On 4th January Michael Gove made an important speech: as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs he outlined his vision for British farming after Brexit. His speech received precious little publicity. There has been no response to date from Labour. There is danger here: Gove is an able politician and may well have made a smart move to support his position as a Brexit hawk.
Gove’s speech was delivered to the high profile annual Oxford Farming Conference. There were two major elements in his address. The first was to reassure his audience that they had nothing to worry about. Income streams would be protected whatever the changes that lie ahead: ‘we have guaranteed that the amount that we allocate to farming support – in cash terms – will be protected throughout and beyond this (transition) period right up until the end of this Parliament in 2022’. He pandered to his audience’s endemic grumbles about regulation: ‘The ways in which we provide financial support to farmers have been far too bureaucratic – not helped by the ludicrous rules and red tape of the CAP that Defra must try to enforce’. Telling an audience what they want to hear is always a good ploy, but note the pro-Brexit aside.
All of this was predictable. It was the second element in his speech that needs to be taken far more seriously. At Oxford Michael Gove signalled a shift in the farming payments system: a shift that could play well with progressive voters in rural areas. Certainly some of the language he used will have a resonance way beyond those who attend the County Agricultural Show.
Gove argued that the current system, which involves paying landowners for the amount of agricultural land they work is ‘unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes’ …‘It gives the most from the public purse to those who have the most private wealth’. This last phrase that could have been lifted from Labour’s ‘For the many not the few’ manifesto, as could Gove’s stated intention ‘I believe that we should help landowners and managers to make the transition from our current system to a new approach for public goods over time’. Importantly and powerfully ‘The principal public good we will invest in is of course environmental protection’. This was backed up with some sketchy proposals on food chains and ecosystems – enhanced systems will be introduced to enhance natural environments through, for example, planting woodland and providing new habitats for wildlife.
The devil will always be in the detail, but his approach could play well. Gove is clever and it was a clever speech. Moreover we must recognise that today’s Labour Party is perceived to be weak on rural issues. It was one of the few charges that stuck to Tony Blair when he was at his most popular in office – notwithstanding his excellent handling of the foot and mouth epidemic, which included a decision to delay the local and general elections in 2001. In the following year the Countryside Alliance managed to bring 400,000 marchers to London in support of ‘Liberty and Livelihood’. It was claimed at the time that this was the largest demonstration to take place in Britain since the 19th Century. Certainly it comprised the most prosperous set of demonstrators ever seen to converge on Parliament Square.
Given all this we should be concerned. Gove’s direction of travel was consistent with some very brief passages on sustainability in Labour’s 2017 Manifesto: ‘we will reconfigure funds for farming and fishing to support smaller traders, local economies, community benefits and sustainable practices’ and ‘we will champion sustainable farming, food and fishing by investing in and promoting skills, technology, market access and innovation’. These ideas did not feature in the election campaign, have not received any attention subsequently, and the absence of any Labour reaction to Gove’s speech must disappoint. Gove has indicated that he will be publishing a Command Paper ‘later in the spring’ and this may be the occasion for a stronger and clearer response from Labour.
There is however a greater cause for concern for those of us who hold progressive, internationalist views. Gove’s speech was predictably littered with disparaging asides on the EU, especially the Common Agricultural Policy. The next stage in his argument will be the following: the UK Government stands ready to introduce more socially just payments and use them to promote eco-systems creating greener rural areas. However continued membership of the EU will be a major constraint if not a total barrier to achieving these laudable aims. Michael Gove took an opportunity to consolidate his platform for any second referendum where every vote will count – including those who drift towards the Greens.
Now the issues that matter to Labour voters in rural areas are much broader than farming subsidies: as well as the national concerns here in Norfolk we face local problems on transport, youth employment and second homes to name a few. If we are to have appeal outside our metropolitan strongholds a good start would be to have clear policy statements on all subjects rather than leaving important territory to our opponents.
Parliamentary Agent North Norfolk Constituency Labour Party in 2015
First published on Progress – http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2018/02/15/emperor-goves-new-clothes/