There are food producers we can trust – and we must back them

By Jonathan Roberts

Being no stranger to a late night kebab, it came as no surprise when I received a gloating text message from my Mum – ‘well it serves you right, what did you think was in it?!’

It was in many ways a fair response to the news that horsemeat has entered our food chain. It was a response I inherited when, during the height of the furore, I received a leaflet through my door from a well-known supermarket, advertising, among other things, Findus lasagne for 99p. Quality beef it was unlikely to be.

But, as we all know, the issue is more about labeling. To the Labour Government’s credit, significant advancements have been made in the past decade in how food is presented – most noticeably through the invention of the traffic light system to highlight fat, sugar and salt content. We have rightly become accustomed to knowing what is in our food, so when beef is the only meat on the label, we expect it to only contain beef.

Elsewhere, whilst the horsemeat scandal was yet to be uncovered, our nations farmers have been struggling to survive during some of the wettest years on record. Taking good care of livestock has become a daily battle, as saturated land made grazing impossible, and the price of manufactured feed rocketed.  With calf registrations down significantly, and 24% of farmers already on the poverty line, cattle producers have for a while needed a major boost.

Simultaneously, greengrocers and fishmongers have all but disappeared from the High Street, and the trusted local butchers have survived only by the skins of their teeth.  In the 1990s there were as many as 22000 independent butcher shops.  Now, there are fewer than 7000.  But in corners of many rural communities, butchers are managing to survive through intelligent diversification and product development (one of my butchers in Thirsk, as it happens, sells its own lasagne).

So, what do these three issues have in common?

Jack White, of Croft and Squires butchers in Ferrybridge said this week “It’s hard to put a figure on it, but we are definitely seeing more people through the door”.  Well the Guild of Butchers can put a figure on it – reporting a 20% increase in overall sales, and a 30% increase in sales of mince.

Since the horsemeat scandal broke, Butchers across the country have been doing a roaring trade. And so they should be. Meat from your local butchers has full traceability. In most cases, your butcher will be able to name the farmer who reared the meat on sale – they will be business partners and, quite probably, friends, working together to feed the local community.

The farmer, the butcher, and quite possibly your local restaurants and pubs, are in essence living up to Labour values of community, cooperation and fair trade – a boast larger retailers can rarely make.

Whilst no-one should take delight in the food-chain scandal, Labour should at least take the opportunity to champion the efforts of our farmers and small, independent retailers.

I know not everyone will be able to afford to visit their butchers (cheap food is popular because many people are struggling to make ends meet), but there are many who can – hence why, according to a poll by Consumer Intelligence 62% are now more likely to buy meat from an independent butcher after the collapse in trust for well known brands.

I call on the Shadow Cabinet to use the current media climate to vocally promote our farmers and butchers. We must champion the fact that our farmers work to some of the most stringent food and welfare standards anywhere in the world, and work incredibly hard in difficult conditions to produce top quality food that can be trusted. We should show that we are on their side – that we understand them, that we share their values.

Whilst the large food brands have let us down, our local producers are delivering for Britain with integrity and ingenuity. We should be the party of the farm and market place, as well as the factory and city. For too long farmers and small rural retailers have felt that we do not understand them. This is our chance to change that perception – we must seize it.

One Nation Labour

By Hywel Lloyd

(This post originally appeared at LabourList on May 25th 2012)

The recent local election results show the start of Labour’s return to political representation for the many, while they also suggest further work lies ahead. The nature of the seats, of the previous election cycle and the post budget ‘omni-shambles’ will all have helped.

In 2013 we face a different task, when the counties of England go to the polls in mostly all out elections.

We should hope that the Police Commissioner elections in November will help with our organisation and presence across swathes of rural England; and while the voters of urban England may well be more accessible to us, our ability to maintain electoral momentum in 2013 requires a meaningful engagement in every part of England.

To achieve such meaningful engagement two particular conditions need to be met.

Ed Miliband is right to suggest we need to overcome the lack of trust in politics and politicians. One part of the answer to that is to return to the roots of political representation and build our representation from the communities we seek to serve. That requires presence in the community, and a presence that is about being part of the community, not a passing engagement driven by election timetables.

We should learn from the vast array of local activism that takes place in almost every place day in, day out; and we should be a part of it because we are an active part of our community (rather than a local ‘party’ activist). We should probably learn from historic Lib Dem successes where they identify and support active local people with Lib Dem sympathies, support them in local campaigns on the way to being a local representative. It cannot be the case, as I’ve seen on two or three occasions that people who run chip shops are only sympathetic to Lib Dem policies!

