'We have done this before' - Labour launches policy review to rebuild rural vote

Labour has to start showing up for rural communities if the party expects to win votes at the next general election, its shadow environment secretary has said.

Luke Pollard launches Labour's rural policy review in Cambridgeshire. Photo: Luke Pollard

Luke Pollard launched Labour’s rural policy review last week, a bid to transform how the party - which has now only holds 17 rural or semi rural seats compared to more than 170 in 1997 - can win back the countryside.

And Mr Pollard said it was about more than just what would traditionally be thought of as rural issues.

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He said he wanted to focus on areas such as housing and connectivity.

But the first step was listening to what rural voters had to say.

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Labour's rural problem

He said: “My starting point on it is that the Conservatives are taking our rural communities for granted, but that Labour hasn't always turned up.

“I think Labour hasn't always spoken as loudly and proudly about what's amazing about the countryside as well as the areas where you'd like to see change, and that is the big challenge here.”

Mr Pollard said when he launched the review in Cambridgeshire the tenant farmer he visited told him how he wanted to start a family, but the farm he rented only had a one-bedroom house and larger properties in the area were out of his price range.

“We're in a situation where although agriculture and farming is the foundation of rural life and defines so much about rural communities, agriculture isn't the only issue that we need to look at here,” he said.

“I might be in charge of rural affairs for the Labour Party, but the success of this review will come about through engagement across our entire party. So, it's about rural housing with Thangam Debbonaire, it's about rural transport with Jim McMahon, it's about making the case that people who live in rural areas matter.

“And I don't think there has been enough political focus on rural communities probably since the mid 90s.”

In 1997 Labour won more than 170 rural or semi rural seats, now the party holds just 17.

And Mr Pollard said he felt that by the time an election came around, it would be possible to win many back.

“The challenge is real, but we have done this before,” he said.

“I'm not a fan of what's called rural proofing, which basically says we make a policy for an urban area, and then we check to see if it roughly works against rural areas, and if it kind of does, we'll go with it.

“Well, that creates a hierarchy where rural communities are always second and never first. And I don't think that's good enough.

“So, that's why, starting with this review, we're looking at all our policies relating to rural communities. So that's a very big task.

“But as we're looking ahead to a general election - and I think one in 2023 is more like in 2024 - we need to have a hold of our manifesto.”