New polling suggests voters in the countryside are disappointed with the current coalition. But, as the Countryside Alliance's Tim Bonner explains, none of the political parties can take the rural vote for granted
Nearly nine out of 10 rural voters believe the coalition Government has not done enough for the countryside, according to a survey carried out for the Countryside Alliance recently.
I have to admit to being surprised that as many as 86 per cent of voters who defined themselves as “rural” felt the Government had “taken them for granted”. It is difficult to put your finger on exactly why people in the countryside are as dissatisfied as they clearly are with the current government. There has been no defining issue, no ban on hunting or handguns, for instance. Nor could shooting, farming or other rural interest groups claim their voices have not been heard and considered by ministers over the past four-and-a-half years.
On shooting, the Government could quite justifiably point out that one of the first acts it performed in 2010 was to withdraw and amend an unhelpful new code of practice on game rearing. Similarly, it was not pushed into new restrictions on firearms after the horrific killings by licensed gun owner Derrick Bird in Cumbria; it has worked with shooting groups on improving the licensing system; and it has, for the first time, issued licences for the destruction of buzzard nests.
Yet the polling, conducted by ORB in September, is certainly backed up by conversations I have had from one end of the country to the other. It suggests many shooting people, and others across the countryside, are disappointed by the Government’s performance since 2010. I suspect that a major problem for the Government has been heightened expectation, rather than simply a failure to deliver, combined with the obvious difficulties created by a coalition government and the need to cut spending across government.
In 2010, many in the countryside expected something fundamentally different after 13 years of a Labour government, which had an increasingly urban focus and attitude. In fact, what they got is largely more of the same: arguments about the Common Agricultural Policy and general licences; rural services still in retreat; rural broadband and mobile phone services still barely adequate; and politicians still scared to face down the nonsense of the animal rights and environmental movements.
DEFRA and its agencies seem just as distant from practical land managers as they did five years ago, and critically the Government as a whole has often seemed just as urban-centric as rural Conservative and Lib Dem MPs claimed the last Labour administration was.
The language of Government
The wording of our poll was carefully thought through. We asked whether people felt the Government had “taken them for granted”, because that was a phrase which had been put to us again and again. It seems that the issue for many people is as much about the look and language of the Government as it is about what it has, or has not, delivered. David Cameron may have stalked plenty of deer and ridden to hounds, and half the Cabinet may spend their winter Saturdays on a peg, but none of them will talk about it publicly.
The prevailing political norm is that only a few voters in a few marginal seats actually matter, and that many of them would be put off by the thought of politicians who shoot things, wear tweed and have muddy wellies. Therefore, whatever the truth, the image must be urban metrosexual, not rural backwoodsman.
There is a problem with this theory, however, and its name is Nigel Farage. The UKIP leader breaks every rule: he wears tweed, is more than ready to talk about his love of shooting and fishing, and will happily be pictured shaking a huntsman’s hand. Contrary to the accepted wisdom of the main political parties, this has done his party no harm — in fact, it has had the opposite effect.
UKIP is hoovering up votes from other parties, though not just among rural voters. Our research suggests that UKIP is just as popular in towns as it is in cities. Clacton, where UKIP has just won a by-election, is not often described as a rural constituency, nor is Rochester-and-Strood, in Kent, where it had another recent win. The catch with UKIP is its rural policies, which alternate between the odd and the insane.
If UKIP has a role, perhaps it is to challenge the cult of political orthodoxy, which suggests that association with unfashionable minorities leads inevitably to electoral defeat. After all, Farage is
not alone in retaining his popularity despite public support for such outcasts. Boris Johnson has the biggest personal vote of any elected politician in Britain, yet he is perfectly willing to speak up for every benighted minority from bankers to foxhunters.
Despite the tiny, noisy minority of animal rights activists who are desperate to have you believe otherwise, issues such as shooting and hunting have a negligible impact on how people vote. There could not be a better example than the CA’s recently retired chairman, Kate Hoey MP, who is so clear about her support for hunting and shooting. Despite a nasty personal campaign run by animal rights activists in her inner London constituency, Kate was one of the very few Labour MPs who actually increased their majority at the last election. Certainly, the voters of Vauxhall were not of the opinion that her staunch views made her “unelectable”.
No-one expects British political party leaders to stage photocalls in full shooting garb in the style of US presidential candidates, but at least those of our representatives who enjoy shooting could be open about their activities.
Our research also revealed a split in the political parties that people in the countryside said they would vote for in next year’s General Election. Of those who had decided how they will vote, 22 per cent said they would vote for the Conservatives, 20 per cent for Labour and 17 per cent for UKIP, but despite this, 38 per cent still thought their future was best served by the Conservative party.
This shows that none of the political parties can take the rural vote for granted. Rural people do not believe that the current government has delivered for them, but nor are they attracted by what Labour has to offer. This is not surprising when at least some in the Shadow Cabinet seem to view rural issues as an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the Government rather than to engage with the countryside. In particular, a series of pronouncements from Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and Diana Johnson MP, Shadow Crime and Security Minister, proposing “the biggest change to firearms legislation since the handguns ban in 1998”, seem designed to alienate the UK’s 700,000 gun owners.
This contrasts sharply with the position Labour took before and after the 1997 General Election, when it worked extremely hard to allay concerns in the rural community, and subsequently claimed to be the party of the countryside with more than 100 rural seats.
As for the Liberal Democrats, its polling woes are well known, but so is the resilience of its sitting MPs, especially those in rural constituencies who often command a sizeable personal vote. However low the Liberal Democrat poll ratings, no one expects the votes of long-serving rural Lib Dem MPs in the West Country, Wales, Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland to collapse, not least because, as individuals, many of them have consistently stood up for rural interests.
So as a General Election looms, the rural vote is still up for grabs. The next six months will provide an opportunity for all political parties to put rural issues at the heart of their agenda and to state their intentions to the countryside.