The elephant in the countryside

GUEST POST: Edward Rowlandson is Political Relations Manager at the Countryside Alliance. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

There is a stark contrast in fortunes between the Conservative Party and The Labour Party when it comes to the rural electorate. The Conservatives hold 177 of the 199 rural seats in England and Wales, Labour hold 17. The complete dominance of the Conservative Party has in turn awarded the Party the keys to No.10 in 2015, 2017 and 2019. The Conservatives know how to win in rural seats, whereas Labour has a problem.

The Countryside Alliance’s recent report explores Labour’s relationship with the countryside. The report focuses on Labour’s electoral fortunes in rural England and Wales over the past three general elections. As first recognised by Maria Eagle, Labour MP for Garston and Halewood, after the 2015 election, Labour had (and still has) a rural problem. However, it has been widely ignored by most in The Labour Party.

Labour did not always ignore the rural electorate. When it won the 1997 and 2001 general elections it boasted over 100 rural MPs reaching into the Conservative rural heartlands. At that time, Labour chose to engage with rural voters. However, over time the countryside and Labour have grown further and further apart. Constituency boundaries may have changed, but that cannot hide the situation Labour now finds itself in.

After the 2019 general election much has been made of Labour losing its ‘red wall’, but not much analysis or thought has been given to the complete collapse of Labour’s rural vote – losing 15 seats and going backwards in every rural seat it held. Yet, despite Labour’s worst result in the countryside (and country) since 1935 Labour continued, under Jeremy Corbyn, to prioritise the activities taken in the countryside rather than on the priorities of the countryside. During the Agriculture Bill Committee stages Labour attempted to stop anyone who had used a dog to hunt (including rats) from receiving future agriculture subsidies. Even when drafting problems were highlighted with the junior Shadow Defra Minister, she pressed the amendment to a vote. If it were not for Conservative colleagues in the committee, every farmer would not be entitled to any agricultural subsidy. This was a party that clearly did not understand the countryside nor was it willing to listen to those rural colleagues to the impact that their proposed amendments would cause. Defra Secretary of State, George Eustice, is right when he said: “Nationally, the Conservative Party has always had a much stronger affinity and understanding with rural communities, whether that is agricultural communities, but many others besides who have been farmers themselves and so understand that particular area.” In this instance, Labour’s actions proved the Secretary of State completely right.

However, under Sir Keir Starmer, The Labour Party has been more open to engagement with rural voters, and Luke Pollard, Shadow Defra Minister, wants to make Labour “the party of the countryside” and has even acknowledged Labour’s rural problem: “I think what we need to understand is that the route back to power, the way of winning back many of those communities is to recognise that we need to be there.”

It remains to be seen whether Labour will be able to fulfil their ambitions, however their admission of its rural problem is one that the Conservatives should note. If Labour start to challenge in the countryside Conservatives will have to match that challenge. Ironically the Labour 2019 general election strategy of targeting only urban seats worked – it now holds most of them. Therefore, the sooner it closes the gap in the countryside the closer it gets to No.10. The task for the Conservative Party is to maintain its dominance – currently at 89%. To do that the Conservatives have to show the rural electorate why they were right to put their trust in them. Polling from ORB International found that issues most important to the rural electorate are housing, healthcare and transport. These issues are the ones that need to be addressed; and will ultimately secure the Conservative Party continued success both in the countryside and in the country.  

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Social housing must be part of building plans to help boost the economy

Aisha Vance-Cuthbert is Co-Director of Conservatives in Communications and Head of Communications at a large housing association

This morning, in Dudley, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will unveil his taskforce ‘Project Speed’ – chaired by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak – aimed at accelerating building and infrastructure projects to get the UK economy moving again as we slowly emerge from lockdown.

This move is welcomed by the construction industry, and those who are both directly and indirectly employed by the sector. However, what we need – in addition to schools, infrastructure and market sale / rent homes – are new social homes for the millions of people who are currently in expensive, temporary and often poor-quality accommodation.

The Government has already signalled that it understands and wants to solve the housing and homelessness crisis, which go hand-in-hand. For example, only last week, the Government announced an extra £105 million in funding to help keep rough sleepers off the streets.

