The Conservative Party has historically dominated rural England. No more, offers an exclusive survey for New statesman, which shows that only 19 percent of voters now identify Tories with the countryside. Forty-six percent associate the Greens with the countryside, with Labor and the Liberal Democrats falling behind in third and fourth places.
“These numbers are startling and closely related to broader tensions among Conservative voters,” says Matthew Lawrence, founder and director of British think tank Common Wealth, in response to a survey conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies*. He cites the rise of the Blue Wall, discontent among Tories who voted to stay in the EU, and the leaning of some traditional Tories towards the Liberal Democrats after Brexit and a partyas examples of such tension.
Lawrence adds that many of the Conservative voters who are increasingly dissatisfied with the government live in the suburbs outside of London, in or close to the countryside. Like David Gauke wrote in New statesman Last month, “traditionally Conservative, prosperous, well-educated, broadly retaining the vote,” Tory majorities in Blue Wall neighborhoods were often smaller in 2019 than they were in 2015. “If one accepts the view that our politics are being restructured…, the loss of the Conservatives here may mean not only evidence of a medium-term blues, but also something more fundamental: the retreat of the Tories from their habitual stronghold in the south-east of England,” Gaucke wrote. The Greens, who increasingly identify with the countryside, may be further evidence of such a realignment.
Boris Johnson was “much stronger by nature than the leader of any other party,” says Sean Spears, chief executive of Green Alliance, a British think tank. “There is a lot of cynicism about how much Johnson really understands nature or climate change, but at least so far he has a better understanding of nature than Keir Starmer or Ed Davey,” although Spears says the government’s conservation and agricultural reform policies are easing. Labor has a “great” climate policy, but under Starmer’s leadership “haven’t shown they’re accessing the countryside or have a progressive vision for agriculture,” Spears says. He suggests the Davey-led Liberal Democrats are worse off, “strongly opposed to agricultural reform” that would help reconcile food production with nature’s restoration. Lawrence says there is a “failure or deliberate lack of effort on the part of Labor and the Liberal Democrats not to fight the countryside and focus their political efforts elsewhere.”
However, all parties are missing the trick by ignoring or downplaying the countryside, Lawrence argues. In his opinion, the offer of better and more equitable access to nature should be an occasion for politicians to talk about the climate crisis.
One of the leaders of the Green Party, Adrian Ramsay, believes that more people identify the greens with the countryside because they carry “important messages for rural communities” on a range of issues that go beyond environmental issues. These include emphasizing the role of sustainable agriculture in food security and the importance of creating jobs in rural areas. “The cost-of-living crisis is hitting rural communities as hard as it is hitting urban areas,” adds Ramsay, pointing to the Greens’ pledge to raise the minimum wage and restore and then double the Universal Credit increase to £40 a week.
UK edition Food strategy last week, which set out the government’s vision for food and agriculture, was largely welcomed by groups claiming to represent the countryside, such as National Farmers Union and Countryside Alliance. However, the groups acknowledged that the government still needed to fill in the details. The Green Party rather less welcomed this strategy. Greens MP Caroline Lucas accused the government of not caring about the environment, the climate, or the health and well-being of voters. The strategy omits many of the recommendations made by Henry Dimbleby in a report commissioned by the government last year, including a tax on salt and sugar, a reduction in meat consumption and various environmental measures aimed at restoring nature. Thirty-nine percent of survey respondents New statesman said they would support a levy on sugar and salt to discourage their consumption, and only 27% of voters opposed such a measure.
While more people are equating the Greens with the countryside, Lawrence says he would be “surprised” if the party could translate that increase into significant rural votes in the next election. The party has a better chance of achieving an electoral breakthrough in urban areas such as West Bristol, he said. Associating the Green Party with the countryside is one thing, but actually deciding that the environment is a priority issue in national elections is another.
ipsos Problem Index as of May 2022, shows pollution, environment and climate change as the sixth biggest concern for British voters. Inflation, prices and the economy rise much higher. It remains to be seen if voters will agree with Ramsay that the Green Party is also on top of these issues. Whoever eventually replaces Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party is likely to influence rural voting. “Potential replacements, including Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, have given no indication that they understand the severity of the challenges we are facing and, of course, the gravity of the natural crisis,” Spears says.
*A weighted sample of 2,000 eligible voters in the UK was polled on 15 June 2022.