Around nine million people – over 17 per cent of the population – live in an area classed as ‘rural’. That number is set to grow; by 2025, it has been estimated that the population of the English countryside will have increased by half a million. So surely, when a politician is bidding to become the next prime minister, it would make sense to consider what the rural population’s priorities might be.
A national survey of rural opinion on the leadership contest, organised by the Countryside Alliance, would indicate that this isn’t happening. It’s far from new to say that farming communities are worried about Brexit, and concerned that their needs aren’t being considered in the debate. But that’s not the only cause for concern. According to the survey, just over three per cent of those questioned thought that the interests of rural people had been promoted in the Brexit process so far, while only 26 per cent thought that the Conservative party ‘understands rural Britain’.
Interestingly, although you might think of countryside dwellers as being staunch Tories, that’s no longer the case. Last year, the Countryside Alliance launched a joint report with the Fabian Society, looking at how the Labour party could win over rural voters. In April this year, another poll showed that young people living in rural areas were just as likely to vote Labour as they were Conservative, and the House of Lords have previously recommended that Defra be stripped of its responsibility for rural communities.
This all suggests that the Conservatives need to up their game in the countryside, and that Hunt and Johnson would do well to consider the needs of rural communities and voters. ‘Rural proofing’ – that is, making sure that the government considers the impact of policies on rural areas – is something that the party have struggled with. Rural services such as broadband, public transport and housing are all below par, while rural crime is on the increase. In fact, rural crime is one issue which really needs to be tackled; it was recently reported that farmers have such little faith in rural law enforcement that over 30% of rural crime isn’t reported to the police.
So what, if anything, are Hunt and Johnson doing to attract the rural vote? To be blunt, not much. Boris did choose to dedicate last week’s Telegraph column to the issue of rural broadband, pledging to roll out full-fibre broadband to every home by 2025, and adding that ‘I am totally committed to supporting farming and rural life’. But we’ve heard that before. Yes, we have terrible fibre coverage in the UK – worse than almost any country in Europe. But superfast broadband has been promised in rural areas time and time again – but never arrives. It has also been pointed out that Boris’s broadband promise is impossible to achieve; so why bother making a promise that he will never be able to keep? I suppose we should be thankful that he is at least thinking about those living in the countryside; but I can’t help but think that Boris’s girlfriend, Carrie, will have little time for the hunting, shooting and fishing aspects of the countryside.
Hunt, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have mentioned the countryside or rural communities at all. Perhaps that will change over the coming weeks, as Hunt and Johnson set off to woo Tory party members at leadership hustings across the country. The Tories can’t take the rural vote for granted, and the two leadership contenders would do well to remember that. But so far, the signs don’t look terribly promising.