Sir Keir Starmer: ‘I want everyone in the countryside to know that I will roll up my sleeves and restore respect’

We invited Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition, to set out the Labour Party's ideas for the countryside.

This year, I braved the British summer and holidayed at home in the Lake District. I’ve always felt it’s the perfect place for a family holiday and so it proved. From boating on Windermere to scrambling up the crags of the Langdale Pikes, lakeside fish and chips or simply drinks in the beer garden — soggy or sunny, there really is something there for everyone.

Taking my kids to the Lakes provided a special rush of nostalgia, because I went there every summer as a child. My mum adored it, she thrived in the open air and rugged beauty, the freedom and sense of community. That spirit also remains in good health. A friend’s dog — Chilli, a retriever cross — disappeared on a walk from Grasmere, but the whole community came out to search until, eventually, Chilli was found by a local climber. A little shaken and with a bang to the head, but, I’m pleased to report, now well on the road to recovery.

I accept that ‘man finds lost dog’ is not your typical start to a political argument. Nonetheless, there is something in that story that does capture the quiet, uncomplaining resilience and togetherness of the countryside. I recognise it because I grew up on what you might call the edge of rural England myself. In fact, you could argue that my home town — Oxted, on the Surrey-Kent border — is about as English as it gets: a familiar mix of pebble-dash and Victorian bricks, surrounded on all sides by rolling pastures and the beautiful chalk hills of the North Downs. I loved it growing up. You could make easy pocket money clearing stones for the local farmers and play football, quite literally, until the cows came home.

This England has always felt fairly removed from Westminster — politics has always been something that happens far away. Yet, over the past few decades — and especially during the past 13 years of Conservative government — I sense something profound has changed. More and more of the decisions that affect communities are taken by people who not only live miles away, but also have little empathy for their challenges. There is a bond of respect — of understanding that countryside spirit and doing politics with it, not to it — that has, at best, frayed.

You would expect me to say it, but the Tories are at the heart of this. Throughout all the crises of the past 13 years, time and again, they have made ordinary working people pay for their mistakes. The ‘mortgage bombshell’ will continue to hammer the incomes of millions living across rural Britain. They have shrugged their shoulders as water companies pump raw sewage into our streams and seas. And the damage done to public services casts a unique shadow over rural communities.

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For example, when the NHS tells heart-attack patients to book taxis because there are no ambulances, that’s a lot scarier when you live in the countryside. If your village has fly-tipping, anti-social behaviour or off-road-biking problems and the police are sitting in a custody suite on the other side of the county, it’s a world away from what happens in cities. If you’re facing mental-health challenges because of stress — a hidden battle for many farmers — and there is a two-year waiting list for treatment, that is a problem that hits rural communities hardest.

The only road back from this is with a Labour Government. We will get 13,000 more police officers and Police Community Support Officers into our towns and villages. We’ll train more doctors, more nurses, more health visitors and, crucially, we’ll shift care closer to your community. And we will cut waiting times for mental-health treatment with 8,500 new mental-health professionals. Better, fully-funded public services are always part of the Labour offer. They will be again at the next election.

However, this time, our offer will include a new partnership with British farming. I am staggered by how slapdash has been the approach over issues of food security during the past few years. The trade deal with Australia is a case in point: sold as a ‘win-win’ deal, it actually represents a one-sided £300 million hit to British food production. Indeed, one sometimes wonders whether the Tories fully appreciate how starkly the trading environment has changed following the Ukraine war. The need for stability now is urgent: farmers need to plan for the long term more than ever before. Yet still the transition towards Environmental Land Management schemes has been chaotic and dysfunctional.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during his visit to Home Farm in Solihull, West Midlands, before speaking at the National Farmers’ Union Conference in February 2023.

Labour has no desire to overturn that apple cart. Starting from scratch all over again would be self-defeating, but, working with the National Farmers’ Union, we would iron out the bureaucratic difficulties with the speed and attention they deserve. We would quickly implement a fair deal for tenant farmers, building on the work of the Rock Review. And we would show some ambition on a bovine TB vaccine as well. How can the country that developed a covid vaccine for the world in 18 months not come up with anything similar for farmers hit by that tragedy in 13 years?

Most of all, we would approach farming with our eyes firmly on British food security. Growing more seasonal, sustainable food here in Britain is an issue of national resilience. The need to strengthen key British supply chains is one of the fundamental lessons coming out of the Ukraine war. We will reform public procurement and make sure half of all food bought by the public sector is food that is locally produced and sustainable.

Yet, in truth, it will take a lot more than good public services and a sustainable farming strategy to tackle this disconnect between politics and people. I want everyone living in the countryside to know that I am determined to roll up my sleeves and restore that bond of respect. I came to politics late in my career, having run large organisations dedicated to public service. In fact, serving our country — all of it — is exactly why I came into politics.

People may be cynical about that and they have a point. Working within it, I do find Westminster incredibly frustrating. The short-termism, the skirting around problems, the inability to walk in the shoes of the country — that is all part of its culture. Nonetheless, I still believe politics is how we fix problems, how we change things, how we build a better future for our country. We simply need to alter everything about the way we go about it.

The way forward is something that I call ‘mission-led government’ — an approach that cuts through the short term, sticking-plaster nonsense of Westminster and focuses squarely on the priorities of the British people: higher growth and an end to the cost-of-living crisis; an NHS fit for the future; cheaper bills for everyone with clean British electricity; safer streets in your community; more opportunities for your children.

It’s also an entirely new way of doing politics, driven by that spirit of doing politics with communities, not to them. It’s a politics of partnership and respect. It means standing up to powerful interests, such as the water companies, when their actions damage the environment that belongs to all of us. It means a commitment to public service in everything we do. And it means a huge shift of power and control out of Westminster and back into the hands of communities. The principle is straightforward; the decisions that make a difference in your lives should be taken by people in your community with skin in the game. That applies for all communities — cities, counties and the countryside. Our message to all is equally simple: Labour will give you back that control.

It’s no great secret that the Labour Party I inherited was not up to the job of changing politics in this way. But, in three years, I have led my party out of the comfort zone of protest and away from the game of gesture politics. I will stop at nothing to do the same to Westminster so that it once again serves your community. It’s time to work, hand in hand with you, to get Britain’s future back.

This article appears in the print edition of Country Life on Wednesday, 6 September 2023. Here’s what else you can find in the latest issue, as well as details on how to subscribe to Country Life.