The trouble is, as noble as this sounds, most councils have depleted the cash because of the lack of available social housing. For the most part, the only available option is to place people in expensive nightly-paid accommodation, hotels or bed and breakfasts. And this is exactly why the Government must invest in high quality social homes – to help tackle rough sleeping, solve the housing crisis and save the taxpayer millions.

There’s also a ‘levelling up’ argument. After the general election, I wrote an article for The Times Red Box on why building more social housing would reward millions of voters along the Red Wall. The Conservatives ‘borrowed’ millions of votes from Labour, giving them a significant, working majority.

Specifically, I highlighted a YouGov poll of undecided voters carried out on behalf of the National Housing Federation. It found that 80% of ‘Labour Leavers’ worry about their housing costs. It also found that housing matters more to ‘Labour Leavers’ than crime. In fact, they signalled that housing is the fourth most important issue after Brexit, the NHS and immigration.

I welcome the Government’s ambition to re-boot the economy; creating local jobs and supporting our public services. But, I hope that it will also include building more affordable homes. Building homes – of all tenures – will help kick-start the economy while, at the same time, protecting our public finances.

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Red wall, blue sea

Lionel Zetter is Patron of Conservatives in Communications

In the end, it wasn’t even close. The polls had showed Labour closing the gap in the final few days of the campaign, but there was no surge. Soufflés really don’t rise twice, and the ‘magic grandpa’ had lost his sparkle.

The CCHQ team had always wanted this to be an election focused on Brexit, and they largely got their way. But it was not just about the principle of Brexit itself. Most people wanted Brexit out of the headlines and off of the front pages, but they also wanted the normal functioning of government to resume. 

But perhaps even more important was the issue of trust. If you promise not to raise tuition fees and then treble them, as the Liberal Democrats did in 2010, then you get hammered. If you stand on a manifesto to respect the result of the EU referendum, as both Labour and the Lib Dems did in 2017, and then you constantly seek to block Brexit, then you get hammered.

The fact that much of the discontent with the non-delivery of Brexit was concentrated in the neglected Labour heartlands of the Midlands and the North acted as a double whammy. People in those regions wanted Brexit delivered, but they had originally voted for Brexit because they felt neglected by Westminster, and ignored by the Labour Party. So like Trump supporters in the ’fly over’ states of the US they refused to change their minds, and they demanded to be heard.

There was also poor targeting on the part of Labour. Both the party machine and the parallel Momentum organisation concentrated their resources on Corbynista candidates, rather than on those who most needed support. This cost them unity, and it cost them votes, and it cost them seats. The fall-out from this will rumble on for months, if not years.

By contrast CCHQ did a great job. When it came to strategy Isaac Levido provided calm, whilst Dominic Cummings – as ever – provided inspiration. The cyber war was master-minded by two young kiwis, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin. Meantime the mainstream media was effectively marshalled by Lee Cain and Rob Oxley and a team of experienced press officers, many of whom had worked for Boris on and off over the years since his first mayoral bid.

But the main reason Labour lost and we won was because of the respective leaders. Boris came across as a dynamic leader with a strong focus and clear priorities – including, of course, getting Brexit done. Of course there were mis-steps, including pocketing a journalists phone and escaping in to a walk-in fridge. But generally Boris came across well, with his trademark good humour and with his bright young politically-engaged partner by his side. Parading Dilyn the rescue dog also worked well – an estimated 9.9 million households in the UK own a dog.

By contrast Jeremy Corbyn came across as old, tired, testy, petulant – and (more importantly) nasty. He may not be an anti-semite himself, but he certainly seems to enjoy the company of people who are. This cost him votes not just in the handful of seats with large Jewish populations, but also amongst the wider electorate, who hate discrimination and loathe bullies.

So, the fabled ‘red wall’ has crumbled, and it has been replaced by a ‘blue sea’. And let’s face it, seas are stronger and more durable than walls. Now the task – fully recognised by CCHQ and Number Ten – is to justify the faith placed in us by all those former Labour supporters who loaned us their votes in order to ‘get Brexit done’, and to keep Corbyn out of Number Ten.

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