Ross Clark Ross Clark

Starmer’s right to roam pledge puts the Tories in a bind

Credit: Getty images

Keir Starmer has come up with a good policy for once. He is promising to offer a Scottish-style right to roam across England, which would open up vastly more tracts of land for public recreation. The right to roam granted by the Blair government 20 years ago applies only to moorland, which is rare in the South East, while Starmer’s proposal would extend to woodland and other areas of uncultivated land.

It is a clever policy not just because it is popular in itself – according to a YouGov poll today 62 per cent of voters are in favour and 19 per cent against; even among Conservative voters it is supported 56 per cent to 31 per cent. It is also clever because it is liable to push the Conservatives into the electorally barren pastures of standing up for landowners’ rights, pastures already thoroughly explored by William Hague’s Tories.

Political parties have to choose a side: with the majority who want to go for a walk or wild swim – or with the landowners

Hague, you may remember, spent a good deal of his time as leader opposing Blair’s hunting ban and right to roam law. The result was that he repositioned the Conservatives as the party of the grouse moors – an image which Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher had spent decades dispelling. As champion for a privileged rural elite, Hague failed to shift the electoral geometry an inch in his favour, going down to as a big a defeat in 2001 as John Major had done in 1997.      

The Conservatives have not formally opposed Starmer’s right to roam proposals as Hague did Blair’s version, but to do so will imperil them. This is because so many of the arguments which tend to be employed against greater access to the countryside are so nonsensical.

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