The Future Candidates Programme suggest the party gets this, do we as members accept that in many cases active community members might be better placed as candidates than an stalwart party member might be . . .

Being part of the community can show people that we are in politics and representation for the right reasons; and that being Labour does make a difference to their lives day in, day out, irrespective of elections.

And then, of course, we need to show we have some policies that properly recognise the nature of non-urban life, of life in the countryside, in market towns, hamlets and villages.

Many market towns are thriving places with variety and character, but not all. Can we help those that aren’t, turn the corner? With declining public transport getting about requires your own car, if you have one and can afford the fuel, while broadband is a fleeting presence if you’re lucky. Public service is different in places where there is only one secondary school, or the nearest hospital is many miles away (and the second further still).

Does the centre ground include people who live in market towns and rural areas? Personal experience, my work as an advisor at both CLG and Defra, and the 2012 results from district councils suggest they probably do. Our challenge is to show that Labour people are a part of their lives and that Labour has the policies to reflect that.

Hywel Lloyd was a Policy Advisor to Ministers in CLG and in Defra 2007/2010

The Politics of Place and the Greening of Labour

By Michael Jacobs

(This post originally appeared at LabourList on November 12th 2012)

One of the beauties of the ‘One Nation’ theme is that it allows Labour to occupy the field of ‘soft patriotism’: the love of country invoked by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the Olympics.  Not the hard glorification of empire and ethnic superiority used by the right, but the celebration of all that’s good about our society: its history of social change and political rights, its multiculturalism, its literature and arts, scientific achievements and commonly-owned institutions, from the NHS to the BBC.

And its land.  For love of country is, for most people, not just a sentiment about abstract ideas and values.  It’s actually about the place that is Britain.  It’s an identification with the physical, grounded spaces in which we all live our lives.  There’s a familiar national version of this: of England’s green and pleasant land, of Scottish highland ancestry, of the Welsh Valleys and emerald Ireland.  But there’s also a much more local and arguably more visceral patriotism that many people feel: a sense of belonging to the particular places where they live, and the others they love.

For residents of rural Britain, and those who visit it, love of place is easily enough understood. Looking out on nature’s beauty – the fields, woodlands and babbling brooks – it’s not hard to inspire notions of protection and stewardship.  But exactly the same kind of belonging occurs in towns and cities too.  Urban places are different – they can be loved as much for their social community as for their physical character, their buildings, parks and river walks.  But that feeling of familiarity is vital.  Literally so:  as the anthropologists tell us, connection to one’s home territory is a crucial part of human identity.  And above all of what it means to be a citizen.  For places are shared.  From the street we live in to the country we belong to, places are the location of community – of the common life we share with our neighbours.

And that’s why ‘place’ must become political territory for One Nation Labour.  Over the last few years we have come to understand the threat posed by neoliberal economic forces to our most cherished common institutions.  The NHS, the BBC, the police, our public services and welfare system, our arts and culture – these vital parts of our common life do not operate on market principles, and the values which define them will be destroyed if the market is allowed to take root in them.  But this is true of places too.  Look at our ‘clone town’ centres now: ranks of identical shopping chains robbing once distinctive market towns of their essential character, while on their edges sprawling shopping malls erode the countryside beneath their parking lots.

And look too at where that’s not happening – on land protected by the non-market values of the National Trust, another great British common institution.

Historically, Labour understood well that the market could not protect the values of place.  Its historic 1948 Town and Country Planning Act enshrined the principle that the community as a whole must have a democratic say in how even private property can be developed.  It was Labour which created National Parks (and many urban ones), and which under the last government gave universal rights of access to the countryside and coast.  Yet it’s also true that under Blair and Brown we became impatient with local planning, seeing it as an impediment to vital national economic development.

And that warns us: a new politics of place will not be easy.  There are places the next Labour government will not wish to protect and where we will be bitterly opposed for that stance: on the route of the high speed rail line, near new housing and windfarms.

But we should develop such a politics nevertheless.  For the desire to protect and nurture cherished places is a powerful motivation which can damage Labour if we are seen to reject it, and strengthen us if we give it our support.  It is the source, not least, of much community activism.  Labour should be the champion of the myriad ‘little platoons’ of community associations trying to make their localities better places to live – from urban streets and green spaces to market towns and countryside.  Here surely is a vital role for our local councils.  We should be the party of community land trusts, handing local resources to community control.

