Has Gove stolen Labour’s clothes? | Martyn Sloman

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.

Martyn Sloman
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/  


The long and the short of food and farming

The challenge for farming often gets defined in the ‘here and now’: the dairy crisis of 2012, the continuing impacts of the Somerset floods, last year’s cheap imports of lamb or this year’s beef prices, or just the need to get this season’s crops safely in and put a smile on the bank manager’s face. These immediate challenges for today always need our urgent attention, or there is no tomorrow to worry about.

But tomorrow does need our attention too, with challenges including: climate change; rising agricultural input and energy costs; competition for water and water scarcity; competition for agricultural land from other uses; declining agricultural productivity; and pressures on the natural environment and ecosystem.

Clearly, one of the biggest challenges is feeding the growing world population while also satisfying the domestic and international demand for safe, nutritious and affordable food. For farming in the United Kingdom this is a golden opportunity, boosting our markets by demonstrating the highest standards in our food production from farm through to processing and manufacturing and all the way to the consumer.

The rising global population and the increasingly westernised diets of nations with growing populations and disposable incomes means that we have a chance – and even an obligation – to play our part in feeding the world, as well our own consumers in the UK and European Union. New markets are opening up with huge export opportunities not only for our produce but for our knowledge and expertise in food, agricultural science and research and development.

This means rethinking the way we do agriculture: increasing agricultural productivity and innovation, not simply production levels per se; at the same time being unashamedly ambitious about protecting and enhancing our natural environment and environmental services; shifting the narrative from the cheapest possible food and a race to the bottom (horsemeat!) to good, affordable food (safe, nutritious, traceable, free from criminality and exploitation of people or animals etc) and a race to the top; using leadership on production standards and animal welfare to promote our produce overseas; and being open on evidence to traditional and innovative technologies, which can help us feed the UK and the world sustainably, while making sure everyone – especially developing nations – are not just passive recipients of new technologies.

One element of our rethinking is long overdue. We have to change those parts of food and farming in which low pay and poor conditions have persisted for generations, where rogue gangmasters can infiltrate and agency workers dominate our production lines and fields, and where there is exploitation of migrant workers here or vulnerable people overseas hidden in long and complex supply chains. People and communities suffer and so does the reputation of the industry. So Labour will tackle the overuse and misuse of agency workers and migrant workers in all sectors, support the work of the Gangmasters Agency and all efforts to tackle exploitation and slavery, strengthen the national minimum wage and enforce it better, and actively encourage the take up of a living wage through fiscal and other measures. This goes alongside investment in skills and training. It is only fair that all who have a hand in producing our food share fairly in the rewards.

Of course, common agricultural policy reform has the ‘here and now’ as well as the longer-term issues to work through. The current reforms are disappointing, and the lack of UK leadership at an EU level over the last four years is telling. What happened to simplification? What happened to moving towards a more competitive European farming freed from the market distortions of subsidy? A more level-laying field? Ministers (and more importantly farmers) are going to have their hands full unravelling the added bureaucracy and complexity and costs.

It may seem a long way away, but actually, government needs to start working at a UK and EU level on the next stage of reform and one that genuinely moves us towards a simplified CAP with a more competitive agriculture. That opportunity has been missed this time and a lot of effort from farmers and government wasted.

But let me make clear, in the best interest of UK food and farming we need to be at the heart of the EU, leading the debate and setting the agenda: with the strategic parameters (the ‘level playing field’) set at an EU level but with greater subsidiarity for the UK and the nations and regions to manage their own farming; benefitting from access to the EU market and also the EU-negotiated access to international markets; working collaboratively towards a more competitive agriculture less reliant on subsidy; playing our part in supporting the agriculture of developing nations and helping feed the world population.

In all these aspects we need strong leadership, long-term vision, and we need a plan of action to make things happen. Because in addition to the economic potential, food and farming touches people’s lives intimately in ways that no other sector does: in health and nutrition, in culture and diet, in linking people with place, in supporting rural communities, managing conflicting land uses, in reducing waste and carbon impact and so much more.

That is why we produced Food 2030 in January 2010 before we left government. It was a landmark strategy and is still relevant, even though this government left it on the shelf to gather dust. Its time will come.

Labour would also develop with the sector an economic growth strategy based on four key pillars: investing in people through skills and training; driving innovation in production; an active government that works with farmers and food producers to put in place a long-term strategy taking us to 2030; and an industry and government that look out to the world with confidence.

Food and farming have massive potential for boosting economic growth, and the rewards of that growth should be shared along the whole supply chain. We can simultaneously meet the major environmental and societal challenges. That is not just an exciting prospect. It is something we have to do – together.

First published by Progress at: http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2014/08/13/the-long-and-the-short-of-food-and-farming/

Huw Irranca-Davies MP is Shadow Minister for Food and Farming

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Labour: Coast & Country.