It is hard to believe that the last general election was barely 18 months ago. So much has happened since ‘Get Brexit Done’ and the fall of the red wall.
Covid-19 temporarily ended the conversation about the fundamental changes taking place in electoral politics, but the recent by-election in Hartlepool - where the Conservatives took the seat from Labour - has brought it back into sharp focus.
Recent opinion polls show that, nationwide, the Conservatives now hold a 19-point lead among working-class voters. How Labour can ever rebuild the famed ‘red wall’ when its core vote has dissipated so dramatically will be a topic of conversation among many in Westminster in the months ahead.
But whatever one’s political viewpoint, healthy competition is always needed in Parliament. Make no mistake, if Labour can lose its core vote, so can the Conservatives.
I was asked by a prominent journalist recently whether the Conservatives take the rural vote for granted. It wasn’t for me to answer that question, but the Conservatives might want to ask it of themselves.
For me, it is clear that Boris Johnson’s government does not have a coherent vision for the countryside. Its 2020 planning white paper showed that it views the countryside as a museum to be preserved in aspic, rather than a living, breathing part of the economy. The slow pace of internet roll out and the continued uncertainty over the future of Environmental Land Management schemes suggests a lack of urgency, too.
The UK Government recently announced that a ‘rural proofing’ official will be placed in each government department. It’s a cute enough idea, but it doesn’t cut the mustard. While it showed that the government recognises there is a problem with cross-departmental working, it also seems to suggest that it doesn’t particularly want to do anything serious about it.
Perhaps if there was more competition for the rural vote, a robust cross-government strategy for the rural economy would be easier to come by.
This is why we are feeding ideas into Labour’s rural policy review, recently announced by Sir Keir Starmer. The move is a welcome one. But in truth, while the Tories may be winning in Hartlepool, it will be a long time before Labour wins many seats in the countryside.
That is why we must provide scrutiny in other forms beyond working with the opposition alone. The forthcoming inquiry into productivity by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse is a tremendous opportunity to inject a bit of life into the government’s thinking on the rural economy. It will be co-chaired by York Outer MP Julian Sturdy and former CLA President Lord Cameron.
The inquiry is a statement of intent that backbench MPs and peers believe the countryside has immense potential and will push the government to adopt more ambitious policies
The prime minister has a duty to listen to those calls – not just to continue securing rural votes, but because it is quite clearly the right thing to do.