Labour will pledge to create a minister for rural affairs in every government department on Monday, as the party pitches itself to Conservative voters in the countryside.
Sir Keir Starmer is concerned his party has lost support in the Red Wall and Scotland, and will need to win back constituencies in the south of England not held by Labour since the 2001 election if it is to win a majority at Westminster. The party believes it can win back areas in the countryside by nominating a minister in every department to oversee the impact of the Government’s work in rural communities. The rural minister in the Department for Transport would be responsible for rural bus services, for example, while a health minister would intervene to prevent the decline of GPs in the countryside. The change would apply to all government departments except for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for International Trade.
Defra increasingly 'peripheral'
Luke Pollard, the shadow environment secretary, said the Department for Energy, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has become increasingly “peripheral” in government under the leadership of George Eustice. He said Defra has been sidelined when the Government is negotiating post-Brexit trade deals, leading to an influx of cheap products from abroad that undercut British farmers, while transport times to local hospitals in the countryside are double that of cities. “I think there has always been this assumption in those communities that the Conservatives are the party of rural communities and they are the parties of farming,” Mr Pollard told The Telegraph. “That is largely an impression built up by good Tory spin doctors, rather than a practical application. We won in rural communities in 1997 and 2001, and we held a lot of them in 2005 and 2010. “Because of the way that the Government has found new and ingenious ways of shafting farmers in recent months, I think the farming vote has been much more up for grabs than it has been for a very long time.” Labour’s pitch for the countryside comes after a collapse in support for the party in two of its traditional heartlands - Scotland and the North East and North West.
Labour must win over voters in rural South
Mr Pollard said that while Labour must focus on recovering so-called “Red Wall” seats in the north of England, it must also present a case to voters in the rural south. Party bosses are concerned that Labour campaigners typically focus on urban areas, believing that rural communities cannot be won over. Mr Eustice’s department is responsible for reforming the UK’s subsidy system for farmers, now that the UK has left the European Union. Labour says the replacement payment scheme, which is being phased in by the Government over a period of seven years, will lead to aggregated “super farms” and the loss of family-owned businesses. “Aggregated businesses make more money because your supply chain is vertically integrated,” Mr Pollard said. “We have seen that already, especially in some of the larger farms in the East of England. And that means that you are losing jobs in the local community.”