inherit the keys to 10 Downing Street is down to the voters, but many have already placed their bets and Liverpool was buzzing with lobbyists and big businesses keen to make their case to the people they believe will be in power after a general election which is almost certain to happen next year.
For us the big question is what would a Labour government mean for the countryside and at our fringe meeting we quizzed shadow Defra Minister Daniel Zeichner and a panel of experts on what what Labour’s policy would be for the future of the countryside.
First the bad news. Hunting remains a “totemic issue for the Labour Party”, as the late Tony Banks described it, and it looks almost certain that there will be a manifesto commitment to legislate against it. Labour’s National Policy Forum has produced a programme, including a proposal to legislate on hunting, which was endorsed by the conference this week. Quite how Labour intends to ban hunting again is yet to be seen, but there is only so much it can do before it starts to come into conflict with the sort of basic human rights it espouses in every other part of life.
The better news is that apart from hunting, the current Labour leadership seems less keen to engage in wasteful rural culture wars than some of its predecessors. Game shooting is off the agenda and, despite internal pressure, there is no commitment yet to extend the ‘right to roam’. Firearms legislation remains a live issue, and there will be continuing pressure to regulate the ownership of shotguns in the same way as rifles and other firearms, but again there is no official policy.
At our fringe meeting Ben Cooper from the influential think tank, the Fabians, described the “cultural aversion” rural voters have for Labour which is clearly shown by opinion research. The solution for Labour has been repeated in any number of reports on Labour’s rural problem from MPs, the Fabians and the Alliance over the last decade. It needs to stop the bad habit of playing politics in the countryside and focus rural policy on delivering for rural communities rather than doing things to them. Keir Starmer has signalled that this is his direction of travel, but will need to do much more than just talk the talk if he is to win over rural Britain. Nothing would send a clearer message than if he were to walk away from a pointless and divisive new battle over hunting.