Few trends are as little remarked upon in British politics as the strange death of rural Labour. Back in 2001 the party held more than 100 seats in rural England and Wales; today the figure has slumped to just 17. Whereas once both comfortable shires and working class countryside constituencies were red on the map, now such places are seas of blue.
In such circumstances, you would have hoped Labour's frontbenchers would be well briefed on the issues facing the countryside. So Steerpike was surprised therefore to tune into yesterday's Westminster Hall debate on grouse shooting – prompted by a petition backed by broadcaster Chris Packham's outfit Wild Justice – and hear the party's spokesmen talk about the practice.
First up was Kerry McCarthy, Labour's shadow minister for green transport and a former shadow environment secretary herself. McCarthy, a vegan and vice-president of the League Against Cruel Sports, managed to name check Packham ten times in her brief speech, telling MPs that 'just as I do not accept the conservation argument, I do not accept the economic argument either' and saying of the £2billion industry – 'I suspect that not an awful lot of that trickles down to the local economy' – news presumably to the estimated 1,500 men and women whose livelihoods depend on it.
McCarthy went on to claim that 'the death of even one hen harrier is illegal and it should not be part of grouse moor management' – quite something given it is in fact, errr, not part of said grouse moor management. Though perhaps that is less surprising when one considers the same MP told a similar debate last year that ‘grouse are imported into this country in their millions' – a rather bold claim given their status as a natural British bird.
Then it was the turn of Olivia Blake, Labour's shadow environment minister and Sheffield Hallam's successor to Jared O'Mara. Blake managed to make a number of somewhat misleading claims in her eight minute speech, including references to the 'rearing of grouse' (a wild native bird), that grouse 'shoots remain almost completely deregulated' (they're not) and that 'only a very small number end up' on 'our plates' (almost all of them do, as evidenced by high market value.)
She also claimed that 'species loss, peatland degradation and higher flood risks are just three costs of managing the landscape artificially' in spite of the fact that fivefold higher breeding densities for rare birds have been noted on managed land – as Tory MPs Greg Smith and Kevin Hollinrake were only too happy to point out.
Steerpike suggests that if Labour ever wants to paint the countryside red again, they might wish to get shot of those showing up half-cocked.