Sir Keir Starmer will call on farmers and people living in rural areas to take a fresh look at the Labour party, vowing to push for new investment in food and farming and a revision of subsidy payments, in an effort to move beyond the party’s urban strongholds.
He will urge people to buy more British food, and for more of the public sector’s £2.4bn food procurement budget to be spent locally, as well as calling for subsidised wages for apprentices to shore up the UK’s ageing farm workforce.
Starmer will be the first Labour leader to address the UK’s annual National Farmers’ Union conference, a key date in the farming calendar, since 2008. He will try to correct the impression of Labour as an urban party, and point to growing concerns among farmers about the impacts of the government’s post-Brexit farming policy, which will reduce their subsidy payments and threaten an influx of cheap lower-standard food imports through trade deals.
He will say: “No party can claim to represent the country if we don’t represent the countryside. Farming matters, to Labour, to the British people, and to the families and communities that make farming possible.”
Luke Pollard, shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, is to lead a review of Labour’s rural policy that will include how to maintain food standards, which have been threatened by the government’s refusal to enshrine in law a commitment to high standards in trade deals, a key worry for farmers.
Starmer will say: “There can be a bright future for British farming [that] must support rural communities to thrive. It must maintain our high food standards and recognise them as a great strength, not as a bargaining chip in trade deals.”
Starmer’s plans for a British recovery bond, announced last week, would also benefit the countryside. The bond is intended to provide billions of pounds in investment for infrastructure and for local communities, and to create jobs as the economy recovers from the shock of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some of that investment would go to rural communities, for instance to areas that have been devastated by flooding. The government’s flood defence spending has been criticised as too little and badly targeted.
Starmer visited South Yorkshire in December, where he encountered people whose homes and businesses had flooded more than a year previously. “Their resilience was amazing, but what shocked me most was that many of those families had come to accept that every few years this kind of thing could happen. That creates a permanent insecurity and huge damage to local economies. We have to change this and to see flooding not as an emergency to respond to year after year, but as a crisis to prevent.”
Labour’s strategists are concerned at the party’s poor showing among rural voters under the previous leadership. Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to win an election, won more than 170 out of the UK’s nearly 200 rural or semi-rural seats, but in last year’s election Jeremy Corbyn held only 17 of them.
One Labour insider told the Guardian: “There is no road to a Labour victory that does not go through rural constituencies.”
Starmer’s call comes at a time when farmers are facing a more uncertain future than at any time in recent decades. Brexit has caused problems with food exports and with bringing in cheap seasonal labour from overseas, while the government plans to slash subsidies as part of the biggest shakeup of farming in more than four decades.
Current farm subsidies under the EU’s common agricultural policy will be phased out by 2027 in favour of new environmental land management contracts, to reward farmers for providing public goods, such as clean air, clean water, healthy soils and habitats for wildlife. However, there are still few details available on how the new contracts will work. A recent survey by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) found that three-quarters of farmers and landowners thought payments under the new environmental land management system would be insufficient.
Before the last election, Tim Breitmeyer, then president of the influential CLA, which represents 30,000 landowners and rural businesses, said that farmers’ traditional loyalty to the Tory party was waning fast. The relationship between the NFU and the Conservatives, traditionally cordial, has also been strained by Brexit. Last year the NFU gathered more than 1m signatures for a petition calling on the prime minister to safeguard food standards in future trade deals, forcing a partial compromise by the government that fell far short of what campaigners hoped for.
Mark Bridgeman, current president of the CLA, said on Monday: “Rural votes are up for grabs. But to earn them, Sir Keir needs to follow through with a robust and ambitious plan not just for food producers, but for all rural businesses and communities. The rural economy is 16% less productive than the national average. Closing that productivity gap would be worth up to £43bn for the economy, creating many thousands of jobs in the process. The party that can turn the countryside into an economic powerhouse while still respecting and preserving its unique identity will win the support of many. As with any party, we stand ready to work with Labour in the pursuit of such economic success.”
Starmer will speak at the online NFU conference after George Eustice, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, seeks to reassure farmers about their post-Brexit fortunes. Last month, he pleased some by taking the first steps towards allowing gene edited crops and livestock in the UK.
Minette Batters, president of the NFU, will call for the government to “level up” the UK not just between north and south, as the government has promised to do, but between urban and rural areas. She will point to the poor availability of rural broadband, which has been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic amid the increased need for connectivity for rural businesses and for home schooling, and to increased levels of crime in rural areas.
“Investment in farming and in rural Britain not only brings about obvious benefits to food production but can have massive benefits to the whole country,” she will say. “We need to enable collaborative green growth to level up rural Britain, providing the economic solutions to a truly one nation UK.”
Batters will also call for more investment in rural areas as part of a “green recovery”, which would help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the natural world as well as boosting economic growth.