Rural communities have become an afterthought in Westminster
Labour leader Keir Starmer and shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard during a visit to National Farmers' Union president Minette Batters' farm in Wiltshire, October 2020 | Alamy
Today, Labour is launching a major review of its policies for rural communities in England.
Keir Starmer has asked me to take the lead on this review, which examines our policies affecting over 11 million people in rural England. Rural communities are so often an afterthought in Westminster. It’s time to bring our understanding of the countryside up to date, and to reflect the actual challenges facing people who are too often forgotten.
Every voter in every town, village and hamlet must have the option of putting a cross next to a red Labour rose. Everyone must have the chance to vote for policies which make the countryside a better place to grow up in, and grow old in. Labour has resonated with rural voters before: this review is about winning their trust once again.
This Conservative government has shamefully neglected rural voters. They have left farmers exposed to unfair competition from low-quality imported produce, and they have failed to protect food standards. Their cuts to police, healthcare and transport services have disproportionately impacted rural areas. Rural poverty, isolation and crime are all on the rise. Many communities have lost their last shop, pub or post office. This government play a dangerous game in taking their votes for granted.
Now is the time for Labour to create a policy agenda that speaks to the concerns and aspirations of rural voters. In February, Keir Starmer’s keynote speech at the National Farmers Union conference promised that the next Labour manifesto will offer as much hope and opportunity to those in rural communities as those who live in towns and cities. This rural review is the first step towards achieving that goal.
Labour will better promote and protect the things that people love about countryside life: access to green spaces, cleaner air, close community bonds. We need to support rural businesses and the agricultural industry. We need to explain how years of austerity have weakened the foundations of rural areas, hollowing out essential services and failing to invest in housing, jobs, public services and transport.
The countryside is more closely linked with Labour roots than many would realise. I’m proud to have grown up in a rural community just outside Plymouth. My little sister is a sheep farmer in Cornwall, and rural life is in my blood. Keir Starmer’s first job was on a farm and indeed his namesake, Keir Hardie, grew up in a farming family. Clement Attlee understood the importance of securing red seats right across England’s green and pleasant land. It’s time for Labour to start fighting for every last vote, from Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall to Rushcliffe in the Midlands, Delyn in North Wales to North West Durham. That is a bold ambition, but a necessary one. This review will show how serious Labour is about reconnecting with rural voters, working hard to make rural life better, and ultimately winning the rural English seats that will help put the party back in power.
Luke Pollard is Labour and Co-operative MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary
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