The Conservative Party is, for better or for worse, the party of the countryside. I feel prompted to state what may seem the obvious, because of recent conjecture that ‘David Cameron has lost the countryside’ (Melissa Kite in The Spectator) and that his party will be swept clean out of office as a punishment for ignoring traditional country voters over issues such as fox hunting, wind turbines and HS2. Last weekend’s editorials would have one believe that the whole world and his wife will be voting for UKIP at the next election.
The speculation has come about because of a recent poll by the Countryside Alliance, which found that 66 % of its members would vote Conservative at the next general election – a drop of 20% on recent years, while 13% would vote UKIP. So what? In these days of marginal constituencies and hung parliaments, 66% is a comfortable majority – most MPs would be delighted to take 66% of the votes in their constituencies.
The Countryside Alliance do good work by keeping rural issues in the political and public spotlight, but the London-based lobby group is hardly the voice of the countryside. If politicians or journalists want to know what people living in the country really think about national politics, they should take the next train out of the city and head for the struggling market towns and large villages of rural England to talk to voters at farmers markets, livestock auctions and – at that most informative of venues – the country pub.
It may be true that a lot of traditional Tory voters are fed up with their party, but we simply won’t know how fed up until the European and general elections. A personal case in point of activist aggravation was last year’s by-election in Corby, when Louise Mensch – an A list candidate who should never have been selected as a candidate for the constituency in the first place, stood down prompting an ill-deserved Labour victory. Although Corby itself is decidedly urban, the villages and countryside around it are very rural. The sense of betrayal by some party activists was profound. But I have no doubt that most of those selfless people who campaigned so hard for Mensch and the defending candidate Christine Emmett, will be out campaigning for the Tories in 2015.
It may be true that many hard-up country people are out of love with the Tories, but almost every single person I know would gladly wear their wellies out putting leaflets through letterboxes, rather than see a Labour government again, that’s how much Labour is despised by most in the countryside. The bitterness brought about by the Hunting Act and the Foot and Mouth epidemic is still raw. During the height of the campaign against ‘the Act’, a popular car sticker sported on many 4 x 4s read ‘Leave your bull**** in Westminster’. It’s a sentiment that’s as strong now as it was then.
Like New Labour before them, the Tories do seem to be experiencing something of an image problem when it comes to the countryside – Notting Hill doesn’t cut the mustard in the shires. Team Cameron may have second homes in Chipping Norton and Cornwall but that hardly endears them to rural families struggling to pay the bills. But aside from this urban elite, there are many decent MPs with rural and semi-rural constituencies who care deeply about farming and the countryside and those who live and work in it. Most of them, it has to be said, are Tories, while only a minority are Lib Dems (notably Tim Farron, the party President) and barely half a dozen are Labour (perhaps Kate Hoey, Chairman of the Countryside Alliance).
So make no mistake about, the Tories are still the party of the countryside. I have absolutely no doubt that UKIP will take plenty of votes from marginal rural constituencies, just as it will from urban ones too. However, when push comes to shove the majority of country people will rally round and come out in favour of their Tory candidates.
Or will they? If the Tories don’t get a tight grip on the economy very soon, they will find UKIP coming home to roost on their marginal perch.