Independent View: Lib Dems are turning heads in the Tories’ rural heartlands. Here’s how they can win over countryside voters for good

The recent local election results continue to demonstrate that rural support for the Conservatives is dwindling.

Their loss was, by all appearances, the Liberal Democrats’ gain. Where the Conservatives faltered, the Lib Dems thrived: in newly created council Westmorland and Furness, they took 36 seats compared to just 11 for the Tories, and in the Conservative stronghold of Somerset, they won 65 seats compared to a meagre 36.

Our recent opinion poll could well have predicted this Conservative downfall in the countryside. Published just weeks before locals took to the ballots, it indicated a 7.5% drop in support for the Conservatives.

Should the governing party continue on this downward trajectory, the results could be an indication of more big wins to come for the Lib Dems.

This is by no means a foregone conclusion, however. To ensure local election wins are converted into seats at the next General Election, there is no room for complacency.

Existing economic data shows the bar hasn’t exactly been set high. Under the Conservatives, the rural economy has become 18% less productive than the average. Only 46% of rural communities have adequate 4G coverage. Rural homes are less affordable than those in urban areas, whilst rural jobs pay less.

Despite all this, the rural economy and its needs have been nowhere to be seen in the Government’s Levelling Up agenda. Nearly bereft of any mention of rural communities, the document gives the sense that our government sees the countryside as no more than a ‘nice place to visit’.

This is wholly inaccurate of course. Rural areas are brimming with opportunity, which if unlocked could see an estimated £43bn added to the national economy.

Whether the new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, announced earlier this month in the Queen’s Speech, will do anything to remedy this is unclear. If the past few years are anything to go by, however, rural voters will hardly be holding their breath.

While the Conservatives continued fail to deliver an ambitious plan for the rural economy certainly works to the Lib Dems’ favour, it is not enough to ensure rural election triumph. If recent events have taught us anything, it’s that a lot can change in the space of a few years. As the General Election edges closer, now is not the time to take the “foot off the gas”.

Instead, the Lib Dems must develop a robust policy platform. One that demonstrates an understanding that the countryside and its businesses are multifaceted. One whose policy reflects the fact that 85% of rural businesses have nothing to do with farming or agriculture. And one that sees the value that removing the structural barriers facing these businesses brings, allowing them to grow, provide employment and positively contribute to our national economy.

Thankfully, the hard work has already been done, in the form of a report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse.

The report follows one of the most comprehensive inquiries ever into the rural economy. Taking evidence from over 50 trade bodies, business leaders, academics and campaign groups, the report includes 27 policy recommendations covering planning reform, housing, tax, skills, connectivity and farming – as well as the processes by which government makes its decisions.

The recommendations are, in essence, a ready-made blueprint for revitalising the rural economy, and one that – if heavily leant on to shape their rural policy pledges – could see the Lib Dems gain significant support.

A word of caution, however. For these policies to have any real impact on the daily lives of those living and working in the countryside, better cross-departmental working is paramount. Try as it might through its recent ‘rural proofing’ measures, DEFRA alone does not have the policy levers required to produce tangible results and grow the rural economy.

Therefore, if we’ve any hope of achieving a cohesive rural economic policy, then the Treasury, Department for Levelling Up, Department for Business and Department for Digital, Communications, Media and Sport – all of whom possess these powers – must collaborate.

Crucially, the new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill must have rural development at its core – otherwise, we prevent opportunity being created not only for individuals, but for families and the wider community.

Should the Lib Dems show real ambition for growing the countryside economy in the next two years, prising rural seats from the Conservatives’ hands will be a real possibility come the next General Election.

Levelling Up means nothing if it does not apply to the countryside. Rural communities are raring and ready to go, and now is a golden opportunity for the Lib Dems to show real ambition for the countryside where Boris Johnson has not.

The spotlight is on you. Don’t waste it.

* Mark Tufnell is the President of the Country Land & Business Association

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  • Chris Moore 27th May '22 - 9:22am

    Thank you for an excellent article.

    The party does have a serious opportunity in rural areas.

    Party leadership have done a good job in listening to rural voters and campaigning on ambulance times, river pollution and so on.

    Let’s not throw away this good work and opportunity by trying to foist our pet internal obsessions with PR, UBI and LVT on an uninterested electorate.

  • It seems to me that outraged ‘decent’ Tories and two other groups offer a way back for LDs, the self employed and the rural areas. Have never understood why we weren’t the party of choice for people who opted (or were forced by circumstance) to employ themselves and a few others, I mean how much more liberal could you be, and can see farmers in something like the same light (albeit often with many advantages). How the folk suffering poverty in the deep blue rural areas continue to vote Tory is beyond me.

    Also I feel there is a new category which I can best categorise, tongue in cheek maybe, as those who are now too posh to be Tories. They exist!

  • William Francis 30th May '22 - 11:29pm

    @Chris Moore.

    Our “our pet internal obsessions” have a fundamental role in maintaining our membership and our core vote.

    PR has been a core policy of the party for decades and is the reason why many vote for us. LVT has kept many an activist within the party and a UBI is a unique policy that differentiates us from LabCon (though our leadership doesn’t seem to want to promote it).

    We should learn the lessons of the coalition years about the costs of abandoning our ideals for short-term gains.

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