18 May 2001
Use marginals to be heard
By Mike Stones
VOTERS have a key chance to elect MPs sympathetic to farming and countryside concerns in the marginal rural constituencies of Britain, according to farming organisations.
“The fate of marginal seats may not influence the outcome of the election but it is a chance to elect MPs who are friends of the farming industry,” says Barney Holbeche, NFU head of parliamentary affairs.
“And, it is in farmings interests to have as many friends as possible in parliament.”
His organisation has identified 29 Labour seats, 41 Conservative seats, seven Liberal Democrat seats and one Plaid Cymru seat which it believes to be marginal. There are a further nine in Scotland.
That gives voters in these constituencies the chance to select a candidate who favours farming interests and to make all candidates listen to their point of view.
Food and farming is very much on the political agenda, he said.
“No government is beyond the forces of nature as the postponement of the election due to foot-and-mouth, revealed. And all political parties have shown an interest in rural areas.”
Voter apathy is, he believes, a big danger.
“Differences between the parties are more of nuance than major policy and younger voters are becoming increasingly disillusioned with politics,” he says.
But failing to vote would be to surrender control of the countryside to others who do bother to vote.
“June the seventh should be a time for farmers to swallow hard and put aside recent angers and frustrations.
“They should look ahead to see where agriculture is going and vote for candidate which they believe is most likely to progress farming in the right direction.”
Political director of the Country Land and Business Association, Nick Way, agrees that the large number of rural marginal seats provides a chance for the countryside.
“Any party that wants to be returned to Westminster can win only by claiming a large number of rural seats,” he says.
“The election gives rural voters the opportunity to reinforce the urgency of that need with candidates and to elect those who are most likely to deliver.”
Questions test commitment
It will help them understand the importance of farming and could help you decide whom to vote for, says Nick Way, political director of the Country Land and Business Association.
Mr Way already has a query to test candidates who visit his home near Witney in Oxfordshire.
“Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of joining the Euro, how are you going to ensure that UK farmers compete with the same level of support as their European counterparts?
“If the reply is tough luck, I cant be too confident about them supporting the industry,” he says.
Another advocate of doorstep politics is Barney Holbeche, NFU head of Parliamentary Affairs.
“Since the polls say Tony Blair is likely to win a large majority, there is even more reason to question his candidates on rural issues.”
Mr Holbeche believes sympathy for farming is more important than detailed knowledge
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