The Conservatives are starting to lose their grip on rural England and Wales. Family farmers feel betrayed, country dwellers can’t let their dogs swim in the local badly polluted river and whole regions feel a post Brexit neglect.
Last week’s local elections saw a 5% decline in the Tory vote share since 2018 and the loss of a quarter of the Council seats they were trying to defend. While the Labour Party focused attention on their gains in London, it was the Lib Dems and Greens who gained most from the slow collapse of the Blue Wall.
Tory MPs are particularly concerned about the fact that party’s vote fell most heavily in the south of England outside London, where many of them have their seats and where they lost control of five councils.
As Professor John Curtice notes:
“Labour did no better than what the party achieved in 2018 when Jeremy Corbyn was still party leader. The party did no more than maintain its 2018 vote in London, secure a small increase in the South of England, but was down three points in the north of England.”
The Green Party gained 78 more councillors last week and now has 554 spread across the country from South Tyneside to Hastings. It’s true that the Green Party took as many seats off Labour as it did from the Conservatives, but there were a lot more Labour seats up for grabs this time.
In the year between this year’s elections and last May, the Green Party has won a total of 12 council by-elections from the Conservatives. This isn’t just a dip caused by Boris Johnson lies and party gate, it is an indicator of a more fundamental problem facing the Conservatives as they lose the support of rural communities.
Rural voters have a growing sense of post Brexit betrayal (as do I). Regions like Cornwall have lost a huge amount of funding due to Brexit, which the government has failed to replace. The Farming and Trade Bills were pushed through Parliament without any guarantees that existing standards on animal welfare and food standards, which our farmers have achieved, would be preserved. This might have been just another issue for most urban lefties, but over a million people signed the NFU petition calling on the government to incorporate these standards into the legislation. The government refused and signed the Australian Trade Deal which does little for the UK economically, but does under-cut those running family farms. A million people, who care about farming and rural life, had their fears confirmed.
The similar sense of rage has run through true blue communities over the government’s failure to act on raw sewage dumped in rivers. Find an online map of water companies who are pouring our lavatory contents straight into rivers and it emptying onto coastland areas and it is predominantly represented by Conservative MPs. When there isn’t a single waterway with a clean bill of health, then those who: walk their dogs, or fish, or sail, or even let their children go for a paddle, all have first-hand evidence that the Conservatives don’t take care of the environment. It was left to the House of Lords to rebel, along with a massive public outcry, to force the government into a U-turn. We now have an obligation for water companies to reduce the level of deliberate discharges, but even now the government are refusing to treat this as an urgent issue.
Anyone who uses a bus to get around the English countryside knows the neglect that these communities have suffered. The cost of living crisis has hit rural poor just as hard as elsewhere, but often without the support network that urban communities have developed. The Green Party’s focus on home insulation at this election connects the cost of living crisis with the climate crisis, as well as supporting local businesses and jobs. It’s a practical solution, but enables us to say that if we did insulate Britain a lot of poorer people would be better off.
The Conservatives are treating voters in their rural heartlands with the same contempt that Labour showed many in the old industrial strongholds that they ruled for decades. Yet, when Labour won the 1997 and 2001 general elections, it boasted over 100 rural MPs reaching into Conservative heartlands. There is now a real chance that the Greens could inherit the mantel of being the main opposition to the government in some of those areas.
The First Past the Post system reinforces an assumption that the two main parties don’t have to put a lot of work into large swathes of England as those voters have nowhere else to go. Losing council seats in local elections is a warning sign that voters can’t be taken for granted.