Corbyn and the Countryside: Labour’s new leader

Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader, is widely seen as a dangerous, urban leftist, a threat to middle England. The only good thing the Daily Telegraph has found to say about him is that it approves of his vest.

But on planning and the countryside, Corbyn’s views seem remarkably old-fashioned. The poor man appears still to believe that governments should build houses for those who cannot afford to buy them, and plan where they should go.

We know at least something of what Corbyn thinks about these things because during the leadership campaign, alone among the candidates, he pumped out policy documents. We also know that he does not spend all his spare time at liberation rallies.

According to his local paper, he bakes his own bread, has “a fascination with British cheese – he’s a Stilton man – and a love of his allotment in East Finchley, where he can be found digging at weekends”. The local achievement of which he is proudest is helping create the Gillespie Nature Park in his constituency, when there were plans to build on the site. He supports the Green Belt and recognises the importance of children engaging with nature.

In a recent paper on Rural Renewal he says: “I was born in rural Wiltshire and grew up in Shropshire… Labour must become as much a party in communities like the one in which I was born as it is in inner city constituencies like the one I represent.”

The paper notes that “farming is at the heart of the rural economy, and its benefits are felt… throughout Britain”. On milk prices, he says: “It is simply not fair that any worker should have to sell their product for less than it costs them to produce…” Farming subsidies, he says, “should go to farmers engaging in the most ecologically sustainable practices, not those with the largest landholdings”.

There is little anyone could object to in Rural Renewal, though it is aimed more at those “struggling with issues such as housing costs, public service cuts and social exclusion” than at rural communities as a whole.

Perhaps more important than Jeremy Corbyn’s policies, or even his love of British cheese, is the fact that his politics look back to an era before the market was the measure of all things. One of the important divisions in British politics now is not between the political parties, but between those who believe essentially that you cannot buck the market and that economic growth is the overriding aim of politics, and those who sometimes want to constrain markets in the public interest – including through the planning system.

Within the Conservative Party, this is characterised as a difference between Economist Tories and Country Life Tories. The Labour Party has the same divisions. In these post-ideological times I have heard Labour MPs who apparently take their lines on planning from the Institute of Economic Affairs or the Adam Smith Institute (the Adam Smith Institute for the Criminally Insane, as Alan Bennett calls it).

Jeremy Corbyn is not post-ideological and he is not a moderniser. The greatest radical of modern British politics was Mrs. Thatcher[1], and unlike most Labour politicians (and most voters?) he has not accommodated himself to the changes she brought about. His politics remind me of Christopher Logue’s 1966 poem:

I shall vote Labour because deep in my heart I am a Conservative.

OK, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is unlikely to be hailed by voters in rural England. He will be judged on his views on foreign policy, defence, human rights, the economy and many areas of policy not covered in this blog. He will need more than policies to win over sceptics, starting perhaps with a patriotic narrative on Britishness or even Englishness.

But on housing, planning, the environment and wider rural issues, it is good that Jeremy Corbyn has had something to say, and that it has been thoughtful and sensible.

[1] John Gray: “The irony of Thatcher’s career is that the process she set in motion has erased forever the past to which she dreamed of returning.”

2 Responses to “Corbyn and the Countryside: Labour’s new leader”

  1. 1 Edward Mulligan September 12, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    Corbyn will likely send the labour party back to the Michael foot era. However he may have something different to offer that will put labour polls apart from the others.

    Vote labour , never!

  2. 2 Andrew Needham September 13, 2015 at 7:53 am

    He is opposed to the HS2 rail scheme, saying it would turn northern cities into “dormitories for London businesses”.

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