Keir Starmer has lashed out at the Brexit trade deal as he broke his silence over the pact struck between Boris Johnson and Brussels.
Labour controversially backed the UK/EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which was finally thrashed out on Christmas Eve.
But the party leader has come under mounting pressure to speak out about the deal, amid rotting shellfish on docks, problems with checks on goods passing from Britain to Northern Ireland and growing complaints about difficulties exporting to Europe.
Addressing the National Farmers’ Union annual conference, Mr Starmer said: “Whichever way we voted, I think we all share anger and frustration at the way the Government has handled this – the lack of preparation, the 11th-hour deal, the new red tape and more bureaucracy that are holding British businesses back and making it harder and more expensive to export to our largest market.
“So, as we now face the future and build new trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world, it’s vital that we do so with the needs of British farming and fishing communities at heart.”
Mr Starmer became the first Labour leader in more than a decade to address the conference.
Bidding to rebuild the party’s relationship with rural Britain, he said: “This the first time a Labour leader has addressed the NFU conference since 2008 – 13 years ago.
“I think that’s indicative of the perceived distance that’s grown up between Labour and the countryside.
“It’s more perception than reality – because in the last year Labour’s stood with British farming and stood up for rural communities – from fighting for high food standards to protecting family farms.
“But it’s a perception that we can’t ignore any longer – and we won’t ignore any longer.”
Vowing the “countryside will never be an afterthought for Labour again”, he told delegates: “Farming matters to Labour, to the British people, and to the families and communities that make farming possible.”
In an unusually personal speech, Mr Starmer, who became the country’s top prosecutor, told how he worked as a farm hand during school holidays.
“It’s a little-known fact that my first holiday job – at the age of 14 – was on one of the local farms near where I live,” he said, burnishing his links with rural communities.
Mr Starmer also laid into the Tories’ record on supporting the countryside, which is traditionally seen as a Conservative stronghold.
Claiming “rural infrastructure and services” have been “eroded and ignored” over 10 years of Tory rule, he said: “The loss of village shops, post offices and pubs has hollowed out many rural communities, and 150 of the 600 libraries closed in England since 2010 were in rural areas.
“Nearly a third of England’s community hospitals – most of which are located in rural areas – have seen beds closed since 2010.
“Unaffordable rural house prices mean the dream of homeownership is now out of reach for many, and that many young people have to leave their local area if they’re to have a hope of getting on the housing ladder.”
Speaking earlier to the conference, Environment Secretary George Eustice, whose family grows strawberries in Cornwall, said farmers could face the future with confidence given the UK had quit the EU.
He added: “Now that we have left the EU, new payments and incentives will reward farmers for farming more sustainably, creating space for nature on their land, enhancing animal welfare and reducing carbon emissions.
“The era of top down EU rules is over.
“Our future policy is about supporting the choices farmers make for their own holdings.”