As if there hasn’t been enough political turbulence already what with the dreaded B word, now another event looms large on the horizon that is likely to prove every bit as bitter and divisive.
But at least the forthcoming general election won’t drag on for year after year, unlike the events that led to it, so that’s one small mercy to be thankful for.
With the country more divided then ever I can remember, it is difficult to predict who the winners and losers will be come December 12th.
But whatever colour government is returned, or mix of colours, one thing is for certain; this will one be of the most important elections for the countryside, its communities and industries, for more than 50 years.
Blue and pleasant land
The English countryside has historically been a blue and pleasant land. No surprises there. The land-owning classes, the gentleman farmers, the wealthy merchants, either were Conservative MPs or voted Conservative to protect their interests. Often, they insisted those who worked for them did the same.
The stats show this tradition has never really been broken, with Labour to this day having no MPs in the top 50 rural seats. According to a poll conducted by Farmers Weekly, 42% of respondents said they would be voting for the Tories in general election, followed, somewhat surprisingly, by Lib Dems on 39%, then the Brexit Party on 8%.
Labour were left languishing in fourth position, with just 5% of respondents saying they would vote for Jeremy Corbyn at the time of writing.
But are they right to upholding this position, and is the Conservative Party still the party of rural England? Or, in their efforts to appeal to a broader, metropolitan audience, have the Tories forgotten their rural roots, enabling their opponents to close in?
Starting with farming, what can we expect from the two main parties, and is there one that will clearly provide a better future for farmers, their families, and their workforce?
Without a doubt, Brexit remains the biggest challenge for the industry, and surprisingly, in regard to this all-consuming farce, the Conservatives may pose the biggest threat.
The prospect of leaving the EU without a deal, the option a number of hard-line Tory Brexiters want – perhaps even the Prime Minister himself – could open up a world of trouble for British agriculture.
One much lauded example of this is lamb. The EU currently accounts for 90% of British lamb exports, but WTO rules could add a further 50% to the price of lamb in the form of tariffs, making exports unviable.
Without the option to export, a glut of lamb on the British market will depress the price at home, and could ultimately force many sheep farmers – among the lowest paid in the industry already – out of business.
Then there are the trade deals to be done.
WTO rules could add unsustainable tariffs on UK food exports, putting at risk any business that is heavily dependent on exporting. Indeed, the Government’s own website states that whereas the tariffs on non-agricultural goods tend to be low, for agricultural goods they are typically much higher to protect domestic markets. Of course, under WTO rules, agricultural goods imported from Europe will be subject to tariffs too, which might open up new domestic markets for British producers, but this is unlikely to take up the slack in the market.
And even if this were possible, it too would be threatened by a no deal Brexit. That’s because of the potential for trade deals with countries wanting to import cheap food to the UK which does not adhere to the welfare or environmental standards that British farmers are bound by.
Taking these imports is likely to be a condition of landing much wider trade deals with powerful nations; trade deals that would no doubt be good for UK PLC but might include a degree of sacrifice for certain industries, farming being one. And with a post-Brexit fervour to forge ahead with new partnerships, to demonstrate we can make a success of these things, such trifling matters as cheap food imports damaging domestic agricultural markets could well be pushed to one side.
Another great concern of a Tory government is complacency. It has had the rural vote for many, many years. But, like all organisations, it cannot stand still. To remain relevant, it must attract more voters, particularly young, metropolitan voters who understand little of the countryside.
Many of these voters are environmentally conscious and have some sympathies with the animal rights movement. Often, misinformed by the mainstream media, they see conventional farming practices as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. This is a growing issue for the industry.
Will the Tory party be able to court these voters while accommodating the needs of some of their core supporters in farming and wider rural communities? Or will they simply assume that support and pander to a new generation of urban dwellers, believing the countryside will never be turned red? Only time will tell.
Of course, another immediate worry for farming families is support payments. The Conservatives vowed to continue the BPS at the same rate for the entirety of the current Parliament. That was meant to end in 2022. With the announcement of the general election, it’s ended more than two years early. What happens beyond December 12th will depend on who is in power, but it is certainly a huge concern for those who rely on support payments to meet the bills.
So, with all that said, what incentives are there for rural communities to vote Tory?
Well, no deal is of course the worst-case scenario. Boris Johnson did manage to return to Brussels and negotiate another deal, against everyone’s expectations. If voted in on a majority, it is more than possible that deal can pass through Westminster and avoid us leaving the EU on such painful terms. The $64,000 question is though, what do the Tory top brass want? Deal or no deal.
Promises to quadruple migrant worker quotas will hold some relief for farmers, especially fruit farmers, worrying about a lack of seasonal workers.
In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Theresa Villiers said the immigration system should ‘reflect the needs of farmers’ businesses’, which will be well received by the industry.
What can Labour offer the countryside?
In an insightful editorial, The Times recently summed up Labour’s strained relationship with the countryside thus. “Labour has not been known for its fondness for farmers; its agriculture ministers tended to be urban and sometimes vegan, its MPs almost uniformly against foxhunting and badger culling.”
