Labour is set to give the countryside and rural communities a big role next year in its drive to win back the “red wall” seats it needs to reclaim if it is to have a chance of regaining power in the next election, a member of Sir Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet has said.
Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard told The Independent that the party was “up for the fight” in areas where Conservatives were letting rural communities down on issues like support for farmers, food standards and protection of the natural environment.
He will in the New Year launch the second chapter of Labour’s “green recovery plan”, focusing on the protection of biodiversity not only in the jungles and oceans of the world, but also in the fields, hedgerows and villages of the UK.
The Plymouth Sutton & Devonport MP – a West Country native whose sister runs a sheep farm in Cornwall – said that a year dominated by coronavirus had heightened Britain’s awareness of the value of the natural world and the need to protect it.
“My sense of it is that, for all the things that they have missed this year, people have also gained a much greater appreciation of nature, be that the birds singing in their garden, the importance of green space, the importance of going to the local park or whatever it may be,” he said.
While the fight against climate change will rightly take up many of the headlines in 2021 as the UK hosts the vital United Nations COP26 conference in Glasgow, he said politics must not to lose focus on the other element of the “climate and ecological emergency” declared by parliament last year – protection of biodiversity and the natural world.
He urged the government to recognise this by taking a more active role in the less high-profile UN COP15 international biodiversity summit in China in May, which is likely to focus on measures such as ending the trade in wild animals and protecting habitats to avoid the kind of mingling of humans with wild species which led to Covid-19.
“We can either solve the carbon crisis and the ecological crisis together, or we can solve neither,” said Mr Pollard. “They’re intimately linked.
“We need fundamental change in the way our economy works to do with carbon. But there’s no point decarbonising our planet if we kill all our habitats and lose all the species in the meantime. That’s why they have to go hand in hand.”
He accused Tory-led governments over the past decade of using animal welfare for “brand decontamination”, passing legislation on the ivory trade and banning wild animals in circuses while failing to prioritise protection of the UK’s biodiversity in other policies.
“You’ve got a lot of good warm words on nature recovery from the government, but if you look at, say, where the planning white paper’s going in terms of house-building, there’s a clear tension between what one arm of government is doing and what the other arm of government is doing,” said Mr Pollard. Labour’s biodiversity strategy will include measures to “build nature into new developments”, he said, with requirements to plant trees and incorporate measures like “swift bricks” which provide nesting places for birds within walls. And he said he would back more “rewilding” projects like the recent reintroduction of beavers to Devon.
While welcoming the prime minister’s support for the protection of what he refers to as “charismatic megafauna” like lions, tigers and elephants, Mr Pollard said it was also important to recognise the threat to creatures nearer to home.
“We are seeing species decline in the UK as well,” he said. “Some of it relates to so-called ‘edge species’ – the genetically unique species that are at the end of evolutionary chains, so there are not many other species similar to them.
“We have to make the case that it’s not just about protecting the ones that we’ve all heard about, but it’s the whole range, whether that’s about breeds of puffins or small mammals or insects. The insect population is facing a substantial threat, but because not everyone is that keen on insects, it tends not to be noticed.”
Other ideas he is keen to push include the planting of sea grass and kelp, which can be 30 times more effective in capturing carbon dioxide from the air than tree-planting because of its faster rate of growth.
And he said he would like to extend a project to clear Plymouth Sound of around 1,000 car tyres dumped in the sea into a nationwide drive to remove up to a million from the UK shoreline, where they can damage the natural world by emitting micro-plastics and by physically disturbing habitats as they are washed around by the tides.
In its first year in power, the Johnson administration had done “effectively nothing” in legislative terms for animal welfare, and appeared to be on course to allow a private member’s bill to increase sentences for animal cruelty fall for lack of parliamentary time, said Mr Pollard.
“I don’t think it’s as high on the agenda as it was under Theresa May,” he said.
“The government has managed to cut and paste green soundbites like ‘green new deal’ and ‘build back better’. But they have put all their eggs in the COP26 basket – understandably as we are hosting it – and they are very reluctant to actually put in the policies that sit behind it when it comes to biodiversity.”
With the new Joe Biden administration in Washington expected to re-engage in global actions, like the Paris climate change accord, spurned by Donald Trump, there is “a real space for international leadership” on biodiversity this year, he said.
“2021 is a very important year for biodiversity. The signals we send are being watched the world over, and I think we do have a big role, we’ve got a big voice and we carry a big legacy.”
Mr Pollard said he wants Labour to be “overtly red on the outside but overtly green on the inside”, and saw Starmer’s decision to visit a farm on his first trip as leader as a signal of the party’s determination to raise its profile on rural issues.
“The food standards debate has highlighted how the Conservative Party is taking rural communities for granted and it has seen us on the side of British farmers and rural communities in a way they never expected,” he said. “In the past, Labour didn’t always turn up and that has to change. That is why Keir’s first visit when he was leader was putting his wellies on and getting on a farm to highlight that we are vocally supporting our farmers and vocally supporting people that care about the food they put on their kids’ plates every day.
“There’s not a route for Labour into Number 10 that doesn’t see us winning rural and semi-rural seats. If you look at the red wall seats on the political map, they tend to be very large constituencies and that’s because they have a lot of rural areas.
“Having earned the right to be listened to on food standards, we now have to continue to earn the right to be listened to on rural housing and rural transport and the rest as well. Expect to see more from Labour about a rural and semi-rural dimension next year. It’s worth remembering that in 1997 we held 179 rural seats and we currently hold 17. So this is not only the right thing to do for communities in championing their issues, it’s the right thing to get a Labour government.”