"Labour must win over the rural electorate"

Sitting at the head of his sixth-generation, 130-year-old family business in rural North Yorkshire, Robert Smith sees daily the complex picture of issues affecting his community.

Tender issues around eco-balance and moorland management, and the sustainability of farming practice gives him pause as he ponders his priority list, alongside fears over young people's futures in traditional industries.

There is the post-Brexit debate over subsidies, he says, affordable homes, and chatter over a much-touted 'impending exodus' of urban communities in search of that 'rural idyll'.

Then there are fishing rights, which stand high on his agenda; he would dearly love to buy Whitby fish in a Whitby shop.

And at the mention of broadband, the co-director of Richardson & Smith, a traditional rural practice surveyors and estate agents and owners of Ruswarp livestock market, chuckles ironically, adding: "What broadband? That would certainly be music to my ears."

It is this intertwined tapestry of concerns which has for so long been considered as only solved by a Conservative government, with 87.5 per cent of Yorkshire’s rural or semi-rural constituencies voting blue in December.

And a major new report has found Labour has continually ignored the countryside, leading to a collapse in rural votes and the perception that the party only serves the urban electorate..

Research from the Countryside Alliance, shared exclusively with The Yorkshire Post, has found that not only has Labour consistently failed to produce policy that appeals to rural voters, but party activists in seats which were rural or semi-rural refused to recognise they were in fact rural.

And this has led to a collapse in the vote which would be essential for the party to be able to form a Government in the future.

The report, released today, details how after Tony Blair’s 1997 and 2001 wins, Labour held more than 170 out of the 199 seats deemed to be rural or semi-rural.

But by 2020 just 17 of those seats were red, prompting fears that without an overhaul of rural policy, the party’s chances at gaining the keys to No 10 in 2024 would be scuppered.

The report said: “It is a matter of simple electoral mathematics to say that if Labour are to have any chance of forming a government it must win over the rural electorate.”

And Baroness Mallalieu, president of the Countryside Alliance and Labour peer, said: “Labour’s rejection by rural communities cannot continue to be the elephant in the countryside.”

But for Mr Smith, who lives in the constituency of Scarborough and Whitby which has been a target for Labour in the past, that would be a tall mountain to climb.

"Out here, Labour just hasn't got a voice. They don't represent"
Robert Smith

"There are so many major issues here that are all very tangible and real and alive and that are shaping our futures," the 57-year-old said. "I'm trying to be broadminded and objective.

“But out here, Labour just hasn't got a voice. They don't represent. They've tried - it's almost as if they're swimming against the tide.

"Unfortunately the way Labour set their store out seems historically rooted in urban issues."

The area was highlighted as a potential target for Labour in the 2015 election, but Mr Smith describes the last Labour cabinet as "out of touch" with the heavy political issues which are shaping countryside communities.

"There is a misconception," he said. "There is almost a 'town vs country' perception divide - with rural areas tarnished with this brush that it's all about fox-hunting.

"The core of Whitby perhaps may well be left leaning, but I suspect the outlying areas may not and that is where the vote is proving powerful."

Robert Smith, director of Richardson and Smith, auctioneers, surveyors and estate agents, a 130 year old Whitby firm. (Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

On a visit to Yorkshire earlier this summer, new leader Sir Keir Starmer said he was committed to rural seats and said he would pay visits to the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors to garner opinion.

He said at the time: “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.”

Brian McDaid, who campaigned as the Labour candidate in Scarborough and Whitby in December said: “The constituency is one of the largest in the UK and one of the most rural and coupled with the time of the year, it was a challenge to cover all areas and meet everyone, but we worked hard to make sure we did.”

But the Countryside Alliance report released today found turning the tide would be a significant task, as Labour had continually been blind to its “rural problem” despite persistent warnings from left-leaning think tank the Fabian Society and an internal report produced as far back as five years ago.

Luke Pollard, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said he was determined Labour under Sir Keir would become the natural party of the countryside.

But George Eustice, his counterpart in government, 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.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

‘People feel like they are viewed a certain way by Labour’

Luke Raikes, Research Director at the Fabian Society, said: “There's got to be no no-go areas for Labour to get over the line in 2024, if you want to be a party of government, you have to be a party for the whole country.”

