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Labour is wrong to write off Tiverton and Honiton

Labour is wrong to write off Tiverton and Honiton
5 min read

The recent local election results continue to demonstrate that rural support for the Conservatives is dwindling.

And the next big test is just around the corner.  

The upcoming by-election in Tiverton and Honiton will show just quite how widespread support for the government is shrinking, and crucially, to which party voters are switching their allegiance.  

In sunny South Devon, Labour has clearly made up its mind: no campaign visits from the shadow cabinet indicate little hope, or interest, in victory. The party is concentrating its efforts on Wakefield instead. 

Considering this is a party that won a meagre 17 rural seats in 2019, this may come as no surprise. 

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Party strategists would do well to cast their minds back to the famous landslide of 1997. The victory was, in part, propelled by rural voters. A staggering 179 rural seats were won in total, including Tony Blair’s Sedgefield, which the Conservative MP Paul Howell currently represents. 

As things currently stand, achieving this feat is becoming less of a fever dream, and more of a distinct possibility.

A recent CLA opinion poll of the five most rural counties in England is telling. It put the Conservatives just two points ahead of Labour, indicating a 7.5 per cent swing from the 2019 general election. 

Should the governing party continue on this downward trajectory, the results could be an indication of big wins to come for Labour. 

This is by no means a foregone conclusion, however. In order to ensure strong polling is converted into seats at the next general election, there is no room for complacency.

Existing economic data shows the bar hasn’t exactly been set high. Under the Conservatives, the rural economy has become 18 per cent less productive than the average. Only 46 per cent of rural communities have adequate 4G coverage. Rural homes are less affordable than those in urban areas, while rural jobs pay less.

Despite all this, the rural economy and its needs have been nowhere to be seen in the government’s Levelling Up agenda. Nearly bereft of any mention of rural communities, the document gives the sense that our government sees the countryside as no more than a ‘nice place to visit’.

This is wholly inaccurate of course. Rural areas are brimming with opportunity, which if unlocked could see an estimated £43bn added to the national economy.

Whether the new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech, will do anything to remedy this is unclear. If the past few years are anything to go by, however, rural voters will hardly be holding their breath.

While the Conservatives continued failure to deliver an ambitious plan for the rural economy certainly works in Labour’s favour, it is not enough to ensure rural election triumph. If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that a lot can change in the space of a few years. As the general election edges closer, now is not the time to take the “foot off the gas”.

Instead, Labour must develop a robust policy platform. One that demonstrates an understanding that the countryside and its businesses are multifaceted. One whose policy reflects the fact that 85 per cent of rural businesses have nothing to do with farming or agriculture. And one that sees the value that removing the structural barriers facing these businesses brings, allowing them to grow, provide employment and positively contribute to our national economy.

Thankfully, the hard work has already been done, in the form of a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse.

The report follows one of the most comprehensive inquiries ever into the rural economy. Taking evidence from over 50 trade bodies, business leaders, academics and campaign groups, the report includes 27 policy recommendations covering planning reform, housing, tax, skills, connectivity and farming – as well as the processes by which government makes its decisions.

The recommendations are, in essence, a readymade blueprint for revitalising the rural economy, and one that – if heavily leant on to shape their rural policy pledges – could see Labour gain significant support.

For these policies to have any real impact on the daily lives of those living and working in the countryside, however, better cross-departmental working is paramount. Try as it might through its recent ‘rural proofing’ measures, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs alone does not have the policy levers required to produce tangible results and grow the rural economy.

Therefore, if we’ve any hope of achieving a cohesive rural economic policy, then the Treasury, Department for Levelling Up, Department for Business and Department for Digital, Communications, Media and Sport – all of whom possess these powers – must collaborate.

Crucially, the new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill must have rural development at its core – otherwise, we prevent opportunities from being created not only for individuals but for families and the wider community.

Should Labour show real ambition for growing the countryside economy in the next two years, prising rural seats from the Conservative's hands will be a real possibility come the next general election.

Levelling Up means nothing if it does not apply to the countryside. Rural communities are raring and ready to go, and now is a golden opportunity for the Labour to show real ambition for the countryside where Boris Johnson has not.

The spotlight is on you in South Devon. Don’t ignore it.

Mark Tufnell is President of the Country Land and Business Association.

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