So, it will come as a surprise to some that in the same article, Minette Batters, president of the NFU, said “struggling farmers are divided now over who is the best advocate for rural Britain, Labour or the Tories”.
Labour, the best advocate for rural Britain? Surely not.
Well, not yet might be the more accurate.
Whereas the polls don’t seem to bear out Minette’s assertions, and her words might be meant more as a warning to the Conservatives about complacency over rural issues than a statement of absolute truth, Labour is trying to rural proof the party and pick up disillusioned voters afraid of dropping out of Europe without a deal, or those just sick to the back teeth of the ongoing Brexit pantomime.
So, how are they trying to tempt them away?
Well, firstly, Labour have committed to continue paying support payments in the short term after Brexit, giving reassurance to many in the industry.
Secondly, in its policy document, Land for Many, the party has suggested reviving county farms owned by councils to enable much needed young people to get a foothold in the industry.
This is a clever move as many students at agricultural colleges are no longer from traditional farming families. Opening up council-owned farms could enable those who want to start their own farm business to do just that. As a long-term strategy to start turning the countryside red, and create a generation of Labour-voting farmers, it has appeal.
Add to this greater protection for agricultural workers – hardly unexpected from a left-wing party – and you can start to see how Labour is trying to woo rural communities.
But, also expected from a left-wing party, these policies are targeted at the little guys. If Labour win the general election, what is in store for the wider industry and the bigger farm businesses?
The most likely answer is more red tape.
The main focus of Labour’s farming policies is providing land for the public good rather than food production.
Writing in Parliament magazine, The House, David Drew, Labour MP for Stroud, said ‘we broadly welcomed the use of public money for public goods as a way forward for farming’.
He continued ‘there can be no greater public good than reducing our contribution to climate’.
Few would argue there is a huge role for farming to play in combatting the effects of climate change. But this must be done in while at the same time, feeding an ever-growing population on land which is under pressure for new housing and other non-agricultural uses.
The massive challenge for the industry going forward is to balance these competing demands, along with providing habitat for wildlife and other environmental benefits.
Putting climate change and environmental stewardship on a pedestal above food production, rather than putting an equal emphasis on all three, is likely to lead to long term policies that disadvantage farmers and make conventional agriculture all but impossible.
Add to this mix the creation of an animal welfare commissioner with the powers to enact sweeping changes, an end to the badger cull, a general buy-in from many Labour ministers that meat is harmful to both the environment and health, the promotion of a plant based diet, and the future of the farming industry as we know it could look very different under a Labour administration.
And of course, with the prioritisation of the environment over food production, it is likely many crop protection products will be taken off licence, leaving farmers and agronomists with a reduced tool kit with which to combat pests and weeds.
Finally, the party has mooted removing inheritance tax exemptions for larger farms. While this is hardly surprising, it is not likely to go down well in many parts of the countryside.
Labour and Brexit
Labour’s position on Brexit has generally been on of sit on the fence, and you can see why. Jeremy Corbyn is a long-term leaver faced with leading a party in which the majority of MPs want to remain.
Much of Labour’s former heartland, the working-class north and midlands voted to leave the EU, but the party’s metropolitan, champagne socialist support base is ardent remain.
So, it is a difficult issue to negotiate for Labour’s leaders.
Perhaps the only thing they have been consistent on, however, is removing no deal as an option for leaving Europe, and this might resonant with farmers concerned about export tariffs and trade deals including the importation of cheap food.
Of course, achieving this is easier said than done. Corbyn claims if he wins the general election he’ll have Brexit wrapped up with a new deal within six months. This seems unlikely. After all, we’re three years down the line from the vote, with two deals having been on the table, and we seem no closer to leaving now then when we went to the ballot box.
But if some members of the farming community can stomach the overall consequences of a Labour government, assurances on not leaving without a deal might swing them to lend the left their votes.
Of course, rural politics doesn’t just stop with farming. A lot of country people will fear the consequences of voting in a Labour government due to its record on issues such as country sports.
It is here, Labour’s former policies have eroded the trust of people in the countryside, and they show no signs of shifting from that position.
With pledges to tighten up the Hunting Act further and to ‘review’ grouse shooting (review being euphemistically taken here to mean ban regardless of the findings) as just two headline-grabbing announcements, who knows what a vote for Labour would mean for gamekeepers, sporting estates, equestrian businesses, grooms, rural pubs and hotels, and all the related businesses and trades.
And this is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. If they were to get in from longer than a term, expect reviews of all forms of shooting from driven game shooting to stalking to the general licence, and potentially equally draconian regulations on gun ownership.
This is in stark contrast to the position of the Tories set out in a recently leaked internal document that advised perspective MPs to show support for shooting ‘as an important part of rural life’.
Still confused about the general election?
So, any clearer on who to vote for on December 12?
The two main parties do offer a choice, and neither choice is perfect. Each have their associated problems and benefits.
In the end, as is usually the case, people will vote on what is more advantageous for them and their families. But if you’re a rural voter, spare a thought for what type of countryside you want after Brexit and for the decades that follow it. Two different visions for the countryside are on the table, and whichever we choose will have consequences for rural dwellers, workers, and industries and our communities for many, many years to come.