Dear Mr Reed, 5 – who you should hear

Steve Reed. Photo: Lauren Hurley/No 10 Downing Street

Dear Mr Reed,  I’m sure you have heard lots of views and advice since you were appointed shadow secretary of state about a year ago. They can’t all be right!  How do you decide who is talking nonsense?

I remember a meeting with Ed Miliband when I was one of a group of NGO people talking to him about climate change issues. This would have been back in about 2008! It’s really good to see Ed heading up that policy area again, and still.

The meeting was OK, but a bit fractious. I think we were a bit irritated with lack of progress and he was a bit irritated with us nagging him. Funnily enough, I was quite well-behaved in that meeting. My contribution at the end of that meeting was to say that we were sorry if we seemed irritated but we hoped that he recognised that none of us was there to get something for an interest group, none of us would make money out of whatever he decided to do, we were, unlike most groups he met, there for what we saw as the public interest and we knew that was what he was there for too. We were on his side. The meeting ended with smiles.

I was also involved in meetings with Michael Meacher and Margaret Beckett over GM crops. One side of the argument was the pesticide industry and a bunch of academics who benefitted from pesticide funding – who would you have expected to offer you good unbiased advice?

The meetings you have with the NFU, house builders, food retailers, pesticide companies etc are not like the ones you have with charities. Store that thought away.

What seems to have been much diminished under the Tories are meetings which involve a wide group of stakeholders – or different sides as they really are. There is nothing like a an argument about a policy to tell you who knows what they are talking about and who is just blagging it. I have heard outrageously false statements made by vested interests in front of ministers, but they are less likely to be said if there are other views in the room at the time and willing to speak up. You and your ministers cannot be at every such meeting but you need trusted and informed advisors to be assessing what is worth hearing and taking forward. Those advisors need to know about farming and nature conservation, not about politics. Do you have many? How do you know if they are any good?

Although your new job is not the highest profile Cabinet post in government (except when things go wrong – floods, foot and mouth, BSE) it is one of the most complex. And you are now in the position to win over voters who have been put off by Labour’s reticence and lack of star quality on rural issues through the Opposition years. I wish you well.


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