If the Tories lose and unleash the prejudiced ignorance of Labour on the countryside, it’ll be their fault for taking us for granted for years

Rishi Sunak has made the first speech by a Prime Minister at the National Farmers’ Union conference since Gordon Brown 15 years ago.

The fact he was there in an election year and that no other Tory prime minister has bothered to turn up since the party came to power in 2010, speaks volumes about the way the agricultural vote has been ignored.

‘Farming is going through its biggest change in a generation,’ acknowledged Mr Sunak. ‘And as farmers do so, this Government will be by their side.’

The penny seems finally to have dropped. While farmers may be insignificant numerically, we nevertheless have the power to block motorways, withhold food from supermarket shelves and make governments look very shaky indeed, as President Macron and other leaders across Europe are now discovering to their cost.

If there wasn’t already panic in the Conservative Party after a Survation poll of the 100 most rural constituencies this month showed Labour ahead of the Tories, then the sight of farmer protests in Dover in recent days will have brought it on.

Rishi Sunak with National Farmers' Union President Minette Batters at a conference in Birmingham yesterday

Rishi Sunak with National Farmers’ Union President Minette Batters at a conference in Birmingham yesterday

The protesters are angry – as most farmers are – at cheap, post-Brexit food imports. These are undercutting home-grown produce and threatening livelihoods following the removal of the EU’s protectionist blanket and exposure to world markets for the first time since 1939.

Farmers are angry, too, at policy-making, box-ticking and red tape. The last thing we want is for the Government to be ‘by our side’ in the tractor cab. We don’t want the civil servants of the Big State anywhere near us. We have had enough of their meddling.

Had Mr Sunak said, ‘My government knows that we only make things worse when we interfere, so we are going to give you the bonfire of red tape we promised you post-Brexit, close down the quangos and leave you to manage the countryside in the way that you know best,’ he would have received a standing ovation.

True, he promised more money for technology and farming productivity schemes. But many of us have bitter memories of participating in these schemes – which focus on sustainable farming – in return for government subsidies.

They sound great: taxpayers’ money for improving the environment. Until you realise you have to spend more hours filling in forms than it would take to dig ponds or plant hedges.

Until you find you have to wait for months before finally getting approval a few weeks before the deadline for doing the work. And then have to wait for months, sometimes years, for the money. Farmers have large overdrafts. They face soaring fuel and fertiliser costs and falling farm-gate prices.

These schemes give us stress we could all do without, which explains why they are massively under-subscribed.

But the real problem for Sunak is that if a died-in-the-wool Tory landowner like me thinks the Conservatives have abandoned the countryside, and feels politically homeless, what hope is there that their core rural vote will turn out for them at this election? It looks more likely that the hunting squires who have hitherto plastered their fields with blue banners will be swayed by the Right-wing Reform Party.

Or vote for a local farmer craftily fielded as the candidate by the Liberal Democrats. Or even, God forbid, for Keir Starmer’s Party. Labour displayed its true metropolitan colours this week by returning to its obsession with fox-hunting, which Tony Blair banned in 2004.

It plans to tighten the ban, outlawing ‘drag’ hunting where the hounds follow a scented trail. The Party argues that the pack on a drag hunt sometimes comes across a fox and kills it.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

However, the real motivation is old-fashioned class warfare. The urbanite Left is convinced, wrongly, that only ‘toffs’ hunt whereas countryside sports are enjoyed by all manner of people of all classes, providing vitally needed jobs and income in the countryside. Steve Reed, shadow environment spokesman, claims three quarters of rural voters would support a ban.

But you can define a rural voter anyway you like. And I can tell you that most people round my way in Dumfriesshire think the hunting ban was a deeply illiberal act of culture warfare against us, as big a shock as banning football would be in Manchester.

As Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance said: ‘It is utterly bizarre that Labour is still making hunting its priority in the countryside.

‘Rural people are desperately concerned about affordable housing, access to services, agricultural transition and a thousand other more important issues.

‘Yet Labour wants to return to fight the culture war of 20 years ago.’

A Labour government would be truly awful for the countryside.

You only have to look at their record in Wales, where the government is planning to force farmers to set aside 10 per cent of their fields for trees and another 10 per cent for wildlife.

Thousands of farmers gathered in Carmarthen last week parading a mock coffin with a plaque which read ‘In memory of Welsh farming’.

They have taken their tractors onto the dual carriageways in desperation, to fight this ‘sustainable farming scheme’ that cannot sustain their livelihoods.

Labour’s DEFRA spokesman Steve Reed claimed Labour’s rural policy ‘isn’t to do with urban people telling country people how to live their lives’.

But that is precisely what this is.

The trouble is that the Tories have been guilty of it, too, during their 14 years in power.

Anyone living in a valley bottom lives in fear of the next flood because the men in suits in centralised environment agencies won’t dredge the rivers as the men in boots in the old local drainage boards would have done. Anyone involved in conservation fears for the future of the lapwing or the Atlantic salmon because the civil servants won’t issue licences to cull badgers or cormorants.

And the more our money is spent on national park authorities with their smart offices and diversity champions, the less we see spent on fixing potholes and keeping rural bus routes open.

And it was a Tory prime minister, Theresa May, who inflicted the Net Zero commitment on the countryside. Rural landlords are scared that they won’t be able to insulate their properties to the standards demanded by the Government. Livestock farmers are demonised for the methane that comes out of their cows’ mouths.

These are real issues that rural folk struggle with every day.

If the Conservatives lose the election and unleash the prejudiced ignorance of a Starmer regime on the countryside, it will be their own fault for taking the farming community for granted.

Jamie Blackett farms in Dumfriesshire and is the author of Red Rag to a Bull, Rural Life in an Urban Age and Land of Milk and Honey, Digressions of a Rural Dissident (Quiller)

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