The coronavirus crisis means that business as usual is no longer an option. Business as usual wasn’t working. Brexit, coronavirus and the climate emergency demand a very different approach. For me in my role as Shadow Environment Secretary, that means getting Labour’s message heard loud and clear in our coastal and rural communities.
My first priority is to support and rebuild our food sector after this crisis. Coronavirus has exposed the fragility of our food supply chains. We’ve seen supermarket shelves left bare, while millions of pints of milk have just been thrown away and fishers have found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy.
The government’s plan for a volunteer land army to fill the gaping holes in our agricultural work force has left a lot to be desired. We need to take action to make our food supplies more resilient – but the focus here has to be making sure that every single one of us has enough to eat. The Food Foundation finding that 1.5 million people had gone a whole day without eating since the lockdown began – and that’s why I proposed the creation of a Coronavirus Emergency Food Plan. There is more than enough food for everyone to eat three nutritious meals a day: this is not a crisis of food supply, but a crisis of poverty.
We still need to solve a whole host of problems for food, farming and fishing that Brexit has thrown up. I want to see a Britain that is a world leader in high food quality and animal welfare standards. But the government’s lack of leadership on this risks trading away these British standards in a race to the bottom to get a deal with Donald Trump. We can’t allow Britain’s hardworking farmers to be undercut by cheap, low-quality imports from abroad, which will devastate our domestic food production – and we need them getting food on our plates now more than ever.
The truth is that Britain’s rural communities have been ignored and taken for granted for too long. That must change. Huge numbers of Labour’s target seats now include rural and coastal communities. Austerity has hit these communities hard – unable to access education, affordable housing, proper broadband or decent public transport. The lack of opportunity is pushing more and more people into poverty, and accessing support is nearly impossible. Those communities share their values with Labour and reconnecting must be a priority. We start by listening, building confidence in our approach and details to our policies.
We need to present a vision for the future to our rural and coastal communities, not just technical solutions. Labour is not short on good technical policies for fishing and farming. On a simple comparison, our policies fit those communities better than those proposed by the Tories, especially those that have a Brexit impact. Fishing and farming are identity issues too, and Labour needs to speak for those communities for whom growing crops, rearing animals and fishing our waters are part of who they are. As a West Country lad representing a coastal city, I know what this means and I know why it matters.
DEFRA is a department whose time has come. For the past decade, it has been technically managing hugely important parts of our daily lives: the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. But the truth is that the virus, Brexit and the climate emergency means these fundamentals need addressing with new energy, new focus and new policy. I’m proud to have a broad shadow team in Daniel Zeichner, Stephanie Peacock, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Ruth Jones, Lord John Granchester and Baroness Maggie Jones. There’s a Labour case to be made for Defra: red on the outside, green on the inside.
This piece is part of a series by members of the new shadow cabinet.
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