As I passed the Momentum rally in Parliament Square last week, I was reminded of the last time there was such a packed demonstration on Parliament’s doorstep. There might not be a huge crossover between Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters and Countryside Alliance members, but both groups seem equally passionate.
Huge numbers of rural people protested against the last Labour government for a whole host of reasons, triggered by the bill to ban hunting. The largest demonstration brought over 400,000 people to London and our opponents had no response other than to poll the marchers, find that over 80% of them supported the Conservatives and argue that their protest could therefore be ignored by Labour politicians.
I was the Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance then, and am now its Chairman as well as a Conservative MP. My dual loyalties are by no means unique and our own research suggests that there are at least 26,000 Conservative Party members on the Alliance’s database of members and supporters – that’s 20% of the entire Conservative Party. They are politically active, they vote and they are watching this political saga unfold with a keen eye.
These people may not represent a key constituency of swing voters in a General Election, but in a Conservative leadership election they just might, which is why I have written to the five leadership candidates seeking their views on a range of pressing rural issues. They are:
Do you stand by the Prime Minister’s commitment to a broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) with the ambition to give people the legal right to request a connection to broadband with speeds of 10 Mbps, no matter where they live?
Will you commit to a review of the Rural Services Delivery Grant, which is paid to the most rural local authorities to recognise the additional costs of delivering services in rural areas, to ensure that rural areas are not disadvantaged?
Will you ensure that current levels of Single Farm Payment support for farmers provided under the Common Agricultural Policy will be maintained?
Can you confirm that you will not seek to alter the existing levels of protection afforded to the environment by Natura 2000 sites, such as SPA and SACs, which alongside SSSIs are key to reversing the decline of wildlife and habitats in the UK?
Will you ensure that Government policy and other legal activities can be undertaken in the countryside without interference, and that local communities do not face intimidation?
Do you support Sir Edward Garnier’s amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill to give individual police officers the power to remove face coverings from protestors?
Can you assure the 650,000 holders of shotgun and firearms certificates that there will be no undue restrictions on legitimate ownership and use?
Can you confirm that any unjustified restrictions introduced in the current review of the EU Firearms Directive will not be introduced into UK legislation?
Can you confirm that there will be no unjustified constraints on wildlife management practices, including restrictions on the list of legal quarry?
Can you confirm that you are opposed to the Hunting Act and that a commitment to resolve this injustice will remain in any future manifesto?
This huge rural constituency is not swivel-eyed about these things. They know that the country is in flux, pulled in numerous directions in an uncertain world. But just as Labour’s attitude to rural communities came to define them in a much wider sense, so will today’s leadership attitudes reveal who are the real Conservatives. Who is fit to unite, fit to lead – and who puts principles in front of their ambitions?