Tim Bonner is Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance.
What do rural voters think about the Conservative leadership contest? It is not a question that many people have asked or seem to care about, but the view from the countryside matters.
A significant chunk of Conservative Party members dwell in villages and rural areas, and they will be an important caucus as the membership ballot begins. A number of marginal seats also have a significant rural element and will help determine the outcome of the next General Election, so the leadership candidates should care about the rural vote.
A survey of 3,000 Countryside Alliance members and supporters earlier this month has revealed deep frustration with life in rural Britain and the ability of the Conservative Party in government to address these challenges.
Only eight per cent of people surveyed thought that life in the countryside had improved in the last five years, and only 30 per cent thought the Conservative Party understands rural Britain (compared to 11 per cent for Labour and nine per cent for the Liberal Democrats).
Perhaps most worrying for the Conservatives is that only four per cent of people surveyed strongly agreed that the Conservative Party understands rural Britain, while 15 per cent strongly disagreed with this view. The rural vote cannot be taken for granted.
A report from the think tank Onward published earlier this year found that young people in rural areas were more likely to vote Labour than Conservative. The polling results showed: “A total of 59 per cent of under-35s living in villages say they will vote Labour, compared to 16 per cent for the Conservatives. This changes to 57 per cent and 18 per cent respectively for young city-dwellers, suggesting that location is less of a factor than the age of the respondent”. Age is increasingly the fault line for differences in opinion, including voting intention.
On this basis, the current dominance of the Conservative Party in rural areas is largely due to the higher proportion of older voters living in these areas, and not because of any deeper sense of connection between the Conservatives and rural Britain. Votes in rural areas need to be fought for and won just as much as in any other area of the country, otherwise the Conservatives risk sleep walking into electoral defeat in the shires.
So what do rural voters want? Seeing some form of resolution, or way forward, on Brexit is clearly important. There was a strong leave vote in many rural areas, but people are concerned that the interests of these areas are being overlooked. Our survey found that fewer than five per cent of people think that the interests of rural communities have been promoted in the Brexit process so far, highlighting the need to give greater prominence to rural areas and issues in our preparations to leave the EU.
On domestic matters, delivering a new agricultural policy emerged as the top priority for the next Prime Minister. The Agriculture Bill, published in September last year, has stalled in Parliament and there is speculation that it may never return in its current form. The health of British farming is vital to the rural economy and the new Prime Minster must provide some leadership in reviving plans for an independent agricultural policy outside the EU.
Neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Hunt have contributed much on farming and countryside issues during their time in the Commons. It is likely to be an area where the next Prime Minister is happy to see cabinet colleagues take the lead on policy, so the post of Defra Secretary will be a crucial appointment in the next government.
Tackling crime and anti-social behaviour, and addressing the housing crisis in rural areas, came second and third in the list of priorities in our survey, with digital connectivity in a close fourth. The Spending Review later this year will be a good opportunity to match warm words about the need for improvement in these areas with cash. In particular, the next Prime Minster must ensure funding is available to deliver the Government’s commitment of a full fibre broadband network across the UK by 2033, prioritising connectivity in rural areas.
Our survey also found that 84 per cent of people thought it was important for the next Prime Minister to recognise the importance of country sports to rural communities. The Government has stated that it does not intend to propose changes to the Hunting Act in this Parliament, which is entirely understandable given parliamentary arithmetic and other priorities. However, there are other ways in which country sports can be supported, such as taking an evidence-based approach to wildlife laws, tackling animal rights extremism, and resisting undue restrictions on legitimate firearms ownership and use.
If the next Prime Minister is looking for a legacy, beyond taking us out of Europe, then finally delivering ‘rural proofing’ of all government policy would be a good place to start. The idea that all policies should be assessed to ensure they are appropriate for people who live and work in the countryside has been around since the Blair years, but successive governments have failed to put it into practice. There is no shortage of advice on this, including a recent report from the House of Lords Rural Economy Committee which set out proposals for a rural strategy for England, and an annual report to Parliament with an update on how departments have fulfilled their rural proofing obligations.
The rural vote is important in this leadership election and the next general election. People in rural communities have plenty to say, and the leadership candidates should be listening. Their success, and that of the Conservative Party, may depend on it.