And it will also connect Labour to an important political constituency, that of the environmental movement.  Love of place lies at the heart of popular environmentalism: the recognition that society is rooted in nature and must be its steward, and that market values must be limited if the world is to be protected.  That feeling is very widely held: there are 3 million members of the National Trust, a million in the RSPB, and just under that number in local wildlife trusts the length and breadth of the land.

Once upon a time love of place might have been thought to be Tory territory.  And indeed it is conservative, in the literal and best sense.  But the free market ideologues who run today’s Conservative Party have abandoned this field, and Labour should occupy it.

Michael Jacobs is Visiting Professor in the School of Public Policy at University College London and was a Special Adviser in the Treasury and No 10 in the last Government

The case for a Rural Living Wage

By Jim Knight

(This piece was first posted at the Labour Lords blog on January 16th 2013)

As a minister at the old Department for Children, Schools and Families, I was very proud when Ed Balls agreed it would be the first government department to pay the London Living Wage. The high cost of housing and the concentration of poverty in the capital makes the case overwhelming; but the case for a rural living wage is equally strong.

If you are poor in rural areas it is a real struggle. The quality of life attracts asset rich retirees and second home owners, making housing often unaffordable. Local shops are a long way from distribution centres, competition is limited, and so prices are higher than the average. Wages are also low as local jobs can be limited to cleaning, care, hospitality and micro businesses; or if you’re lucky, the public sector. But the local council will be underfunded relative to urban councils, and can’t afford the support services you need if living in poverty.

The best way out of poverty is work – but only if work pays. Topping up low pay through the tax system is one way forward, as the tax credit system has shown. Better still is for employers to pay decent wages. That is why I hope Labour colleagues in the Counties will campaign for a rural living wage in this year’s Council elections.

It is also why I will be pressing Ministers this evening to withdraw their amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR) Bill that would abolish the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) for England.

Set up in 1917, the AWB has put a floor under wages for almost a century. It means farmers’ representatives negotiate terms and conditions every year with unions, and workers then get reasonable pay, protection and career progression. Without it, workers will have to deal direct with their employers, the reality of which would be pay cuts for the workers (of around £32.5m per year) and the burden of staff negotiations on farmers. Indeed, the latter is one of the reasons why the Farmers Union for Wales agrees with the Welsh Assembly Government in retaining the AWB.

Previously, as an MP, I represented the Frampton Estate where the Tolpuddle Martyrs had worked before their arrest in 1834. The outcry at their treatment and transportation was a crucial moment in the history of the trade union movement.  It was born out of James Frampton’s power to bully, and his influence over the local judiciary in passing such an extreme sentence.

But today, as Unite the Union say, “there is no more ‘tightly-knit’ community than a small rural community, where a farm worker’s employer, employer’s spouse or other members of their family may be in positions of social control such as a justice of the peace, a parish councillor, a school governor, all of these and more.” This makes negotiation by workers in these communities very difficult indeed.

Or as my colleague Margaret Prosser said when this issue was last debated in the Lords, “The most particular aspect is that in many circumstances the relationship between the worker and the employer is very personal. The relationship often involves just one or two employees and one employer. It is a very close relationship where day-to-day friendship and trust has to be established. How, in those circumstances, can the employee raise for himself or herself the sorts of questions that need to be answered if that employee is to feel secure in his or her employment and endeavour to improve his or her circumstances?”

There are many other reasons for retaining the protection that the AWB gives 154,000 workers in England – a much better deal for young people, better training, the particular conditions in what is a dangerous profession.  In return, the impact assessment says the positive employment effects will be ‘not significantly different from zero’.

It is also shocking that the consultation period for this proposal has been only for four weeks, with Ministers trying to rush the plans through. For me however, the AWB is the starting point for a living wage for everyone in rural England – and this move by a Lib Dem farming minister will undo the good work by Lloyd George almost a century ago.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister in the Lords. 

Why did coastal towns stop voting Labour? And how do we win them back?

By Jim Knight)

(This post was first published at LabourList on August 25th 2012)

This week Rob Williams argued in his article on coastal towns that they were a key battleground for the next General Election and an opportunity for Labour if they can find the right policies to appeal to these communities. I don’t disagree, but what are the policy answers for these communities?

