David Drew, the MP for Stroud, which has a community supported agriculture project and an excellent farmers’ market (28.3.18) speaks from a position of strength: he says: “As Stroud’s MP, with its towns, villages and idyllic landscape, there has never been any dissonance between Labour and my rural background”
However, relentless austerity has hit many rural communities hard. Village shops, post offices, pubs and banks have all closed down in rural communities. Smaller farms are also disappearing with traditional farming struggling to compete with global food prices.
As Drew told EURACTIV.com in an interview, Britain needs a real food policy focused on consumer health and self-sufficiency, while ensuring public money gets to the farmers who need it:
“Food is incredibly political because, along with housing, it is the most basic of all issues. You can’t ignore the politics of who produces your food, what they produce, who it’s for, what you sell it for, whether it is what people should be eating and whether they get enough of it. We need a real food policy, which we don’t currently have. I’m working with experts on revisiting what we really mean by a food policy: it’s not just about what you eat but about hygiene and fitness and diet.
“The economic importance of farming in rural areas is downplayed, but it is one of the most basic building blocks of how any country looks after its people . . . For some, the answer for economic viability would be to have much bigger farming units. But my view is that mega-farms are not acceptable because the environmental price is too high. For example, if you have a dairy herd of 1,500 cows and you get a disease outbreak, it is just not containable.
“The food chain is a very sensitive issue. The supermarkets only carry two days’ worth of supply at any one time, which effectively means we are only ever three days away from anarchy . . . One of the things I am pushing for within the Labour Party is to make Britain 80% self-sufficient. Why should we worry about exports, why don’t we just concentrate on becoming more food secure and doing some interesting things with our food? It may sometimes mean we have less choice but that’s why we need a food policy that promotes what is seasonal and appropriate to our diet, rather than pushing, say, mange-tout over carrots. We are already 100% self-sufficient in carrots, by the way.
“Shorter supply chains are a good idea but most traditional farmers are still supplying the middlemen like the milk processors and the supermarkets. And that can be done profitably. Supermarkets are still too powerful, so one thing we will look at is the power of the grocery industry regulator.
He reviews the recently released Fabian Society publication (left) and extracts from its summary follow:
The Labour Party’s origins are as rural as they are urban. Industrialisation and enclosure drove people from the land, and villagers and city-dwellers alike formed the labour movement together to defend their dignity and livelihood but despite Labour’s strong performance at the last election, it risks becoming electorally and culturally adrift in rural areas.
Young people, especially graduates, are leaving rural areas for cities in search of economic opportunities. Yet our research shows that people enjoy living in rural areas and have little desire to leave them, while many people living in urban areas harbour a desire to move somewhere more rural. As a consequence, ageing rural communities are becoming culturally and economically adrift from the wealthy, liberal cities which receive disproportionate policy attention and funding.
Consequently, Labour should pursue an economic strategy that delivers for rural areas and helps overcome the cultural and economic divisions in society. This would focus on enabling rural people to find economic success and social status close to home, without having to move to a big city.
Labour must learn to speak in the language and to the priorities of rural England and Wales. It can do this by supporting local Labour parties to develop a long-term community organising approach that can rectify the inherent difficulties involved with canvassing in rural areas
The strategy should consist of:
- A place-based industrial strategy to rebalance the economy:
• support for small-scale enterprise and manufacturing
• place-based investment
• support for technical education
- Better rural transport:
• the restoration of the rural bus routes lost since 2010 and the municipalisation of bus services
• reviewing the effects of the Beeching cuts to rural train services
- Local, affordable and attractive housing:
• democratic local involvement in planning
• affordable and social housing to meet local need
• small-scale development on disused plots of land
• architectural form that fits the environment
• a fairer taxation policy
- A post-Brexit agricultural settlement:
• a new support system that values the labour that sustains our countryside, rebalanced towards small-scale and marginal farms as well as the provision of public goods.
If the Labour Party forms the next government they should adhere to the strategies laid out by David Drew and the Fabian Society, increasing the supply of wholesome food home-grown by fairly paid famers and enabling other rural people to stay and find economic success close to home.