Rural-phobic Labour has a vendetta against the countryside

Ledbury, Herefordshire, UK. 26th December 2023: Inquisitive hounds gather outside The Feathers Hotel. / Hundreds of people gather in Ledbury High Street for the annual festive meet of the Boxing Day Ledbury Hunt
Ledbury, Herefordshire, UK. 26th December 2023: Inquisitive hounds gather outside The Feathers Hotel. / Hundreds of people gather in Ledbury High Street for the annual festive meet of the Boxing Day Ledbury Hunt

One of the untold stories of this election is the crisis facing the Conservatives in rural England. There are seats here that have voted Tory since the Reform Act or before which are now looking like they might switch to Labour or the Lib Dems.

The fact that the PM spent Tuesday campaigning in Sir Geoffrey Cox’s new seat of Torridge and Tavistock, previously home to a circa 25,000 Conservative majority, testifies to the party’s electoral malaise. In 2019, the Tories won all but two of the “deeply rural” seats. This time, Labour could win half of them. Rural voters should be careful what they wish for.

Sir Keir Starmer recently vowed to end the “divisive” era of culture wars (hilariously implying that the Left never starts them). Yet front and centre of his rural commitments is not a statement on farming or on crime or on anything else that actually comes up in country life, but a ban on trail hunting.

This is an obvious case of throwing a bone to Labour’s Left-flank, plus the well-heeled pressure groups within its ranks. The policy appears rooted in vindictiveness, with neither evidence nor necessity propelling its introduction.

Since hounds cannot be domesticated, what does Labour intend to do with these estimated 12,000 animals when there are no longer funds to care for them, and their keepers have been made redundant? With an overstretched police presence as it is, the idea that chasing a scented rag should be prioritised over burglaries and machete attacks can only come from one place – a sort of rural-phobia.

The targeting of trail hunting epitomises Labour’s approach. Prior to being elected MP for the loamy acres of Croydon North, shadow environment secretary Steve Reed was a councillor in Lambeth. For the current Labour frontbench, rural areas are like Chamberlain’s Czechoslovakia; a far-off land of which we know nothing.

They know nothing, and say less. Tucked away in the “Make Britain a clean energy superpower” section of the Labour manifesto is a single paragraph on farming; 87 words, amid more than 130 pages of padding, word salad and photos of Sir Keir.

One of the party’s few tangible pledges is to end “ineffective” badger culls – even though, this year, the most rigorous analysis of its kind found that rates of bovine TB in cattle had fallen on average by 56 per cent in the first cull areas after four years. That Labour has chosen to misrepresent the impact of culling is telling; placing evidence-free sentimentality above farmers’ interests.

The list goes on. Until recently, Labour was gleefully demanding a Scottish-style universal “right to roam” in England, despite its higher proportion of residents and farming land. It plans to raise firearms licensing fees; proceeds to be diverted towards violent crime prevention schemes for urban youths. Quite why legal firearm-owners in rural areas must be financially responsible for city knife attacks is not explained. Clearly, some in Labour view the countryside as a Barbour-jacketed ATM to be pillaged.

Then there is the insanity of Welsh Labour’s “Sustainable Farming Scheme”, which would harm food security and place unrealistic burdens on farmers; bribing them to commit 10 per cent of their land to tree-planting schemes, plus a further 10 per cent for environment and wildlife. The Welsh government has pushed for this, even after its own impact assessment estimated an 11 per cent cut in labour on Welsh farms, the equivalent of 5,500 jobs. Welsh Labour’s illiberal 20mph zones and road-building bans also drew farmers’ wrath, contributing to the mass protests earlier this year.

Labour’s plans to boost house-building are long overdue and, to my mind, the most commendable part of its manifesto. The trouble is that encouraging relentless population growth, as our political class has done from Tony Blair onwards, threatens to absorb much of it. Britain needs as many as 500,000 new homes annually to meet population growth. Will Labour’s plans be accompanied by a similar drive to reduce migration? If not, how much of the countryside must then be devoted to building?

There is already a serious issue with rural Britain being overlooked by a political system that prioritises the majority; the realities of country life are rarely reflected in debates about green policies; from wood-burning stoves to electric cars.

Memories are long in rural areas and many people will still remember the pyres of burning livestock during foot and mouth, the loss of livelihood and culture over the hunting ban (which Blair later cited as one of his biggest political mistakes).

Of course, many in rural areas are furious with the Conservatives, too, and with good reason. The state of our waterways, the lack of support for farmers, the neglect of problems like flooding and rural crime: Tory administrations have at times treated the countryside shamefully. Some rural seats, deemed “safe as houses”, became a dumping ground for Central Office urbanites who needed or wanted an easy ride into Westminster; or a reward for Spads who have rarely left SW1.

Conservative incompetence and arrogance risk handing Labour many of these seats, but where there is a diligent incumbent Tory MP, rural voters might consider holding their nose and backing them. The idea that anyone under the Labour whip will have the interests of the countryside at heart is for the birds. Country-dwellers, in their anger, risk voting in those with an active vendetta against them.