There are 17 constituencies in England that Labour gained from the Tories since 1997 but that are now all lost again. From Blackpool and Morecombe in Lancashire, to Scarborough and Lowestoft in the east, to a string of seats on south coast from Dover to Falmouth – these all went Labour with a swing half as much again as the national figure in 1997. However the same volatility repeated itself in 2010 when the swing to the Tories was also 50% higher than the national average.

So what is going on? Why are these areas so electorally promiscuous?

The 2007 report from the House of Commons Communities and Local Government select committee identified the common characteristics of coastal towns: “physical isolation, deprivation levels, the inward migration of older people, the high levels of transience, the outward migration of young people, poor quality housing and the nature of the coastal economy”.

An older demographic is normally more electorally loyal through thick and thin. The large transient population living in bedsits and coming for the winter to stay in holiday lets, is an electorate most likely to stay at home. These two groups should stabilise the vote, but they appear to be outweighed by a highly disillusioned working population.

By definition these communities are physically on the periphery. They are on the edge of high value economic activity and are dominated by low pay sectors such as tourism and care. The biggest employers are often the NHS and the local council. Working people here benefitted from the national minimum wage but not the City-Regions approach to economic development, and they relied on the sorts of intervention that only the Regional Development Agencies were capable of.

The working poor are understandably more volatile in their voting behaviour. They feel distant from the business, media and political elites. They see the successive scandals amongst politicians, bankers and journalists that reinforce the notion that what goes on in London is for “them” and not for “us”. Local house prices are artificially high because the same elite have pushed up prices in pursuit of their holiday homes. Local services are stretched because their councils are funded at the same rates as shire counties, despite coastal communities having to support large numbers of elderly and transient people.

I still live in Weymouth, the town I represented in Parliament from 2001-2010. Working families around here feel let down. There are very few large workplaces and union membership is low. Politics makes them angry.

These are the people we must appeal to if we are to swing them back to Labour. They need policies that will deliver work that pays, work that is secure and all year round, and with lower house prices. The test is whether the tide will turn of young people migrating out to better themselves and that aspirant single people stay and prosper.

This needs a set of policies from an active Government. Leaving it to the market will never deliver for these peripheral communities. Intervention is needed that is locally sensitive but with more strategic capacity than local councils. If not RDA’s then we need something specific to tackle market failure in coastal communities, both in terms of employment and housing.

But policies are not enough. We also need to find ways of rebuilding trust and showing that voting can deliver positive change. There are few Labour councils in these areas. We must start by rebuilding this base with priorities that show that we are in touch, we are local and we will act.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister in the Lords

One-nation Labour

By Jim Knight

(This post was originally published at the Labour Lords blog on May 21st 2012)

Tomorrow the Lords will have its first chance to debate the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. This regulation of supermarket power over their suppliers is welcome and was first proposed by the last Labour government.

It is also welcome as a measure that may benefit those in rural and semi-rural areas. Agriculture and food processing is worth over £80bn to the UK economy and is our largest manufacturing sector. 3.6m people are employed in food production. To make competition in that market function more fair is good for growth and for jobs in the sector.

I can grumble that it has taken the government two years to bring this forward when they have had MPs scratching around with little to do for the past six months. I can also observe with amusement, BIS ministers talking up a regulatory bill as pro-growth. But the more significant question is whether they are doing anything else to stimulate growth and make life easier for those of us in rural and semi-rural Britain.

By now it is no surprise that there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech.

A parliamentary session set to be dominated by Lords reform is irrelevant to the needs of the real world. Under the radar, we will be busy scrutinising the orders that follow from the laws passed in the last session. These will be the detail of the marketisation of the NHS, the slashing of welfare payments to the disabled, and a range of other corrosive measures to universal state funded provision. These will hit sparsely populated areas hardest where notions of choice and contestability are particularly meaningless. And, ironically, at the same time it seems inevitable that the Rural Advocate will be abolished, and with it the safeguard of an independent body looking at the impact of government policy on rural areas.

Last week’s joint report by the Chartered Institute for Housing, the National Housing Federation (NHF) and Shelter pointed to the failure of government to deliver on affordable housing. Predictably, a market-based approach is failing in an environment where lending is low. The planning reforms give more power to the nimby and look set to make it even harder to meet the huge crisis in affordable housing in rural Britain, where low land values will always need market interventions by government at some level.