In analyses from the Fabian Society for the last three elections, the organisation said Labour was essentially ignoring the countryside vote and becoming more urban-focused.

And this is echoed in the new work from the Countryside Alliance, whose report said: “Much of the analysis of Labour’s defeat in 2019 has focused on the collapse of the ‘Red Wall’, but not enough has been said about the fact that so many of the seats it lost were rural.”

Mr Raikes said: “I was looking at some polling from a couple of years ago that the Countryside Alliance did that showed that a lot of people were very discontent with the Conservative government.

“I imagine that lots of people in rural communities are currently and obviously unhappy with the way things are being handled, and I think the problem is often largely on the Labour side, not actually even trying to engage with those people and their concerns. So while people may be put off by the Conservatives, they've rarely seen even an attempt by Labour to engage with them on a large and significant scale.”

He added that even when there had been policies in Labour manifestos that would benefit rural voters, “if people feel like they're viewed a particular way by Labour then the less likely [they are] to vote for them”.

And the assumption had appeared to be that the rural electorate was, for example, stuck in its ways, despite research showing it votes for the party it believes best represents its interests and is less tribal in its political loyalties than many in the Labour Party believe.

“There's so much more to the countryside than foxhunting and agriculture is more than tractors and tea rooms,” Mr Raikes said.

“There's a whole economy out there, often innovative, often hospitality, cafes and restaurants, public services, to people with particular challenges that Labour should ordinarily be seeking to support rather than often, to be honest, ignoring them and pretending they don't exist, or it seems like it sometimes.

“There are a lot of opportunities for Labour, but the difficulty is to not just criticise the Government's actions but to present a positive alternative.

"Labour has consistently failed to engage with the rural electorate"

“I think that's where Labour has been falling down in the past, particularly with regard to the Northern Powerhouse agenda and that narrative, which many people were sceptical about of course, but they wanted to see something positive and they got it from the Conservatives in the North in the so-called Red Wall.

“And Labour was often just criticising from the sidelines, rather than presenting a positive Labour version of Northern Powerhouse, so I think we need to really learn from that.”

The Countryside Alliance report concluded that by focusing on the urban voters Labour continually neglected the countryside and while continuing to do so will not reach anywhere near the number of MPs needed to topple Boris Johnson in 2024 or 2029.

The report said: “The inability, or perhaps even unwillingness, to resolve those issues has meant that Labour has consistently failed to engage with the rural electorate.”

And Baroness Mallalieu added: “I’m afraid that message was not learnt in the last election. Labour has to stop thinking about the countryside as a place of recreation for urban dwellers.”

But she revealed that she was more positive about the future, as she said Sir Keir had at least replied to the Countryside Alliance’s invitation to meet.

“There has been a very marked silence from a string of Labour leaders, but Keir Starmer responded saying yes, he would like to meet.”

She called on Sir Keir to bring together Labour members of the Commons and the Lords with rural interests in one group to help develop policy going forwards.

Hywel Lloyd, from campaign group Labour Coast and Country Group, said: “Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and perhaps Ed Miliband’s leadership, it was an urban party, which was quite a surprise under Jeremy because he grew up in Shropshire and gave his first speech in Nuneaton.”

Baroness Mallalieu, president of the Countryside Alliance (Photo: UK Parliament)

But he insisted there were strong Labour campaigners on the ground in these areas, and added: “We need to engage that activism. There are plenty of Labour people, it’s how we help share their stories.”

An internal report written by MP Maria Eagle following the 2015 election warned of the perils of ignoring these issues.

Ms Eagle’s leaked analysis said: “The perception problems are huge – not just rural votes’ perception of Labour, but more crucially Labour’s perception of rural voters.

“This problem goes from the top of the party to the bottom – for too many rurality is synonymous with Conservatism, and engaging with these communities is at best an afterthought, and at worst a complete waste of time.”

And the Countryside Alliance evaluation echoed this, saying it was still that “the significance of the rural problem cannot be overstated. Rural seats in England and Wales are Labour’s key to No.10, and why the Conservative Party remains there”.

