5 January 1996

21% slump for Tories

What do you think of politicians? Not very much, according to our recent survey which canvassed farmers voting intentions. There is better news for farmers lobby groups, which still enjoy their confidence, reports Liz Mason

FARMING support for the Tory party has slumped by 21% since the last general election, a survey for farmers weekly has found.

More than half (58%) of farmers questioned said they had voted Conservative in April 1992. But only 37% said they planned to do the same at the next election. The survey, which questioned 287 farmers throughout the UK, confirms a massive decline in support for the Tory party in recent years.

A poll published in 1991 by the Conservative Bow Group found 71% of farmers voted for the party in the 1987 election. farmers weeklys survey suggests that that support has almost halved.

December published polls put Labour 30 points clear of the Tories. But the survey found there was no evidence of a swing to Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Instead it suggested farmers were fed up with the performance of all politicians.

Almost one-fifth (19%) said they did not intend to vote at the next election, compared with 10% who said they did not visit a polling station last time. Another 22% would not say which party would receive their vote and 8% had not yet decided.

When asked which party best represented the interests of UK farmers, 37% said Conservative. But 35% said none and 13% preferred not to say. Only 9% opted for Labour, 2% for the Lib Dems and 1% each for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists. The slim support for Tony Blairs New Labour Party shrank further when farmers were asked how they would vote at the next election. Only 6% planned to vote Labour – a 2% rise on the last election. Just 4% said they intended to vote Lib Dem, a 2% fall on last time.

The parties agricultural policies most influenced farmers voting intentions, with 35% citing them as the biggest reason for a change in their voting intentions. Social policies influenced 25% and financial/tax policies influenced 22%. NFU parliamentary adviser Barney Holbeche said the slump in Conservative support was not surprising given the general disillusionment with government.

More interesting were the 19% who are so fed up with politicians of all parties that they would prefer not to vote. Mr Holbeche suggested that view may reflect a general trend among voters.

Politicians as a group had never been held in such low esteem. The sleaze factor and fatigue with the same old faces contributed to the view that there was not much to choose between them and the most sensible thing was not to bother to vote at all.

Some farmers may also argue that their individual vote made little difference. But that was an "ostrich-like attitude and a very short sighted point of view", said Mr Holbeche. Britain has a healthy democracy and farmers, as a clearly defined group who make a unique contribution to the country, are well placed to put across a concise collective view to politicians.

Other more knowledgeable farmers may take the view that individual party policies were only one part of a more complex EU picture and it did not matter what UK politicians said.

"We are not talking about British policy for agriculture but the attitude of the next British government as one member of a club of 15," added Mr Holbeche.

Despite Labours firm lead in the general polls he suggested the next election, which has to be called before May 1997, would be a close and bitterly-fought contest, particularly in marginal seats. And farmers votes were important.

The farming vote, in its broadest sense, extended beyond farmers to farming related industries, which in some areas still involved a significant proportion of the population. "It is still the case that the farming community has quite a lot of influence and sway in the way other rural folk vote," he said.

The parties were showing a much stronger interest in rural polices, said Mr Holbeche, and that would be carried forward to the election. &#42