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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Politics and the countryside
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online political reporter

When Tony Blair came to power in 1997, he expected trouble from a number of quarters.

Fox hunting has become symbolic of Labour's country troubles
The unions would want some kind of pay back for being on their best behaviour during the election campaign, he would have reasoned.

And the honeymoon period with the suburban middle classes surely could not last forever.

But the farmers?

Mr Blair expected - might even have been looking forward to - a dust-up with the landed gentry over the long-promised ban on fox hunting.

But half a million strong marches in central London and, on an another issue, fuel blockades almost bringing the country to its knees?

It would have seemed barely credible.

Safe enemy?

Labour had originally tried to ban hunting with dogs in the 1940s under Clement Attlee, but the issue was kicked into the long grass of committees and reports.

In 1997, riding high on the back of a landslide election victory, it must have seemed like a quick and easy win that would play well with the backbenches.

Fox hunters were one of the few enemies New Labour probably felt it was safe to have.

After all, it must have reasoned, what right-thinking person could possibly argue with saving animals from the clutches of bloodthirsty toffs?

But seven years later the issue has still not been resolved.

In the process, the rural community has found its political voice through the Countryside Alliance, one of the most strident lobby groups around.

Pent-up frustration

The facts that explain the lure of the countryside.

Other rural issues - the death of village life, access to transport and affordable housing have crept up the political agenda.

And then there was 2001's foot-and-mouth crisis - for many a potent symbol of Labour's supposed contempt for country ways.

The pent-up frustration of years of neglect and misunderstanding manifested itself in the Countryside rallies in London.

Rural England had discovered something the metropolitan left has known all along - taking to the streets in protest actually works.

It is hard to imagine, for example, 2000's fuel blockades - orchestrated to a large extent by farmers - happening without the countryside demos of the late 1990s.

Political correctness

In 2004, the political gulf between town and country has probably never been wider - and it is polarised along party lines.

The left has long railed against the hypocrisy of farmers being treated as a special case when mines and factories are allowed to close - and pocketing EU subsidies while at the same time attacking "Europe".

The Tories still dominate rural areas while Labour has the cities
The right, on the other hand, has raged long and hard about the nannying, politically correct Labour Party and its desire to ban everything it finds distasteful and generally interfere in people's lives.

Harold Macmillan may have been the last Conservative leader to stride the grouse moors regularly, gun in hand - and Labour may claim to have a significant percentage of MPs with "semi-rural" constituencies - but the reality is England's rural heartlands belong to the Conservatives.

Geographically, the party covers a greater area of England and Wales than any other party.

The Tories, as some of their backbenchers have highlighted, have virtually disappeared from the inner cities.

Co-party chairman Liam Fox has said it is his mission to do something about that.

Local council election gains earlier this year in the Midlands and North began to redress the balance.

'No go' areas

But the recent parliamentary by-elections in Leicester and Birmingham illustrated how much work they have got to do.

Every Tory MP at Westminster was ordered to spend 10 hours on the campaign trail.

At times, it resembled an urban safari, with Tory MPs down from the shires, venturing gingerly into council estates for the first time in years.

Tim Boswell, a farmer and MP for Daventry campaigning in Leicester South, told BBC News Online his mission was to ensure there were not any "no go" areas for the party.

But if parts of Britain's cities are alien territory for Tories, Labour can seem equally ill at ease in fresh air and green pastures.

Prescott attack

The party's front bench is crammed with former lawyers, lecturers and journalists, whose idea of the countryside is a trip to the local park.

John Prescott summed up the feelings of many in Labour when he told the 2002 party conference: "Every time I see the Countryside Alliance and their contorted faces, I redouble my efforts to abolish fox-hunting forever."

But only 2% of the population, according to a recent poll, believe pursuing a fox hunting ban is a good use of government time.

Tony Blair was, cannily, absent from the last fox hunting vote although he is thought to support a ban.

In the meantime, Labour has made several attempts to build bridges with the rural lobby.

'Rural strategy'

The Countryside Agency was set up to provide an independent voice for rural people at the heart of government.

But it was dramatically scaled back earlier this year, with its outgoing chairman firing a broadside at a government departments that still seems blind to rural concerns.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett unveiled Labour's latest attempt to appease the rural lobby last month, with the launch of a "rural strategy" designed to attack poverty and generate affordable housing.

But with fox hunting expected to return to the political agenda at Westminster in the autumn, the rural lobby groups will renew their complaint that town is neglecting country.


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