Ribblesdale moorland near Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales. (Photo: James Hardisty)

"The credibility can take a long while"

In 2015 it was identified in Yorkshire and the Humber that Labour should target Beverley and Holderness, Calder Valley, Cleethorpes, Elmet and Rothwell, Keighley, Scarborough and Whitby, York Outer.

Just one of those seats, Keighley, went to Labour under John Grogan, but has now been retaken by the Tories.

By 2019 only Calder Valley and Scarborough and Whitby were Labour targets, but both still remained blue.

Mr Grogan, who was also MP for Selby when it was Labour’s most rural seat in the country, said: “Organisation is key in those areas and the bad news is it takes quite a long while, in Selby I stood three times before winning it, and just the absolute basics of standing, getting people to stand for the parish councils, for the rural districts and so on, building up the organisation and the credibility can take a long while.”

Former MP for Keighley, and Selby, John Grogan. (Photo: JPI Media)

He said he felt membership had held quite strongly in rural areas, with young people in rural constituencies being more likely to vote Labour, and he said: “I also think in terms of organisation across rural Yorkshire, we've got to be prepared to work with other what I would call progressive parties, liberals and greens and so on.

“I think, to, to claw back support in quite a short period which we're trying to do in the next less than five years now, when you've got Conservative strongholds, you've got to be prepared to speak to other parties, whether that is formal or whether that's informal cooperation, that's certainly what happened up to 1997 and thereafter”

One issue in recent years, the Countryside Alliance suggested, was the lack of any rural policy - or when it did appear, a conflation with animal rights issues.

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“By judging the communities on the activities they enjoy, the roles they carry out or even by the perceived social class associated with their livelihoods or activities, national policy was pursued that ignored issues in the countryside completely,” their report said.

Mr Grogan said if the only issues had been focussed on debates such as fox hunting, he never would have been elected. He said: “I went through the foxhunting debate when I was the Selby MP and I supported that ban and at one stage I had the Countryside Alliance at the time at my surgery in Tadcaster, on Saturday morning, surrounded by horses, perfectly peaceful, but what I would say is that people in the countryside on that debate, at that stage people felt as passionately one way or the other in the countryside as they did in the towns.

“It's not true that everyone in the countryside opposed the ban on fox hunting and things like that, that was not true at all, otherwise I never would have got elected in 2005.

“You've got to be pretty ruthless in opposition in looking for government policies which are going to cause trouble in the countryside,” he said.

"Rural voters are not all hunting and fishing, far from it"

“The obvious one for me at the moment is the planning reforms, which would seem to have two possibilities for the party to get stuck in on.

“One is it seems to be that no longer will big developments be linked to affordable housing, that will be done at a more national level, and two that there will be less opportunity for local people to get involved on local planning issues, and a lot of local politics in the countryside does involve local planning decisions, and that's where people cut their teeth as local politicians, so that would seem to me to be a possibility.”

One activist quoted in Ms Eagle’s 2015 report had said: “[Rural voters] are not all hunting and fishing, far from it. Indeed, it is the idea that somehow rural areas are only interested in these issues that does us harm.”

But Ms Eagle’s report revealed another problem, that even when Labour activists were campaigning in rural constituencies, many of their voters felt they were not rural.

One activist from Elmet and Rothwell quoted in Ms Eagle’s report said: ‘“Quite a lot of people within the constituency would not consider it to be rural in the first place, nor do I believe that the majority of people feel that they have rural issues”’ and another from Beverley and Holderness added: “We didn’t see ourselves as a rural constituency”.

However, the former has more than 50 per cent of its population in rural settlements and larger market towns, while the latter has more than 75 per cent.

By 2018 the Fabian Society concluded: “Rural communities, then, have an aversion to Labour that goes beyond what might be expected on the basis of demographics.

“The research we carried out [...] suggests that the reason for this underperformance in rural areas is a widespread perception that the political class doesn’t understand or care about rural areas, and that the Labour Party in particular is a party of the cities, by the cities and for the cities.”

Grassington, North Yorkshire. (Photo: James Hardisty)

"The manifesto focused on ways to restrict what those in the countryside could do"

By last year’s December’s election, the Countryside Alliance said things had only worsened, with a doubling down on animal welfare becoming Labour’s core ‘rural’ offering.

