New polling from the Country Land & Business Association (CLA) has revealed a major shift in the political allegiances of rural voters, with data showing the Conservative lead on Labour slashed since 2019.
The survey, commissioned by the CLA in partnership with polling and market research agency Survation, polled 1,000 individuals across 5 of the UK’s most rural counties by population density: Cornwall, Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Norfolk and Gwynedd.
Results show that most respondents voted Conservative (46%) in the 2019 General Election, while 29% voted Labour, and 13% Liberal Democrats.
Barely two and a half years on and over a third of the same voters now intend to vote Labour (36%) at the upcoming election. While only 38% intend to vote Conservative, a 7.5-point swing.
Speaking on the polling, Mark Tufnell, President of the Country Land and Business Association, commented:
“Too often good policy-making falls between the cracks in government departments. Everybody assumes DEFRA is responsible for the countryside, but it doesn’t really have the powers to deliver policies designed to support businesses in the rural economy. So no department does anything. I suspect that is why the Levelling Up White Paper showed precious little interest in those living and working in the countryside.
No party should take rural voters for granted. 2019 showed us that the old tribal loyalties of politics are dissipating. Any party that comes up with a genuinely ambitious plan to grow the economy in rural areas would, I suspect, win a great deal of support.”
Large gains were also seen for the Green Party, whose percentage share of the rural vote grew from 3% to 8%, while the Liberal Democrats lost 3 percentage points, moving from 13% to 10%.
Further responses show that almost three-quarters of countryside voters (71%) believe opportunities for young people in rural areas have either decreased or remained stagnant in the last 5 years.
Furthermore, almost half of respondents (42%) stated that there had been an economic decline in their community over the last 5 years, while the vast majority (79%) blamed the lack of affordable housing in rural areas for driving young people out of the countryside.
Mark Tufnell continued:
“We can’t carry on as a country missing out on the economic potential of rural areas. The rural economy is 18% less productive than the national economy but closing that gap would generate £43bn of activity.
"We have so many businesses that could expand, that could grow and create good new jobs, but government too often gets in the way. The planning regime, as just one example, is almost designed to hold back the economy, treating the countryside as a sort of museum. Sensible small-scale housing developments are often rejected out-of-hand and applications to convert disused farm buildings into office or workshop space can often take years. As a result, fewer jobs get created and housing becomes less affordable, so young people just move away.”
The British countryside provides a key economic and voting bloc. 12 million voters live in rural areas, representing a significant proportion (16%) of the UK economy.
Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer and chairman of the influential All Party Parliamentary Group on the Rural Powerhouse, added:
“The truth is that for decades governments of all colours have failed to develop an ambitious plan for the rural economy.
"Farming is obviously hugely important to the countryside, but 85% of rural businesses have nothing to do with farming or forestry. We need to recognise the potential of these businesses in creating broader opportunity and prosperity. Then we need to identify the barriers to their success and begin to remove them.
"People rightly want a good job and an affordable home. The Levelling Up White Paper was the perfect opportunity to uncover why they can be so hard to find in the countryside, but rural issues were largely absent. I think that’s been noticed by people and needs to be addressed urgently.”
The poll, which has been widely covered in the national media, comes ahead of the launch of a major parliamentary report into the health of the rural economy later this month.