Rural voters and the price of milk

In recent years my campaigning activity has been limited, but having been made redundant from local government I was able at last to play an active role at the general election this year. I hit the streets with gusto wearing my ex-council demographer hat to find out the lie of the land.

Now, being a Labour activist in rural Lincolnshire can be a thankless task. It is rare to have so much as a town councillor to show for all your hard work yet in spite of this, or maybe because of it, we are often asked to forgo our own campaigns and travel many miles to work in key marginal seats. We know that few will make the return trip and bang on the doors with us; rural areas just are not the priority.

So what has all this got to do with the price of milk you ask? Almost everything.

Knocking on the doors reveals no shortage of people who share our values, but beyond local activists these voters are rarely addressed by the Labour party. When the Tories appear ever more metropolitan and complacent in outlook it ought to present a great opportunity for those willing to meet the concerns of the unfashionable countryside and enthuse disaffected voters.

The United Kingdom Independence party has risen to the challenge already. In 2013 it won 16 seats on Lincolnshire county council, becoming the official opposition. Fourteen of these seats were in the east of the county, remote from major cities and transport links. A similar pattern emerged in Norfolk. It won in the seaside resorts, marshes and fens where seasonal work and labour intensive agri-businesses are the major employers and wages are low. It is not the chocolate-box stone and thatch villages of the metropolitan imagination but isolated settlements separated by wide-open spaces and big skies. Services are few and far between and cuts are felt deeply.

Labour is already in tune with many of the daily trials facing rural voters. Deprivation is so much greater when it is a 20-mile round trip in the car just to sign on, and if you cannot drive it can be a very desolate life indeed. With our town post office currently closed, residents are embarking on almost a day trip just to obtain the full range of forms for passports and driving licences. The price of petrol is a huge issue here as the car is such an essential part of life; so of course we have to pay more for it. Public transport is patchy to say the least.

Then there are the problems faced by small farmers too, which brings me back to the price of milk. As the big supermarkets flex their muscles, farmers are squeezed between diminishing returns and increasing overheads. Livestock farmers need constant supplies of electricity and animal feed meaning milk can cost more to produce than its commercial value so they quietly sell up and leave the industry. Yet at times of crisis for small producers it’s rare to hear a Labour politician speak out.

Often local activists do not even get responses to their enquiries as shadow ministers are more concerned with issues like animal welfare, which offend urban sensibilities, rather than the bread-and-butter aspects of marginal farming. This has left Labour looking ever more like an urban party for trendy vegetarians which talks in terms of city lifestyles where you have a choice of shops or schools and where broadband (fast or slow) is taken for granted.

For various historic reasons such as dispersed communities and lack of unionisation, country areas never engaged with the Labour movement, yet for the most part they share the same social values as the mining areas and mill towns we claim to represent. These are not the ruling classes. Indeed many country people still genuinely labour for a living in packing plants and food factories.

My belief is that Labour needs to come up with a well thought-out rural strategy which engages with country voters and meets their concerns up-front. These may not always be palatable to us but there are areas of commonality that we can address, as well as giving us the opportunity to explain why the things we stand for can bring benefits beyond the suburbs.

We have a tremendous opportunity to grow new support and sell our message in areas we have never looked at before. It is time for us to start engaging at senior level with rural voters in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Devon and Powys and show them what we have to offer. It may not deliver us many seats in the short term but it is vital to show that we care for areas where you can’t easily buy a panini.

Christabel Edwards is a Labour party activist.

This piece was originally published on Progress, here

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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.

There are food producers we can trust

Being no stranger to a late night kebab, it came as no surprise when I received a gloating text message from my Mum – ‘well it serves you right, what did you think was in it?!’

It was in many ways a fair response to the news that horsemeat has entered our food chain. It was a response I inherited when, during the height of the furore, I received a leaflet through my door from a well-known supermarket, advertising, among other things, Findus lasagne for 99p. Quality beef it was unlikely to be.

But, as we all know, the issue is more about labeling. To the Labour Government’s credit, significant advancements have been made in the past decade in how food is presented – most noticeably through the invention of the traffic light system to highlight fat, sugar and salt content. We have rightly become accustomed to knowing what is in our food, so when beef is the only meat on the label, we expect it to only contain beef.

Elsewhere, whilst the horsemeat scandal was yet to be uncovered, our nations farmers have been struggling to survive during some of the wettest years on record. Taking good care of livestock has become a daily battle, as saturated land made grazing impossible, and the price of manufactured feed rocketed.  With calf registrations down significantly, and 24% of farmers already on the poverty line, cattle producers have for a while needed a major boost.

Simultaneously, greengrocers and fishmongers have all but disappeared from the High Street, and the trusted local butchers have survived only by the skins of their teeth.  In the 1990s there were as many as 22000 independent butcher shops.  Now, there are fewer than 7000.  But in corners of many rural communities, butchers are managing to survive through intelligent diversification and product development (one of my butchers in Thirsk, as it happens, sells its own lasagne).

So, what do these three issues have in common?

Jack White, of Croft and Squires butchers in Ferrybridge said this week “It’s hard to put a figure on it, but we are definitely seeing more people through the door”.  Well the Guild of Butchers can put a figure on it – reporting a 20% increase in overall sales, and a 30% increase in sales of mince.

Since the horsemeat scandal broke, Butchers across the country have been doing a roaring trade. And so they should be. Meat from your local butchers has full traceability. In most cases, your butcher will be able to name the farmer who reared the meat on sale – they will be business partners and, quite probably, friends, working together to feed the local community.

The farmer, the butcher, and quite possibly your local restaurants and pubs, are in essence living up to Labour values of community, cooperation and fair trade – a boast larger retailers can rarely make.

Whilst no-one should take delight in the food-chain scandal, Labour should at least take the opportunity to champion the efforts of our farmers and small, independent retailers.

I know not everyone will be able to afford to visit their butchers (cheap food is popular because many people are struggling to make ends meet), but there are many who can – hence why, according to a poll by Consumer Intelligence 62% are now more likely to buy meat from an independent butcher after the collapse in trust for well known brands.

I call on the Shadow Cabinet to use the current media climate to vocally promote our farmers and butchers. We must champion the fact that our farmers work to some of the most stringent food and welfare standards anywhere in the world, and work incredibly hard in difficult conditions to produce top quality food that can be trusted. We should show that we are on their side – that we understand them, that we share their values.

Whilst the large food brands have let us down, our local producers are delivering for Britain with integrity and ingenuity. We should be the party of the farm and market place, as well as the factory and city. For too long farmers and small rural retailers have felt that we do not understand them. This is our chance to change that perception – we must seize it.

Jonathan Roberts