“The 50-point Animal Welfare Manifesto (AWM) became symbolic of how Labour both approached rural policy and viewed those who live in the countryside, and how it confused animal welfare with animal rights,” the Countryside Alliance said.

But as the AWM aimed to change the behaviour and practices of those who live and work in the countryside it represented a crude perception of rural communities, with a direct attack on rural pursuits including hunting and shooting, calling to ban hunting again and consult on a ban on grouse shooting.

Other policies called for restrictions on game farming, ending the badger cull, designed to tackle bovine tuberculosis in cattle, and expanding the definition of animal to include decapod crustaceans; intended to end the practice of boiling lobsters alive.

“The manifesto focused on ways to restrict what those in the countryside could do, be it professionally through their business practices, or recreationally through their leisure activities, ingraining the perception that the Labour Party does not understand or represent the countryside,” the Countryside Alliance said.

And they concluded that by polling day in 2019, Labour had gone further than it had before in focussing on urban voters over rural ones, resulting in a further 15 rural seats being lost.

Robert Goodwill, the Conservative MP for Scarborough and Whitby, said in the December election he had been surprised at the number of former Labour voters who had approached him in support.

He said: “And I don’t get the impression it’s a one off.”

The Countryside Alliance said that even after the election Labour continued to push anti-rural policies, such as using the Agriculture Bill, the most important piece of legislation for the farming community in 50 years, to attack shooting and hunting or stating that grouse are imported to be shot, when this is not the case.

And the Countryside Alliance report said: “Labour has always had policies that would benefit rural communities, and is perfectly capable of developing ideas which reflect the real needs and concerns of rural England and Wales, but it must also be prepared to promote them rather than continuing to focus on a divisive agenda.”

"Labour rural policy is driven by class-driven ideology"
The Countryside Alliance

Issues such as better broadband connectivity, affordable housing, improved transport, sheep worrying, a ban on Chinese lanterns and digestible plastics dangerous for livestock and wild animals are far more persuasive policies.

“The continued obsession with hunting and country sports perpetuates a rural view that Labour rural policy is driven by class-driven ideology,” the Countryside Alliance said.

A focus on tackling rural crime, which was included in the 2019 manifesto, could become a positive flagship policy, the research suggested.

Labour could also focus on ‘up-skilling’ those in rural areas and protecting its high streets to grow the economy.

Mr Grogan said: “Within Yorkshire there were lots and lots of rural and semi-rural seats that we held and to ever have a hope of forming a government again, we've clearly got to claw some of those back.”

A view across Embsay reservoir nestled below Earl Crag near Skipton. (Photo:James Hardisty)

"Maybe it's like having a baby: you forget the pain and only remember the good things!"

Catherine Minnis stood for Labour in East Yorkshire in December, deemed a “unwinnable” Tory seat.

Asked by The Yorkshire Post to reflect on the reception she got in a rural seat, she said: “Would I do it again, stand in an election? Well, maybe it's like having a baby: you forget the pain and only remember the good things!”

Ms Minnis, who said she was resolute in her commitment to the area, said: “In the five weeks of the campaign, my team and I managed to travel the length and breadth of the East Yorkshire constituency which stretches from Bridlington to just outside York.

“A great many people felt that central government was ignoring the countryside: poor broadband; cuts to services such as post offices, shops, libraries, buses, primary schools; lack of police presence; lack of affordable housing meaning young people had to start their families elsewhere - after all the countryside should not just be for the rich or the retired - no provision for adult education.

Catherine Minnis, Labour’s candidate in East Yorkshire in the 2019 election. (Photo: Labour)

“As well as all the gadding about, I replied to over 400 emails from concerned constituents. The most popular topic was climate change, and I received many asking where I stood on countryside issues such as animal welfare.”

It was young people she found “most enthused” and said: “Many who were too young to vote said they would next time. At the count, as we were leaving Driffield Leisure Centre, some of the young people who had been counting ballot slips came up to me to offer commiserations, saying they'd hoped I'd win. It gives me great hope for the future, if we can keep young people in the countryside of course.”

