“Urban snobbery”: The Countryside Alliance on Labour’s “rural problem”

Elliot Chappell

The Countryside Alliance has published a report on Labour’s “rural problem”. The document tracks how the party has experienced successively worse election results among countryside voters, describing it as the “elephant loose in the countryside”.

The paper accuses Labour, particularly under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, of conflating ‘rural issues’ with animal welfare. It also argues that Labour is perceived by rural voters as viewing them with “urban snobbery”. The organisation calls for Labour to “engage with the rural electorate and focus on what matters to them, and not simply manipulate rural issues to appeal further to its increasingly urban base”.

In the foreword, Labour peer and Countryside Alliance president Ann Mallalieu QC writes: “Most worrying is the refusal of the party to address its rural failure… Post-election analysis from all parts of the party has completely ignored Labour’s rejection in the countryside.”

From 2015…

The report starts with a 2015 report by Maria Eagle after Ed Miliband’s failed attempt to win power away from Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. The Labour MP described the party’s main problem with rural communities as a “disconnect and mischaracterisation of the countryside”.

After 2015, Labour was left with just 30 rural constituencies out of a possible 199. But the Countryside Alliance says this “small number of rural seats does not tell the full story of the significance of Labour’s problem”. Of the 17 rural seats that the Lib Dems lost, the Tories won 16 and Labour only one.

The Countryside Alliance states that Labour strategy in 2015 “conflated animal rights with rural policy”. The report agrees with Eagle that Labour misunderstood rural voters as being concerned only with issues of sporting or farming, adding that “rather than seeking to appeal to the rural electorate Labour instead focused on animal rights”.

On to 2017…

“In 2017 Labour’s electoral strategy worked in urban seats, maximising its support, however Labour failed to make significant gains in rural constituencies. If Labour had won just two more rural seats, it would have made a Conservative confidence and supply agreement with the DUP impossible,” the Countryside Alliance concludes.

Labour performed better than expected in 2017 and, following the election, needed 64 seats to form a majority government. This meant securing a 3.6% swing across the UK, or a 5.9% swing in England and Wales. Of those 64 constituencies, 17 were rural. But the Countryside Alliance says a “final push” narrative after the election “masked the rural problem”.

The review emphasises that Labour held just 16% of rural constituencies after the election, adding: “The better than expected result masked the shift away from Labour in its heartlands that would later turn Conservative later in 2019.” The organisation highlights that the Tories led Labour by 54% to 31% in rural communities, while Labour won in urban areas by 46% to 37%.

The group also writes that a perception among rural voters had built up over several Labour administrations that the party “viewed them with ‘urban snobbery’ and thought of them as ‘a bit stupid or thick’, ‘backward’ or ‘country bumpkins’”. Again, it argues that Labour had damaged its chances by conflating ‘rural issues’ with that of animal welfare.

2019 and beyond…

Labour now holds just 17 out of the 199 rural seats in England and Wales. The party lost all the rural seats gained in 2017, and the Countryside Alliance explains that Labour would need a 12% swing across England and Wales to overturn the government. For countryside seats, this figure is 18.4%.

The analysis criticises Labour’s 2019 ten-point rural policy platform. In particular, for placing “strengthening the Hunting Act” as the second priority and for including commitments such as “creating an international crime of ecocide, introducing an animal welfare commissioner and banning the badger cull”.

The organisation complains that not until point nine of its plan did Labour commit to a “specific policy aimed at doing something for rural people” with the pledge to boost funding to tackle rural and wildlife crime.

The report says: “Instead of working to pursue policy for the countryside, it doubled down on animal welfare that often crossed the line into animal rights… Instead of engaging rural voters and rural stakeholders, it went further than perhaps it ever had before in attempting to appeal to its urban voters at the expense of rural ones.”

The group also accuses Corbyn of having “continued to demonise the rural electorate and pursue an animal rights agenda” after the election. It cites written questions on bovine tuberculosis and attempts to amend the agriculture bill on shooting and hunting.

The opportunity…

The group argues Labour could “develop and make a flagship policy” out of the commitment in the 2019 manifesto to invest more in resources to tackle wildlife and rural crime. The paper highlights the importance of Brexit, and in particular the need to replace the common agricultural policy.

It also emphasises the impact of a “lack of broadband infrastructure serving small firms” in rural communities. At the election, Labour pledged to deliver Fibre to the Premises to everyone by 2030 and offer it free of charge. Labour would have nationalised the infrastructure arm of BT, Openreach.

The Countryside Alliance declares that “hunting is not a priority with the electorate”, referring to polling that found less than 1% of the electorate mentioned hunting as a priority. Asked about the potential for Labour’s position on animal welfare and shooting to lose the party support, shadow minister Daniel Zeichner told the recent Labour Coast and Country conference: “I’ve never been of that view in rural areas. We’ve got a principled position as a party. It’s something that many of us feel passionate about – and many, many people in rural areas share that view.”

The central message from the 30-page review of Labour’s problem with the countryside is clear. It urges a “reset” of the party’s relationship with countryside voters and organisations, including the Countryside Alliance and the National Farmers’ Union. It suggests that these groups are best placed to identify and understand the priorities of the countryside, and in the best position to help Labour place rural voters on par with its urban supporters.

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