09:00 - 02 October 2002

New Labour had a message for the countryside from the party conference platform in Blackpool yesterday. And if ministers had written it in four foot high letters and hung it on a banner across the stage it could not have been any clearer.

It said that when it comes to rural areas and rural issues, this Government could not give a stuff. And it showed that finally, totally and unequivocally, the party of Government has abdicated all responsibility for rural areas and rural voters.

Anyone in the countryside who was still clinging on to the vain hope that New Labour harboured genuine concerns for them and the things that are important to them must now accept that they have been misled.

The pretence is over and as far as Tony Blair and his ministers are concerned the real rural Britain might just as well not exist.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. For all his repeated insistence that New Labour is a party governing for the whole of Britain, there has never been any evidence from Mr Blair of an understanding of rural issues let alone a willingness to do anything about specifically rural problems.

And Margaret Beckett, his Secretary of State at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - the one part of Government that should be on the side of rural communities - clearly takes her cue from her boss.

So when milk prices are on the floor, farm incomes are dropping like a stone and illegal meat imports threaten to bring foot and mouth disease back to Britain, she used less than 100 words of her 1,500 word speech yesterday to talk about farming issues.

And when she did it was no more constructive or meaningful than the tired old clich??s about reforming the industry and making it less reliant on subsidies - delivered in her customary hectoring, lecturing, holier-than-thou style when country dwellers know full well that in the case of the vast majority of farmers she is doing no more than preaching to the converted.

She spent a great deal longer talking about the Johannesburg and Rio environmental summits and the risk from climate change; she spent long enough blaming the Conservatives for rural problems, even though they have been out of office for more than five years; she still found time to talk about the importance of agriculture to the economies of African countries, though she barely mentioned Britain.

But on the big rural concerns affecting the rural voters here and now she was totally, utterly and unforgivably silent.

Her speech came, remember, only hours after a European Parliament committee of inquiry issued the most damning indictment yet of the way the foot and mouth crisis was dealt with by the British Government.

Why no mention of that report on this public stage? Why not even an attempt by Mrs Beckett to defend her department's record on foot and mouth or to answer the European Parliament's charges about how they traumatised farmers and broke animal welfare laws as they blundered and bungled their way through this disaster?

And why no reference to the 407,000 protesters who marched for Liberty and Livelihood through the streets of London less than ten days ago, nor any mention of the many genuine issues they were protesting about?

The answers to both those questions are clear. New Labour doesn't care in the slightest about the countryside because it thinks it doesn't have to. It's given up on rural Britain because it thinks it doesn't need it. And that is an appalling state of affairs. It is also a massive missed opportunity.

Because later yesterday, after Mrs Beckett's lack-lustre performance at the conference lectern, Mr Blair stepped up for his set-piece address and made a brave and powerful speech. He was courageous and far-reaching in his promises. There were shades of Thatcherism in his pledges on issues like the reform of public services and on crime. The Tories couldn't deliver on those sort of promises and now he's committed his Government to bring about what they never could.

If he's not well on the way to delivery on those pledges by the next General Election he's got big problems. Put crudely he's put his neck on the block and the electorate won't forget it. So it was brave and it was an important speech. Were it not for the shameful neglect of any meaningful reference to rural issues, the Western Morning News could welcome and applaud Mr Blair's conference address.

To totally exclude specifically rural concerns from an otherwise visionary speech was absurdly short-sighted.

Mr Blair pleaded that at the next General Election he wants a better turnout than the country mustered last time round. That's a laudable aim when a lack of interest in politics threatens to undermine the authority of government.

But how can the Prime Minister square that plea with his total failure to address any of the vexed issues that are of concern to the people of the countryside? How is he going to raise the turnout in rural seats where there is mass disaffection with the Government if he doesn't even talk about the things that they are so angry and frustrated about?

New Labour will say that all the issues Mr Blair did address, like health, education and tackling crime, are just as relevant in the countryside as in towns and cities; that basically all voters care about the same things and to claim otherwise is to be divisive.

That's a fatuous argument. Of course people in rural areas are concerned about the big issues that affect their families, their safety and their health. But it's not enough to say we're all concerned about the same issues and use that as an excuse to deny the existence of any specific and unique rural concerns.

By slavishly following that line New Labour has already made the big divide (the existence of which Mr Blair wrongly denies) between urban and rural societies even wider. By wilfully ignoring rural concerns yesterday the Government probably rendered the gap finally and completely unbridgable. And for a Prime Minister with responsibilities to the whole nation that is indefensible.

Any rural observer who listened to his speech yesterday, absorbed it, and admired its courage will have been left feeling hollow because Mr Blair didn't get anywhere near the issues of importance to rural areas like our own. He simply left us out.

The only platform speaker to even mention rural concerns yesterday was actor Tony Robinson who tried to thinly disguise the middle-class Islington-inspired mantra on foxhunting and the right to roam with patronisingly superficial references to banks, rural post offices, buses and affordable homes. No suggested solutions. No dwelling on the subjects. No genuine consideration or concern.

It was as though some spinning scriptwriter had suddenly realised that some speaker had better recognise the existence of country issues and old Baldrick would do as well as anybody.

To call it an insult is an understatement.

The Western Morning News has long feared - and long warned - that New Labour appears to be urban-based, urban-biased and disinterested in the deep and damaging issues that blight so much of rural Britain.

Those fears were yesterday confirmed and it's now clear beyond doubt that New Labour has given up on rural areas.

They must not, now, be surprised when rural areas totally give up on them.