Does Labour have a rural agenda?

via wikimedia commons
via wikimedia commons

It’s frustrating being a member of the Labour Party.  I share Labour’s values but they just don’t seem to be applied to rural issues, and, as you have probably noticed, I live in a rural area and care about the countryside and its wildlife.

Labour is, for my liking, far too dominated by urban intellectuals  – and it’s not the intellectual bit that worries me.  If Ed Miliband, for whom I voted in the Labour leadership election, really means for Labour to be a One Nation party then he had better get some good advice on rural issues pretty quickly or else he risks, needlessly, alienating some voters in what will probably be a fairly close-run general election.

In a One Nation nation then those aspects of fairness and equality relating to education, health and opportunity apply, obviously, just as much to rural communities as urban ones.  They are not particularly rural issues even though they must be addressed differently in remote upland villages from the streets of Tottenham.

Taking rural issues seriously does not mean simply attacking the worst aspects of what those who like to call themselves ‘real country people’ get up to.  I’m quite glad that fox-hunting was banned, and I wouldn’t want to see it come back, but it wouldn’t have reached my top five of countryside issues to fix.  No, Labour needs to demonstrate that it cares about the 70% of the country that is farmed (forested etc) and has policies that will deliver value for all in an efficient manner (or manor).

About 70% of the UK (and England, with which I am mostly concerned here) is farmland.  Millions of taxpaying families pay around £400 a year to tens of thousands of land-owning families through the CAP.  That’s one of the things that makes us One Nation – we all pay for the countryside as well as all paying for the NHS, Armed Forces, schools etc.

So it seems that my family have been paying for the countryside at least since the UK joined what was then the EEC and is now the EU (but actually for much longer than that).  £400/yr for 40 years adds up to quite an investment – £16000 per family.  Given that there aren’t many farmers in the country an awful of us are clubbing together to provide income support to farming families.  Most farms you drive past have received millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money over the decades.

What should the taxpayer in the streets of Garston, Brent North, Maesteg or Dunfermline expect from their investment?  That is the One Nation question for Labour to ponder.

That pondering should think about the type of land use that leads to flooding of houses and the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth disease, that leads to the disappearance of once common wildlife and the continuing illegal killing of protected species, that leads to reductions in soil carbon and high emissions of greenhouse gases.  Should every family contribute £400 per year to a countryside which delivers private profit quite effectively but public goods very badly?

We need a new contract between the many and the few, the urban and the rural, those who pay and those who receive, those who expect the produce of the countryside and those who produce it.  Where is it?



28 Replies to “Does Labour have a rural agenda?”

  1. At the same time, the urban population squeezes the countryside harder and harder, using the weight of big business to push down returns to farmers and land managers. The countryside today is a parallel of the benefits system where for the working poor the taxpayer effectively subsidises those much vaunted out-sourcing companies who make their money by squeezing pay and conditions and quality – and we see the quality going in food, too, when supermarkets knowingly pay less than the lowest possible production cost for burgers and end up – surprise, surprise – with horsemeat. Other than inertia, the only reason I can see for farmers supporting the present system is the fear the money will get taken away – which would leave them as deep in it as the victims of the bedroom tax.

    Politics at the moment is largely negative – what an awful picture many Conservatives, UKIP and the Mail newspapers paint of a declining, xenophobic nation headed for inevitable economic decline, the next generation poorer than the last as we pretend we can all get rich selling ever more expensive houses to each other. We need a clear vision for the future, and where better to start than the countryside because we are already spending so much public money – what if we stood back and asked what do we actually need from this wonderful resource in 2014 – and 20150. Food, most definitely, the ‘never again’ the nation swore too after the neglect of agriculture between the wars still applies – but not as it did, as the one, overriding concern, in 1947. We need water, both more and less of it, wildlife, beautiful places to see and be, and with that, perhaps most important, the nature and beauty so important to lives about more than just consumerism. In particular, I’d focus on something we have nowhere near solved: how we ‘finish’ our cities, what is today all too frequently a no mans land where the houses stop and the greenbelt theoretically starts: this is the space for children to leave their computers, for new non-car transport links, for absorbing the flood, both downstream and from our concrete surfaces. This apparently wilder land can work far harder for society than single purpose, intensive farmland and – here’s the beauty – can almost certainly save rather than spend money.

  2. It’s tough for rural lefties – lonely and cold.

    Maria Eagle gave an interview where she positioned DEFRA as “the department for non-city britain” elbowing colleagues to get a better deal for rural people. Which is cheering but
    1) where does that leave the agriculture and environment bit in her priorities
    2) it seems fairly politically benificent. regardless of how tight the next election is going to be can you name the rural marginals that labour is going to be fighting for because I’m pretty sure it is the Urban south east they’ll be gunning for.

