Labour should win over ‘up for grabs’ rural communities, Mandelson warns

Lord Mandelson speaks at the Future Countryside conference on Tuesday. (Rebecca Speare-Cole/PA)
Lord Mandelson speaks at the Future Countryside conference on Tuesday. (Rebecca Speare-Cole/PA)

The Labour Party should focus on winning over “up for grabs” rural communities, Lord Mandelson has warned.

The former minister said the countryside “does not belong to the Conservative Party” and that he wants the party to make it a “real Labour cause”.

He also warned against stoking culture wars with rural minorities, calling for Labour to instead “bring people together”.

Speaking at the Future Countryside conference at Hatfield House on Tuesday, the Labour peer said: “The countryside, contrary to some people’s impression, does not belong to the Conservative Party.

“The countryside actually doesn’t belong to any particular party at all. The countryside is there and there’s a very real sense collectively that it’s up for grabs, and that’s what I want my party do to between now and the next general election.”

Lord Mandelson, who served as a cabinet minister under Sir Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, reminisced about Labour’s approach to rural affairs in the years after the Second World War, saying the party would never have dreamt of “pitching city against countryside”.

“They understood in those days, that Labour’s appeal had to be to the whole country, not just select parts of it, not just where people were running into our arms,” he said.

Lord Mandelson also argued that the party should not “pick a fight” with people in rural areas over their traditions and activities, adding that it should take a “live and let live” approach.

“If it is wrong for the right wing in our country, – and I believe it is wrong – for them to stoke culture wars against minorities, it is just as wrong for the left wing to stoke culture wars against rural minorities,” he said.

During his speech, the former Labour minister fired shots at the Conservative Party for “taking rural Britain for granted” during its 13 years in power.

“I think they have felt that they can just sort of hoover up votes in election time without giving a very much coherent idea about the countryside between elections,” he said.

It came after Environment Secretary Therese Coffey spoke at the conference to outline new initiatives as part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report on “Unleashing Rural Opportunity”.

Ms Coffey said the country needs to “future-proof” its rural way of life, announcing a range of new initiatives on connectivity, health, crime, transport and housing.

This included a new £7 million fund to test ways for communities to get better access to wireless networks, consulting on changing the planning system to boost affordable housing and looking at scrapping EU laws to allow everyone with driving licences to drive a minibus.

The Environment Secretary also confirmed that the Government would not support the right to roam – allowing anyone to wander across the countryside on public or private land.

It comes in stark contrast to the Labour Party which has pledged to introduce a Scottish-style right to roam law in England if it wins the next general election.

Elsewhere, Rory Stewart told the conference that clear communication combining logic, emotion and ethics is needed to resolve contradictions that exist over rural issues.

The former Conservative minister argued that many stakeholders disagree with each other over issues like flooding versus farming certain land or a preserving a historic bridge that is disrupting water flow.

“The idea that we often sell is that there is some perfect solution where everybody can get everything they want in the best of all possible worlds is deeply deeply undermining,” he said.