The Conservative Party has historically dominated the countryside in England. Not any more, suggests exclusive polling for the New Statesman, which reveals that only 19 per cent of voters now identify the Tories with the countryside. Forty-six per cent associate the Greens with the countryside, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats trail behind in third and fourth place.
“These figures are striking and correspond closely to wider tensions among Conservative voters,” says Mathew Lawrence, the founder and director of the UK think tank Common Wealth, in response to the poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies*. He cites the rise of the Blue Wall, the disaffection among Tories who voted to remain in the EU, and the lean towards the Liberal Democrats by some traditional Tories since Brexit and partygate, as examples of such tensions.
Many of the Tory voters who are increasingly dissatisfied with the government live in suburbs outside London, in or close to rural areas, Lawrence adds. As David Gauke wrote in the New Statesman last month, “traditionally Conservative, prosperous, well-educated, generally Remain voting,” Tory majorities in Blue Wall areas were often smaller in 2019 than they were in 2015. “If one accepts the view that our politics is realigning…, Conservative losses here might signify not just evidence of mid-term blues but something more fundamental: the Tory retreat from its customary stronghold in south-east England,” wrote Gauke. The Greens being increasingly identified with the countryside could be further evidence of such realigning.
Boris Johnson has been “much stronger on nature than any other party leader”, says Shaun Spiers, the executive director of Green Alliance, a UK think tank. “There is lots of cynicism around how much Johnson really gets nature or climate change, but until now at least, he is better on nature than Keir Starmer or Ed Davey,” although Spiers says that the government’s policies that protect nature and seek to reform farming are being weakened. Labour has “great” climate policies, but under Starmer’s leadership “has not demonstrated that it gets the countryside or has a progressive vision for farming,” says Spiers. He suggests the Liberal Democrats under Davey are worse, “actively campaigning against farming reform” that would help to harmonise food production with restoring nature. Lawrence says there is “an inability or a deliberate non-effort on the part of Labour and the Liberal Democrats not to contest the countryside and to focus their political efforts elsewhere”.
However, all parties are missing a trick by ignoring or downplaying the countryside, suggests Lawrence. Offering better and more equitable access to nature should be a way for politicians for talk about the climate crisis, he believes.
The co-leader of the Green Party, Adrian Ramsay, believes more people are identifying the Greens with the countryside because they have “important messages for rural communities” about a range of issues that go beyond environmental concerns. These include highlighting the role of sustainable farming in providing food security and the importance of creating rural jobs. “The cost-of-living crisis is hitting rural communities just as hard as urban areas,” adds Ramsay, pointing to the Green’s pledge to increase the minimum wage and restore and then double the uplift to Universal Credit to £40 a week.
The publication of the UK Food Strategy last week, which set out the government’s vision for food and farming, was largely welcomed by groups purporting to represent the countryside such as the National Farmers Union and the Countryside Alliance. The groups acknowledged, however, that the government still needed to fill in the details. The Green Party was rather less welcoming of the strategy. The Green MP Caroline Lucas accused the government of failing to care for the natural environment, the climate or voters’ health and well-being. The strategy omitted 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 per cent of respondents to polling for the New Statesman said they would support a levy on sugar and salt to discourage their consumption, with only 27 per cent of voters opposed to such a measure.
Despite more people identifying the Greens with the countryside, Lawrence says he would be “surprised” if the party managed to translate the increase into a significant number of votes in rural areas at the next election. The party is more likely to make any electoral breakthrough in urban areas, such as Bristol West, he explains. Associating the Green Party with the countryside is one thing, but actually deciding that the environment is a priority issue in a national election is another.
Ipsos’ Issues Index from May 2022 shows pollution, environment and climate change in sixth place in terms of British voters’ biggest concerns. Inflation, prices and the economy come much higher up. It remains to be seen if voters agree with Ramsay that the Green Party is also on top of these issues. Whoever ultimately replaces Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party is likely to swing the rural vote. “Potential replacements, including Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, have given no indication that they understand the severity of the challenges we face, and certainly not the severity of the nature crisis,” says Spiers.
*A weighted sample of 2,000 eligible voters in Great Britain were surveyed on 15 June 2022.