Badgers, bees and gene-edited livestock are among the key questions Labour will need to address if the party is to make headway in rural constituencies, this year’s National Farmers’ Union conference has shown.
Sir Keir Starmer became the first Labour leader in 13 years to speak at the NFU’s annual gathering, a key date in the UK’s farming calendar. His reception was hard to judge, owing to the online nature of the event, but he answered questions from farmers on topics ranging from food standards post-Brexit to nitrate fertilisers.
Many farmers questioned Labour’s policy on badgers, as Starmer spoke out against the cull that many farmers back as a way of controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis. The government has largely abandoned the culling policy, but further licensing of culls is likely to take place before it is phased out next year.
Ros Turner, a livestock farmer in the east Midlands, tweeted: “Sir Keir Starmer not convincing on TB policy and working with ongoing strategy and evidence.”
On the question of neonicotinoids, pesticides that are harmful to bees and other pollinators, and banned by the EU, but which some farmers want to continue to use as they say there are few alternatives, Starmer also stood firm, saying Labour was in favour of the ban. The government has used its greater powers post-Brexit to relax the ban for some farmers.
Starmer also pledged that Labour would look closely at the question of gene-edited crops and livestock. In one of its first major changes post-Brexit, the government has begun a consultation on allowing gene-edited crops and livestock, which are effectively excluded by EU law. A separate part of the consultation will ask the public about genetically modified (GM) crops. Many farmers are in favour of using gene editing and GM technology, but some farmers are wary that it would hinder them from exporting to the EU.
Starmer said Luke Pollard, Labour’s shadow secretary for environment, food and rural affairs, would lead a wide-ranging review of the party’s rural and farming policies. He largely avoided detailed policy pledges, however, in favour of a general commitment to responding to the concerns of rural voters.
He spoke of the perception that “Labour saw rural communities as an afterthought”, which he wanted to change. He accused the Conservative government of “a decade of decisions guided by the notion that the government can’t interfere with the market, [which] has led to rural infrastructure and services being eroded and ignored.”
He said: “Thousands of rural bus services have been cut, increasing isolation and making it harder and more expensive for people in rural areas to get around. The loss of village shops, post offices and pubs has hollowed out many rural communities. Nearly a third of England’s community hospitals have seen beds closed since 2010. Unaffordable rural house prices mean the dream of homeownership is now out of reach for many.”
He told the conference: “I can assure you this: from now on, British farming and the countryside will never be an afterthought for Labour again.”
That went down well with some of his audience. Olly Harrison, an arable farmer in Merseyside, told the Guardian: “He’s a smooth talker and definitely was trying to build bridges. I did invite him afterwards to come to my farm. So will wait and see. He didn’t want to talk straight about TB though.”
Tom Rigby, an organic farmer in Leigh, who is politically nonaligned, said: “I was pleased to see Keir addressing [the conference] today; it seems he feels the need to reconnect Labour with rural Britain but in truth Sue Hayman [former Labour shadow environment secretary] had already done that quite well, though unfortunately she lost her seat. Other issues were seriously hampering Labour, Keir understands and is on the case.”
Sue Pritchard, an organic farmer and chief executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, said: “It was good to see Starmer recognising the relationships between healthy food, sustainably produced, a thriving farming sector, that can play its part in tackling the climate and nature emergencies, and a countryside that works for all – where people can afford to live and work. And also great to see the Labour party and NFU working to find common purpose on what the whole country needs from the countryside.”
She added that it was a good moment for Labour to try to appeal to rural voters. “I’m not sure that the tribal politics are quite as fixed as they used to be. Lots of farmers are also concerned about the environment, a fair food and farming system, thriving rural economy and flourishing rural communities. Many small and medium farmers are desperately worried about their futures, and whether this government will support them to make the transition away from CAP [the EU’s common agricultural policy] and to still have viable businesses. And the call for radical thinking and bold actions is coming from all quarters.”
James Mills, a farmer in Yorkshire, tweeted: “Interesting listening to @Keir_Starmer while hedge planting. We must start from a position of trusting that farmers want to and will do good for the environment while not forgetting the core to the business is also supplying healthy, affordable and traceable food.”