Unions must take up rural issues
Over 400,000 people joined the Countryside Alliance march through London on Sunday 22 September. But what did they want? Most were against a ban foxhunting, but beyond that?
Lucy Clement went to find out
Lots of tweed. Lots of Barbour jackets and march merchandise: 'Liberty and Livelihood' rugby shirts, stickers and placards sponsored by the farming trade press and the right-wing newspapers. The Countryside Alliance march felt very much like the Tory Party on a day out. If Iain Duncan Smith could persuade half these people to canvass for him, there'd be cause to worry.
But as it stands the marchers' demands are vague. There is a real sense of alienation from a government which won't listen. More than one marcher described Blair as a dictator. A man from Cobham in Surrey compared Blair's attitude on the countryside to his refusal to listen to the majority in Britain who don't want a war with Iraq. I suspect that was an opportunistic comparison. Cobham chap told me the solution was to give farmers a decent amount of money for their produce, and complained about the way they were being squeezed by the supermarkets. I asked him whether he thought the Government should impose a minimum price. A flash of horror crossed his face. No, he said, he didn't really think they could do that.
Other marchers were more explicitly against government - all government. A London woman in pearls, who'd come along to support the farmers, told me: "we're marching for liberty and freedom of speech and doing what we want to do without it being controlled or dictated". I asked several people what they wanted the Government to do. A young woman in a Spectator sticker said "don't know really, just want to keep the countryside going." A woman from Bedfordshire said: "it's about everything". She was worried that her local post office could soon close.
Was it right to link the issues of countryside poverty and public services with the question of fox-hunting? Wasn't there more common ground between people in towns whose post offices were closing and those in the country? No-one I spoke to contradicted the Countryside Alliance line. "The two issues are interlinked... both are in the countryside. Not all country people like foxhunting but it is a way of life," a marcher from Hertfordshire told me.
One final observation: intrigued to be on a demo without left-wing paper-sellers I noticed someone carrying a copy of The Countryside and asked what it was. She didn't know - but it turned out to be a publication which the BNP were distributing free.
The CA has been very successful in its policy of opposing town to country. Trade unions like the TGWU, which represents significant numbers of agricultural workers, should be at the forefront of campaigns for rural services and jobs. The CWU could be leading the campaign against post office closures, both rural and urban. Instead, at the head of Britain's biggest demonstration for decades, there's a bunch of Tories.
I suppose there's one good thing about the Countryside Alliance march. It gives the unions a number - 400,000 - to beat. Come on you general secretaries, show a bit of pride: you can't let yourselves be outdone by the Tory Party on parade. How about May Day?