Labour has been 'out of touch with rural life' as Keir Starmer aims to turn around party's fortunes in the countryside

Labour must have a root and branch overhaul of its rural policies, the Countryside Alliance has said, as Sir Keir Starmer has said he is determined to win back county seats for the party.

Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to win an election, held 170 rural or semi-rural seats - or county constituencies outside main metropolitan areas - after the 1997 election, with many in Scotland and Wales.

But Labour has consistently battled an image of a metropolitan or urban party, perhaps recently made more potent by the election of Sir Keir - a London-based lawyer.

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But Sir Keir said he would be visiting farmers in the Yorkshire Dales and addressing rural issues as he aims to make Labour into a broad church worthy of winning an election again.

Sir Keir Starmer on a visit to Wakefield this week. Photo: PA

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post following a visit to the region this week, Sir Keir said: “My job is to restore trust in the Labour Party as a force for good and a force for change, but the way that I intend to begin building that trust - and it will take time, particularly the rural areas - is by being in rural areas talking to people, which is why I'm in Yorkshire today, and why I'll be continually doing this for weeks and months and years, listening to people on the ground in those rural areas.”

After the 2019 General Election, Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner said the result “completed the rout of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs in rural constituencies which was begun in 2005”.

And speaking to The Yorkshire Post yesterday he said Labour now held just 17 out of 199 rural constituencies.

He said: “They need to win a very large number of rural seats if they’re ever going to be a majority government again, and I think it does seem the case that Keir Starmer has recognised as started to act on that, but our view is he needs to go beyond just visiting rural constituencies, there’s a whole raft of attitudes that needs to change in the party and particularly, it’s about identifying those policies which are actually relevant to rural people.”

Mr Bonner previously said there had been a “determination of the Labour Party in particular to treat rural policy as a playground for metropolitan fads and fashions” which “clearly helped turn the countryside against it”, despite warning from the left-wing think tank, the Fabian Society.

He said focussing on issues such as hunting and grouse shooting had been “reflecting the prejudice of urban voters” and had put Labour “out of touch with the reality of rural life” where the real issues centred on transport, affordable housing, and jobs for people in their own communities.

And he said that while he did not think anyone would say Labour could win in Rishi Sunak’s constituency of Richmond, for example, it could win back many semi-rural former Red Wall seats with distinct policy change.

He said: “I think it's a wider attitude towards farming, land ownership, all those core principles of rural life.”

A report from think tank Onward last year suggested Labour could make gains in the countryside in years to come, with voting intention based more around age than location.

The report found that while young people were marginally more likely to vote Conservative if they live in rural areas compared to cities, the difference was within the margin of error.

They found 59 per cent of under-35s living in villages said they would vote Labour, compared to 16 per cent for the Conservatives, compared to 57 per cent and 18 per cent respectively for young city-dwellers.

If workplace trends following the pandemic cause young people to abandon cities for more rural living, then Labour could make inroads in these seats.

Sir Keir said: “You'll see me in Yorkshire a lot but it will be in rural areas as well because it is very important that we rebuild the Labour Party, the Labour movement, and that requires me as leader of the Labour Party to have those conversations.”