    Give rural communities a fair deal, MPs urge Government

    24 July 2013
    In an inquiry scrutinising the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its Rural Communities Policy Unit, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee finds that much more needs to be done if Defra is to achieve its target of ‘fair, practical and affordable outcomes for rural residents, businesses and communities’.

    The extra cost of providing services to rural communities is evident across the public sector.
    Yet, in 2012-13 rural local authorities received less than half the per head funding that urban authorities got. In areas such as education the Government is reducing local authorities’ flexibility to allocate extra funding to small rural schools with higher running costs.


    ‘the type of land use that leads to flooding of houses and the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth disease’

    You appear to know very little about the FMD epidemic – will inform you – if you are really interested in correcting possibly your most crass observation to date !

    Why doesn’t Labour do what it did in 1997?

    Labour’s 1997 Animal Rights Manifesto was kindly written by IFAW along with Elliot Morley and Tony Banks in exchange for a ‘donation’ by IFAW of £1 million in a special Labour BOGOF deal as arranged by Peter Mandelson and Jonathan Powell.

    What was the most recent ‘donation’? £60,000 ?

      1. Hi Filbert – perhaps our host – Mark – will soon confirm to us all that he has fully read (and understands) the contents of your link to warmwell.

        This may be a first for a Labour Party-sponsoring ‘conservationist’

        The Truth sometimes irritates!

        1. Trimbush/Filbert

          To be fair to Mark, I don’t think he’s suggesting that flooding caused FMD. Reading the whole sentence, I think he’s using a rhetorical device to juxtapose pairs of issues that are different in origin, but have an element in common, in order to make his point.

 is an interesting site as you say. She is agnostic on the cause of the original FMD case, but suggests that it was exacerbated by a tiny minority of unscrupulous dealers and farmers, who moved sheep around the countryside illegally without the proper documentation, to maximise income from subsidies. Sometimes sheep were moved more than once a day, as soon as they had been counted by inspectors (called ‘bed and breakfasting’, apparently!), so they could be counted on another farm.

          I’ve got no way of knowing if this claim is correct, but the thrust of her argument seems to support the general point that Mark is making.

          1. “the type of land use that leads to … … the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth disease”


          2. Re FMD spread..I seem to recall some virulent and ignorant comments about “walkers” being the cause of the spread – from the head of the NFU?

            As a regular hillwalker, Im still waiting for an apology…

  4. I do understand how you hate that £400 contribution and sympathise,think the easy way of avoiding contributing if my theory is correct is to earn less and so pay no tax.

  5. I would like whomsoever may become Chiefio in 2015 to have the cojones to tell the international agribusiness hegemony to go forth and not to multiply; to ditch all funding of the Pesticides Safety Directorate by the pesticide industry; to add neonicotinoids to the list of substances monitored in waters. And anything else to halt the decline of all the ugly, barely visible, disregarded, insignificant, obscure, featherless, legless, sightless, minor and neglected lifeforms in this country that aren’t considered iconic or important enough to worry about.

  6. Dennis, whilst I think we’ve got the emphasis wrong for historical reasons, I passionately believe that urban people must pay for services provided by the countryside – and by countryside managers, most of whom are currently farmers. We don’t get much leeway when we go to town – we have to pay to park our car, even pay to have a pee ! A service which farmers & foresters still provide for free to the minority of the population who realise its possible to do it without any porcelain !

    Land managers should be paid for water – for providing clean water, and for ‘farming’ water that otherwise would flood houses and it is interesting that I’m picking up far more about ‘soft” defences this time than ever before.

    On FMD, with all the re-writing and politics, one thing became very clear – noone, neither Defra nor the farming community, had realised just how big the increase in animal movements had been since the last outbreak, which accounted for most of the terrifyingly fast & nationwide initial spread – through legitimate movement before anyone had really got hold of what we were up against. And before anyone says ‘they should have known’ just tell me what the next one will be ? If we prepare at all we prepare for the last, not the next battle, and the increasingly strident blame game of modern life tends to reinforce that tendency.

  7. Roderick,I agree with everything you say,I was only thinking that if my theory was correct it offered Mark a solution.
    Of course we need that £400 commitment to wrankle so we get lots more blogs about it.
    Think the F & M outbreak is the same thing as happens in all walks of life,people find ways to either break the law or rules and take advantage.Think that outbreak came about because one pig farmer did not boil pig swill although some people have a different theory.

