It’s frustrating being a member of the Labour Party. I share Labour’s values but they just don’t seem to be applied to rural issues, and, as you have probably noticed, I live in a rural area and care about the countryside and its wildlife.
Labour is, for my liking, far too dominated by urban intellectuals – and it’s not the intellectual bit that worries me. If Ed Miliband, for whom I voted in the Labour leadership election, really means for Labour to be a One Nation party then he had better get some good advice on rural issues pretty quickly or else he risks, needlessly, alienating some voters in what will probably be a fairly close-run general election.
In a One Nation nation then those aspects of fairness and equality relating to education, health and opportunity apply, obviously, just as much to rural communities as urban ones. They are not particularly rural issues even though they must be addressed differently in remote upland villages from the streets of Tottenham.
Taking rural issues seriously does not mean simply attacking the worst aspects of what those who like to call themselves ‘real country people’ get up to. I’m quite glad that fox-hunting was banned, and I wouldn’t want to see it come back, but it wouldn’t have reached my top five of countryside issues to fix. No, Labour needs to demonstrate that it cares about the 70% of the country that is farmed (forested etc) and has policies that will deliver value for all in an efficient manner (or manor).
About 70% of the UK (and England, with which I am mostly concerned here) is farmland. Millions of taxpaying families pay around £400 a year to tens of thousands of land-owning families through the CAP. That’s one of the things that makes us One Nation – we all pay for the countryside as well as all paying for the NHS, Armed Forces, schools etc.
So it seems that my family have been paying for the countryside at least since the UK joined what was then the EEC and is now the EU (but actually for much longer than that). £400/yr for 40 years adds up to quite an investment – £16000 per family. Given that there aren’t many farmers in the country an awful of us are clubbing together to provide income support to farming families. Most farms you drive past have received millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money over the decades.
What should the taxpayer in the streets of Garston, Brent North, Maesteg or Dunfermline expect from their investment? That is the One Nation question for Labour to ponder.
That pondering should think about the type of land use that leads to flooding of houses and the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth disease, that leads to the disappearance of once common wildlife and the continuing illegal killing of protected species, that leads to reductions in soil carbon and high emissions of greenhouse gases. Should every family contribute £400 per year to a countryside which delivers private profit quite effectively but public goods very badly?
We need a new contract between the many and the few, the urban and the rural, those who pay and those who receive, those who expect the produce of the countryside and those who produce it. Where is it?