THE BLOG
03/10/2011 20:02 BST | Updated 03/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Who is the Party of the Countryside?

Once upon a time that question was met with ridicule; the poser rendered a fool simply by having the temerity to ask it.

Once upon a time that question was met with ridicule; the poser rendered a fool simply by having the temerity to ask it.

But apparently not any longer; at least if you believe Mary Creagh.

Mary, for those unaware, is the shadow minister for DEFRA, and last Tuesday she took to her Party Conference stage in Liverpool to announce Labour as the new party of the countryside.

It wasn't just spin either. She was armed with a few good Westminster victories - most memorably over the forests sell-off; a good collection of policies given amusing titles like 'Back the Apple campaign'; and a sturdy stick with which to beat the Government over things like badger culls and planning (about which I have written before). It also roused the conference. I was in Liverpool all last week and spent a good proportion stood in front of the Countryside Alliance stand (which was much better received than some of you might think). Every day another few delegates would walk up, smile beaming, and put it to us that it was Labour who were now the 'party of the countryside'. All in all, a good move, well executed.

It is hard to argue that the first 16 months of the Coalition have been a resounding success for rural communities. And Labour can justifiably sense an opening.

But I have yet to be convinced the rhetoric on this opening can be met with concrete policy, and thus electoral success.

Take forests, for example. It was a big victory for Labour and an unfortunate early u-turn for her counterpart Caroline Spelman, the Environment Minister. But it was hard to tell if opposition to the Government plans was motivated by a concern for rural voters. It was the metropolitan activists that jumped on the 38 degrees e-petition, that started the chorus of dissent, that eventually forced the government's hand. Many living in the countryside were far more comfortable with the idea of the land being privately owned - as so much is already - and a good proportion of them would have jumped at the chance to be given the opportunity to manage these areas better than the Forestry Commission currently does. But they weren't listened to. And so this became a fight of to privatise or not to privatise, with the countryside's voice getting lost in the philosphical melee.

The same is happening on badger culls. Once again, the Government policy is one that has left many confounded, and Labour (and 38 degrees) smell metaphorical blood (pun intended). But, once again, the opposition is only partially motivated by concern for a British farming industry that is on its knees, but by the quick and easy political advantage that comes from painting the Coalition as badger killers (incidentally, the Labour Government have been holding similar - though not identical - trial culls for several years, and Mary Creagh committed to continuing the Government's cull if Labour win in 2015). The same could be said about the proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, a policy that is fully supported by the National Farmers Union, and the campaign to save the Rural Advocate - a post that has been largely regarded as redundant for several years.

Willie Bain, a shadow Defra minister, perhaps explained the new plan of attack best when he said last week: "We (Labour) need to win back seats in the south and east of England if we are to form a future government - it's a must." And he's right. Just as many say it is impossible to win a general election outright without the city and big business on your side; it is also very difficult to claim a majority in Parliament with no rural representation - and likely to be more so if the proposed boundary changes go through.

So it all makes perfect political sense.

But does any of this really do the countryside any good?