Ms Minnis said the local Labour Party had forged links, over many years, with local farming representatives and the NFU, and although they would find much to agree on, some fundamental differences remained.

"They did like some of our policies, but badger culling was always a sticking point"
Catherine Minnis

“They are naturally worried about a no-deal Brexit, and a resulting influx of cheap and sub-standard meat, amongst other things,” she said.

“They also raised concerns such as fly tipping and hare coursing, complaining about the scarcity of police in the area. There were complaints about the Environment Agency and their lack of help for flooded farms.”

“They did like some of our policies,” she said, but admitted “badger culling was always a sticking point”.

“We would ban it; they believe it is necessary.”

She added: “I have always found it really interesting going to their farms and learning about what they do and how they live. I do wonder why many rural communities still vote Conservative especially since they believe they have suffered disproportionately under austerity measures. Recently, Tory MPs including our own Greg Knight, voted against any parliamentary controls on food standards in trade talks with the USA.”

Similar bridges could and should be built with the fishing communities, Ms Minnis suggested, and she said: “Many Bridlington voters have been attracted to UKIP in recent years and we know that we need to win them back along with the so-called traditional Labour voters.

“Sadly, though this area should be an easy one for Labour, we have failed to win them over. We knocked on many doors and found so much apathy towards politics, which is sad.”

Maybe showing the difficulty faced by the party in some seats, she added: “I was invited to a school hustings over there and I was the only one of the five candidates to attend, the others being 'played' by students, and in their mock election, the Conservatives won!”

But she added: “Most of all we need to continue to listen to rural voters and to convince them that we do care. It is great that Keir Starmer is undertaking a tour of rural seats. As a local party, we need to appeal to the voters and highlight how badly the government is doing.”

(Photo: Shutterstock)

"Before I think a lot of people thought of us as the villains"

There is a persistent perception around "villainous toffs in tweed" surrounding voters in the countryside, the director of the Moorland Association has warned, which can only be broken by a willingness to engage.

Only then can an understanding of the countryside be fully brokered, Amanda Anderson has said, and without it communities can never fully be represented.

It is difficult to define, she added, what has led to the documented demise of traditionally Labour seats across some of Yorkshire's more rural communities.

But she does believe it comes alongside a decline of people living and working in the countryside, and of a widening generation gap.

"We are in a position where the countryside is so critical, in producing food, in keeping us fit, or ensuring our wellbeing, and in being there when we need that contact with nature," she said.

"Yet it is only one per cent of the population that provides all this.

Amanda Anderson, director of the Moorland Association. (Photo: JPI Media)

"Hopefully, people may have started to realise how important this is, whereas before I think a lot of people thought of us as the villains.

"For Labour, and everybody else, we need to come back to the countryside and understand it from the bottom up before making policies."

Around three-quarters of Europe's upland heather moorland is found in the UK, with 860,000 acres cared for and conserved by members of the Moorland Association, with an associated spent of £52.5m a year and 1,500 jobs supported through grouse shooting industries.

In some areas, said Ms Anderson, gamekeepers' children are among the last left in shrinking schools, as pupil numbers dwindle, while the association's members are the ones rebuilding drystone walls, picking up litter, and acting as the "gel" of disadvantaged communities.

"We hear the phrase 'keyboard warriors and desktop conservationist', and that group is growing," she warned.

"I have tried to get Labour politicians out onto the moorland but it's almost impossible"
Amanda Anderson

"These are incredibly important places, yet they are tarred with a negative brush because there is land ownership involved.

"I, like many of our members, have tried to get Labour politicians out onto the moorland but it's almost impossible.

“Just to ignore that is not fulfilling a role as a civil servant. There are the consequences to emotional decisions to 'get rid because we don't like toffs and tweeds'.

"We need to understand, and really listen to people," she added. "To get the best results you have to listen to people who understand.

"It's down to the individual attitudes of MPs to engage with all constituents. Then there is a future for all parties."

A small flock of sheep with a drystone wall behind in the Yorkshire Dales. (Photo: Mark Godden)

"Rural communities have turned more to the Conservatives to address their concerns"

The Environment Secretary said the Conservative Party has a “natural understanding” of rural areas as shown by the number of constituencies outside of cities which are blue.

George Eustice, who has a family background in fruit farming, said his party had a “very long track record in representing rural communities”.

He said: “I think if you look at local government, Conservative councils have got a very strong track record of delivering for those local communities with good candidates, who really understand their area, and then nationally, the Conservative Party has always had a much stronger affinity and understanding with rural communities, whether that's agricultural communities, where we've got people like me, but many others besides, who have been farmers themselves and so understand that particular area already and some of the other challenges of rural communities.

“If you're an MP representing a rural seat, you understand many of those other issues around transport links, bus services, rural poverty, housing issues, it's something where you develop a natural understanding and therefore that feeds into your agenda and government. It's probably for those two reasons, principally because the Conservative Party is diversity spread across the country, and it's got a very long track record in representing those rural communities.”

Environment Secretary George Eustice (Photo: Getty)

He said it was unsurprising that the Labour Party would want to focus on rural seats, and as a former press secretary to David Cameron during his tenure as Leader of the Opposition Mr Eustice said: “I think it's always been the case that every party, if it has ambitions to form government, has to try to do better in areas where it's traditionally been a bit weaker.

“And so the Conservative Party has been no different in that regard, in order to form government we have to do well in urban areas that have more of a Labour-voting tradition.”

But he said: “If you look at the electoral map, it is very much the case that rural communities have turned more to the Conservatives to address their concerns and I think we've a track record of delivering for them as well.”

Mr Eustice said his focus was on delivering for rural communities as the UK leaves the EU.

“Agriculture is a really big area where we want to leave behind the highly bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy and actually move to something that I think makes much more sense,” he said.

“[It’s a] much more tailored approach on individual farms, tailored for individual landscapes, taking account of different types of farming in different parts of the country, but to be able to support farmers to become more profitable so that we address the causes of poor profitability by supporting them to invest, for instance, helping them to reduce costs, so that we don't have to just shovel in subsidies to try and offset losses that they make.

"Fishermen suffered particularly badly because of the common fisheries policy and the unfairness of the quota allocations"
George Eustice

“And at the same time, use that public money to really try and deliver for our environment and the farm landscape.”

He added: “I think all of these things will add up to better quality of life in rural communities, both economically because I think at the end of this we will have an agricultural industry that says that is more vibrant, but also as well just for the quality of life for people living in rural areas, so it's a very, very exciting time on agriculture.”

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post as the Fisheries Bill returned to Parliament, Mr Eustice said there was also a push for areas such as Whitby on the coast, where he said fishermen “suffered particularly badly because of the common fisheries policy and the unfairness of the quota allocations”.

The new support system for farmers will see subsidies phased out and an environmental-focussed approach introduced instead, with farmers rewarded under the umbrella of “public money for public goods” for preventing flooding, creating wetlands, or improving habitats.

But has come under fire from Labour as an area where the party believes it can capitalise as farmers’ fears mount.

But Mr Eustice said: “I think it's fair to say that farmers are a little apprehensive of change, because what we're talking about is quite a fundamental change, and as I've learned from the times in the past that I've attended the Great Yorkshire Show, your farmers are not backward in coming forward.

“The task that we've got is to do this in a sensitive way, that's a done over a transitional period - we're suggesting seven years - so that there's no overnight shocks to give farmers time to adjust, but also to make sure that the new schemes are sufficiently generous so that farmers have that opportunity to earn back an income for what they do for the environment, and to get a fair price for the food that they produce, with more fairness and transparency in the supply chain.

August Bank Holiday Weekend in Whitby (Photo: James Hardisty)

“And the bill provides for that, so that they don't have to rely just on those arbitrary area-based handouts in order to make a profit. So I think that combination of doing it gradually over time, addressing the causes of poor profitability, and generously rewarding them for the bits they do for the environment, I think enables us to make that journey.”

He also said there was a balance to strike in the Conservatives’ new planning policy, which some rural communities have said would turn them away from voting Tory.

He said: “I understand that, because I represent a rural area myself, and I think if you get the balance right between making sure that there's an obligation on local authorities to build their housing need, but then to simultaneously give them much more say over where that housing should go, the design of the housing so that it's aesthetically pleasing and in keeping with the area, then I think you can make good progress.”

Where developments went wrong, he said, was when the builds did not fit with local communities, and he said incremental extensions to villages - where small developments fitting with its surroundings were allowed - would help keep villages alive.

“It can help the local pub or possibly even the Post Office,” he said. “And it can support the community while making sure that the expansion takes place in a sensitive way.

"I think it's very important to recognise that high speed broadband in rural areas can be a vitally important piece of infrastructure"
George Eustice

“What we're trying to achieve in these reforms is much greater emphasis on ensuring we build the housing stock that we need, but also wherever we can, do that in brownfield sites in urban areas where you've got derelict land, and where that can't be done, and it's done in rural areas, giving the effectively preferential treatment, if you like, to developers who go the extra mile to make sure that in keeping with the area.”

Mr Eustice said all of the government’s rural policy was connected to levelling up, pointing to high speed broadband as one example.

“I think it's very important to recognise that high speed broadband in rural areas can be a vitally important piece of infrastructure that contributes to that levelling up, because if you've got the right speed of broadband, in this new digital age and digital economy that we live in, it is possible for people to do more and more meetings over an internet connection.

“But it's also as increasingly areas such as retail become more and more dominated by the digital economy, it becomes quite possible to have a new generation of digital entrepreneurs that can establish in those rural areas and start to bring up average wage levels in some of those rural communities that have sometimes suffered from low wages and lower growth as a result.”

A view of Whitby (Photo: James Hardisty)

"If we only try to win in urban areas, we will continue to lose general elections"

But Labour is keen to win those votes, and Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard said he is under no illusions that there is no route to power for Labour without winning over rural seats.

Luke Pollard has said his main priority is making sure how policy impacts rural communities is a thread running throughout Labour’s shadow departments, but that as well as shaping successful policy there was a challenge to change perceptions of Labour to non-traditional voters.

Mr Pollard said: “If we only try to win in urban areas, we will continue to lose general elections.”

He said many of the former Red Wall seats lost in December would be classed as semi-rural or rural, so winning those back would help, but he said: “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.

"I don't think Labour has always turned up in the way that we need to"
Luke Pollard

“And I think one of the key things that I think we have to do, and it's the first step, is we have to turn up.”

He added: “I think the Conservatives have taken rural communities for granted for quite some time, and I don't think Labour has always turned up in the way that we need to.”

And he said there had been an internal feeling that rural seats were unwinnable, which he said was “politically false”.

He said: “It handcuffs our aspiration, and it means that those communities for whom

we could win, that there is an immediate barrier to engaging and listening, and to winning.

“Just because there is rolling countryside or farmers, that's a reason to engage further not to hide away.”

And he added: “I think accepting the logic that we won't win in these places, so therefore, it's not worth trying only condemns us to electoral defeats.

Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard (Photo: UK Parliament)

“And I'm quite vocal that I won't stand for any of that when I hear it around Westminster, because it's lazy logic that condemns these communities to, in many cases, pretty mediocre representation.”

Mr Pollard said issues such as good quality broadband or transport were key, but he added: “I think there is a genuine risk that our farmers will be undercut by foreign trade deals, whatever ministers are currently saying, and I think there will be a real issue when the Government starts cutting the farm subsidy because they're projecting a 40 per cent cut in the farm subsidy, and they can't accurately explain what a new system will look like for farmers.”

He added: “There are many astute Tories who are waking up to the fact that the current set of policies is opening the door to voters who have been traditionally Tory voting to vote Labour.”

By 2024, he said his goal was to make Labour “the party of the countryside”, and said: “That does mean making sure that we have real specific policies, but it doesn't mean rural proofing, because rural proofing makes it sound like the policies were written for urban environments and just have to be checked against rural environments.

"There is no route to power that doesn't include Labour in these communities"
Luke Pollard

“We need to make sure that our policies work in every single one of those communities, whether it's rural, coastal, or urban, and to make sure it all works.

And with that, then we have a chance of starting the process of winning back trust, but it's not an inevitability that we win in rural seats, tt is a choice as to whether we want to take the steps to do so.”

He said: “There is no route to power that doesn't include Labour in these communities, and it has been done before, we just have to do it again.”