OUR countryside is a national treasure admired around the world, but it is also a home and workplace for millions of Britons.
Those who live and work there can be forgiven for feeling that the countryside is often treated as an amusement park, not receiving the political support and action it needs and deserves. Rural life holds specific challenges and we urge all political parties, and the next government, to recognise this and prioritise policies that are relevant.
The day the election was called, the Countryside Alliance went to No 10 Downing Street to present our manifesto asks. In No 10 we called for the next manifesto to include commitments to fight rural crime, that all wildlife management laws are based on sound science and evidence, enforce mandatory food labelling to promote British farmers, to rural-proof government departments and roll-out superfast broadband in rural communities.
Collectively each manifesto has taken what the Countryside Alliance has been calling for on board. The Conservative manifesto commits to roll-our gigabit broadband by 2025 and tackle rural crime. The Labour manifesto makes the commitment to rural-proof government departments and the Liberal Democrats make a commitment to improve access to rural health services.
These commitments are encouraging and shows that parties are listening to the voice of the countryside; making sure that their respective manifestos reflects the needs of rural communities. The rural vote must be fought on these priorities.
However, pressure groups that claim to represent the countryside do not want the election to focus on issues that really matter, but rather on an animal rights agenda that is obsessed by an activity that was banned over 14 years ago.
Fox hunting was not an issue in the last election and is not an issue in this election. We know because we have ran the polling. Before the 2017 General Election, we worked with the research firm ORB International and asked rural voters to identify three issues that would affect their vote. Fox hunting was of no significance. We ran the polling again in July this year and again found fox hunting was not a priority.
The obsession with the animal rights agenda clouds what the priorities in the countryside are and what rural policies should be prioritised. This was apparent earlier this year when British agriculture took second place behind microchipping cats in the order of government priorities. Labour’s 50-point Animal Welfare Manifesto is another case in which a party has prioritised animal rights over urgent rural issues. This despite evidence to help parties form policies that would help them win rural voters.
Last year the Fabian Society produced a report, Labour Country — How to rebuild the connection with rural voters, which specifically warned the party that it risked alienating rural voters by mistaking the animal rights agenda as policies that matter to rural people. Yet Labour continue to prioritise hunting in its manifesto.
We urge political parties to stay focused on the issues that matter, and we urge every rural voter to remind political parties what the issues that matter are. This election is another opportunity to tell politicians that the lack of digital connectivity, rural crime, affordable housing and healthcare are the issues that parties must address if they want to win in the countryside and enter No 10.
The Countryside Alliance is therefore asking all its members and supporters to contact their Parliamentary candidates ahead of the General Election. We have already written to candidates asking them to support our pledges and to find what their views are on key rural issues are. Their responses can be found on our website, but candidates need to hear from their voters, too. Before casting your vote, I urge you to visit our General Election Hub to find out more about each party and what each candidate thinks on the issues that will shape the future of our countryside.
The General Election matters for all of us who love the countryside and the rural way of life. While our future relationship with the EU will be front and centre of the work of the next Parliament, there are many other rural issues that the next government must address. Simply put, the next Parliament must take rural issues seriously and support our rural communities.
The Countryside Alliance will continue to work hard to ensure it does just that.
Sarah Lee is the Head of Policy at the Countryside Alliance.