  8. It is strange that the “Subsidy” issue is far more important in this article that anything else. So farmers get subsidy to produce cheap food. We use fertiliser and pesticides to produce cheap food i.e. more wheat, we were until this year self-sufficient in wheat.
    So the suggestion is, stop fertilisers, stop pesticides, stop the use of ever larger combine’s, tractors all gobbling up diesel. Let’s get rid of the sheep re wild the land and introduce Wolves and Lynx. Let’s turn the clock back to 1850 or 1650 and everything will be alright. Let’s say no to windmills, Solar parks, fracking, HS2, new houses, new factories, nuclear power stations, wave power can’t have that upset some birds. Save Badgers kill cows. We live in a NIMBH world. Good job Brunel did not have the same problems or we would have cart tracks not roads and railways.
    Let’s stop paying subsidies to farmers, some will go out of business but others will do well and the one thing that is certain is that the people of this country will have to pay double or treble for their food. In fact the soon to be 70 Million people in this country will be going very hungry. Do not think that you will be able to import cheap food as more countries get western appetites and affluence i.e. China and India, food is going to get very expensive.
    We and by that I mean England Scotland and Wales the few countries NEVER to have experienced serious famine in Europe, if you had, you would be a bit more respectful to your food security. When your children are walking around with big bellies and dying of starvation you will look back to the food plenty of the last 40 years and realise how lucky you were.
    Turn the UK’s countryside into a playground and get rid of farmers, such evil people, if you wish but you will profoundly regret it in a few years.

    1. David – welcome but I said none of that in my blog. You must tell the Department of Health about those starving Brits – they are still worrying about obesity.

  9. I think the point Mark was making and I largely agree with what both he and Roderick have to say is that currently the £400 we spend is NOT value for money, ELS is a waste of money and delivers very little conservation benefit. Also remeber some years ago New Zealaind stopped all Farm Subsidy, I don’t recall a massive increase in food prices there or starving kiwis coming here.

    1. New Zealand is not a good comparison with the UK it has a population of 4.4 million [2012] and is larger than the UK. It has always been an exporter of food in very large quantities. New Zealand lamb in our shops and dairy. It does not have any large populations on its door step like we do in Europe. However it is now exporting more of its food to China and other pacific countries which is good for British Farmers but bad for British consumers as another cheap food source is disappearing.
      No British government wants food expensive in the shops as it hurts consumers one of Ed Miliband’s cost of living planks at the moment. Keeping EU subsidies helps keep that price down. Ok its a slight of hand trick as this is then paid for by taxation so the consumer who is paying less than 10k a year gets a free ride socialism at work.
      Food is going to get more expensive over the next 20 years no doubt about it. Allow the green agenda the conservation agenda and it will be more so.

      1. David – yes the poor get a free ride – that’s what quite a few of us would want (to each according to their needs etc). But the rich get a free ride too – the recipients of the largest payments are hardly in the same boat as those earning less than £10k per year so where has the ‘from each according to their ability’ bit gone? A strange system where as soon as you earn over £10kpa you start paying the Duke of Westminster some money, and then you are told that this is to keep the price of food down! If the system weren’t so complicated then it would be more obvious how iniquitous it is.

  10. Mark – a great blog IMHO which covers a number of important issues of wider significance than perhaps the title suggests. Thank you very much for it – one of your best yet. One to have to hand perhaps when you see Mr Sawford for BGBW later this month.

    The conservative hegemony in many rural areas – votes weighed not counted as one recent commented put it – may have lead to labour’s relative disengagement with the countryside. A serious mistake because how any political party proposes to deal with these problems says much about the character of any govt they would form, and would be appreciated by voters way beyond the Tory shires.

  11. Water is an interesting point. Here at Geltsdale we have water extracted from springs and river. The main owner of the land is in a syndicate and United Utilities pay them for the water. At one time all the water came from springs but due to upland draining [20 metre drains across the peat bog] the springs no longer provide all the water as it is speeded up off the fell by the drains. 15 to 20 years ago United Utilities had to build a filter bed costing £7.1 million to use the river water. The water company has no management rights for the land hence the drains! So paying land owners for water is not straight forward.

  12. I too am a member of the Labour Party! I too voted for Ed Miliband! But I was brought up in one of those Northern Industrial Towns that is now left hanging on the barbed-wire to die. The urban poor were also betrayed by New Labour! They are part of the One Nation too! Incidentally, I finished up as a Lecturer in Ecology!

  13. As well as the Duke Of Westminster are we not funding lots of German,French and other EU farmers,in these cases for no benefit to us.

  14. That may be true Dennis through some other part of our taxes but one thing is sure I really object to giving the Duke of Bloody Westminster any of my hard earned cash when all he seems to do is collect enormous rents and shoot wildlife, oh and pheasants too. No Harriers or Peregrines on his land these days!

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