The solution is obvious to the authors of last week’s report – invest public money in building homes. As David Orr, Chief Executive of the NHF, said: “Building new homes will help fix our broken housing market and, with rising unemployment and living costs, spur economic growth by creating jobs and supporting small businesses. It’s a win/win for the taxpayer and for the millions stuck on waiting lists.”

This chimes well with the first of Labour’s five point plan for jobs and growth: a £2bn tax on bank bonuses to fund a real jobs guarantee for all young people out of work for a year and build 25,000 more affordable homes.

These are the issues that matter in rural and semi-rural areas. How to get a secure job that pays enough to make the rent or the mortgage affordable alongside rising food and fuel costs. That is what we should campaign on, where Labour has the right policies and where the coalition parties are failing.

And in recent weeks we have proven that such campaigning works. Whilst the northern cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and Sheffield are now no-go areas for the Tories, Labour have made gains even in the Prime Minister’s own backyard, in Chipping Norton and Witney.

Labour in Parliament will do what we can to improve legislation to help rural Britain, but the real job is out there on the doorstep.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister in the Lords. 

Coast and Country

One Nation – Our nation, the nation this Labour generation seeks to represent and to serve, is a complex and varied place, stretching from coast to inner city, from wooded glade to urban park, from ports and estuaries to high-rise flats and terraced houses.

One Nation Labour is a powerful statement of a Party seeking to acknowledge, understand and to try and address the issues and opportunities of all of these places, and of each of their communities.

Sadly the Labour Party, and sometimes the wider Labour movement can be a bit stereotypical about those parts that we frankly don’t often reach – the market town, the village, the farm, the fishing port, the coastal resort . . .

History shows that in the momentous elections, 1945, 1997 where Britain faces a profound choice we have won these sorts of constituencies.

There is talk of the profound choice that will face the British public in 2015 – can we, again, engage, understand and address the issues and opportunities of those places we don’t often reach?  If we can, our ambition to be One Nation Labour will be realised with a powerful majority.

A good starting point is the policy review, another is these very communities and the many Labour members and Labour supporters that are at their heart.

I would set every member of the Shadow Cabinet the gentle challenge of describing their ambition for Britain, and any emerging policies as if they only applied to the communities living in the Counties of England.  Of course, contrary to the view of some London-based party members, next year isn’t a year off from electioneering, as it will see County Council elections.  In the corresponding elections in 2009 we didn’t do well: our momentum towards 2015 depends on good results next year.

If I were being more challenging I would ask the Shadow Cabinet to describe what their policy would do for people who live a market or coastal town, or in the ancient or planned countryside; what a policy would mean for those whose only means of transport, to get to work, school or any shop is a car that’s a bit long in the tooth with poor mpg; or the impact we would hope to have on the lives of those who can’t afford to live in the village where they grew up . . .

Thoughtful politicians will have good answers to these questions that show we have listened to real people in a great variety of places, understood their needs and come up with something that could work for them, in other words One Nation policies.

Some might say that we don’t really need the votes of people who live in such places – I would beg to differ.  From an election perspective we need a good showing in the County Council elections only months away.  More importantly a robust narrative that shows we value our villages, our fishing ports and our market towns will be a better narrative for anyone who might vote Labour.

Such a narrative would show we value those people and communities who live and work on the land and the sea, who create and manage our landscapes, who produce quality food for us to savour, and whose lives are lived over miles not meters.  And care for them as much as we value the produce and benefits they offer.

Many people will know of a beautiful Ash tree, there are thousands.  I know of one on the crest of a hill near the Brecon Beacons.  While we value it, the scene it enhances, and are rightly fearful of Ash dieback; we must also understand and value the sheep farmer on whose land it grows, the agricultural worker who tends the sheep and cuts the hay, and the men of the abattoir who bring the lamb to our table.  They are as important to that view as the Ash tree.

If, like me, Jim, Jonathan, Mark and Sally you feel the policy review must engage, understand and support these communities and address their issues properly then join us, the founder members of Labour: Coast and Country.  We know that understanding the issues of the people of the orchards of Suffolk, the coast of Dorset, the Dales of Yorkshire, the pit villages of the North East and the meadows of Carmarthenshire can ensure we can win in 2015, as One Nation Labour.

Hywel Lloyd, a Founder member of Labour: Coast and Country, was previously an advisor to the Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP and the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP.