Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Labour leader Keir Starmer to the National Farmers’ Union conference this afternoon.
Thank you, Minette, for that introduction. When I was on your farm last year you handed me an envelope with the invitation to speak at this conference, I said yes straight away. I was determined to be here and I want to thank the NFU for making that happen. Minette, if you remember you were showing me around your farm in a fantastic part of Wiltshire and I was wearing a well-worn pair of wellies and what you later called a “bomber jacket”. You seem surprised because apparently, the last politician you’d welcomed to your farm stepped out of the ministerial car on a soggy day without bringing a coat and without wellies. But as we both know there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.
I told Minette then – and I repeat it now – that I want there to be a new relationship between the Labour Party and British farming. And between Labour and rural communities. This the first time a Labour Leader has addressed the NFU conference since 2008. Thirteen years ago. I think that’s indicative of the perceived distance that’s grown up between Labour and the countryside. It’s more perception than reality – because in the last year Labour’s stood with British farming and stood up for rural communities – from fighting for high food standards to protecting family farms. But it’s a perception that we can’t ignore any longer. And we won’t ignore any longer.
My colleague Maria Eagle summed this up in 2015 when she identified a sense that Labour saw rural communities as an “afterthought”. So it’s no surprise that we’ve become an afterthought for many people in rural communities. I want to change that. And today I want to set out how we can build that new relationship. Because no party can claim to represent the country, if we don’t represent the countryside.
Let me begin by reminding us all that Labour’s history owes as much to the countryside as it does to the city. Keir Hardie, my namesake and the first Labour leader, was the son of a farm worker, his mother, Mary. The post-war Attlee government introduced the Agricultural Wages Board and passed the 1947 Agriculture Act that shaped farming for decades to come. And it’s a little-known fact that my first holiday job – at the age of 14 – was on one of the local farms near where I lived. Farming matters. To Labour. To the British people. And to the families and communities that make farming possible. And as you know better than I do, rural communities have to be resilient.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen that resilience like never before. Because British farmers have kept Britain fed. Kept the shelves in our shops full. Coped with huge disruption to supply chains that have turned your businesses upside down. You’ve adapted to the new challenges of selling more to supermarkets and less to restaurants. You’ve helped to keep our countryside open for millions to enjoy. And helped local communities to get through this crisis.
There are so many examples it’s hard to know where to start: there’s the Scottish livestock farmer who launched a new delivery service to help vulnerable people; the farmer in Glamorgan who delivered food to NHS staff and medicines for those self-isolating; and the arable farmer in Cambridgeshire who gave space on his farm for the local community to grow their own vegetables. The list goes on and on. You’ve stepped up when Britain needed you most. So, on behalf of the Labour Party I want to say: thank you.
Covid, of course, is not the only challenge facing British farming. There’s the climate emergency – which demands huge change and creates real opportunities for British agriculture. The NFU has been at the forefront of the switch to climate-friendly farming and sustainable food production and I know you share my determination that the recovery we build in the years to come must prioritise green growth and rapid decarbonisation.
Second, Brexit. Whichever way we voted, I think we all share anger and frustration at the way the government has handled this. The lack of preparation, the 11th hour deal, the new red tape and more bureaucracy that are holding British businesses back and making it harder and more expensive to export to our largest market. So, as we now face the future and build new trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world it’s vital that we do so with the needs of British farming and fishing communities at heart.
And the third challenge is the revolution that’s occurring in technology, science and innovation – which will transform the way our economy and British agriculture works. I believe that if we’re clear-eyed about those challenges there can be a bright future for British farming and for our rural economy. That future must allow farmers to make a good income so that they can afford to invest in new technologies, adapt to a changing climate and pay good wages to those working in the fields, in the sheds and in the markets.
That future must support rural communities to thrive and to provide the shops, services and opportunities people need so that future generations will want to grow up in the countryside, and to grow old there too. It must also maintain our high food standards – and recognise them as a great strength, not as a bargaining chip in trade deals. And it has to be a future that changes Britain’s unhealthy relationship with food: so that we buy more British food, more healthy food and we do more to promote local produce. But the only way we can create that better future is if we have a government that’s willing to roll up its sleeves and work with businesses, trade unions and those at the sharp end of this change.
A first step would be to address the serious and growing problems with farm payments. Protecting nature, improving soil health and preventing flooding is what farmers do naturally. I know that the old farm support system wasn’t delivering for farmers, for the taxpayer or for the environment. But the government hasn’t prepared adequately for the new system. They’ve dithered and delayed. And 76% of farmers are worried that the government’s new schemes won’t be sufficient to keep them afloat. I’m particularly worried that smaller, family farms are especially vulnerable: even without the additional challenges caused by the pandemic. So the government needs to get a grip on this – review it fast – and provide the certainty and security that farmers need.
Second, we need to do far more to encourage people to take up farming and to make it easier to stay in the industry. A big part of this is ensuring that high quality skills training and agricultural apprenticeships are available. As a nation, we invest far too little in skills or in the jobs of the future. If we’re to compete in the decades to come and to ensure that British farming and agriculture can thrive, we have to prioritise skills and vocational training like never before. That’s why I want to see the government implement a wage subsidy to create new apprenticeships in farming and other industries and to bring forward planned funding for the lifetime skills guarantee, so it’s available for those who need it now.
The third step the government need to take is to encourage people to buy more British food. Let me congratulate the NFU on your Back British Farming campaign. And thank you for working alongside Labour to put higher food standards into law and to create a stronger Trade and Agricultural Commission. But we also need to look further – including at the £2.4bn the public sector spends each year on catering and to see if it’s possible to ensure more is spent with British farmers and British producers.
The security of British farming relies on the security of rural communities. But a decade of decisions guided by the notion that government can’t interfere with the market has led to rural infrastructure and services being eroded and ignored. Thousands of rural bus services have been cut – increasing rural isolation and making it harder and more expensive for people in rural areas to get around. The loss of village shops, post offices and pubs has hollowed out many rural communities. Nearly a third of England’s community hospitals – most of which are located in rural areas – have seen beds closed since 2010.
Unaffordable rural house prices mean the dream of homeownership is now out of reach for many. I’ve spoken to so many young people who’ve had to leave their local area just to have a hope of finding somewhere affordable to live. The roll out of rural broadband has been delayed time and again. And the loss of more than 20,000 police officers across the country has left rural police forces stretched and weakened. There’s a mistaken view that rising crime and falling police numbers is just an issue for bigger towns and cities. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. And as a former director of public prosecutions, I’ve seen all too clearly the damage and anxiety that rural crime can cause.
It’s clear that as we recover from this pandemic we need a government whose driving purpose is to tackle inequalities and insecurity. To support growth across all parts of the country. To invest in the long-term and to build a more secure and prosperous future. That’s what a Labour government under my leadership would offer. Because we recognise that Britain can’t recover if British farming doesn’t recover – and if rural communities see their talent and opportunities drain away. Last week, I set out the case for a new British recovery bond to provide billions of pounds for local communities, jobs and the infrastructure of the future. Let me explain what this could mean for rural communities.
In December last year, I visited South Yorkshire to see how local communities had been rebuilding after the 2019 floods, which had devastated many rural areas. I met families who had seen their homes destroyed, their businesses closed and more than a year after the floods were still trying to rebuild their lives. Their resilience was amazing. But what shocked me most was that many of those families had come to accept that every few years this kind of thing could happen. That creates a permanent insecurity. And huge damage to local economies. We have to change this – and to see flooding not as an emergency to respond to year after year but as a crisis to prevent.
That can only happen if you have a government willing to invest in the long-term and to work with businesses, farmers, land owners and local communities to build the infrastructure necessary to provide security and certainty. This kind of investment: long-term, green, targeted at areas starved of government funding for a decade, and designed to build security, resilience and prosperity for the future; is exactly what I have in mind when I say that recovery bonds could be used to build the infrastructure Britain will need in the decades to come. And it’s what I mean when I say this has to be a recovery that works for all parts of the economy and all parts of our country.
I know there’s a much wider story that Labour needs to tell if we’re to build a new relationship with British farmers and rural communities. And I know that for too long, all you’ve heard from Labour is what we don’t want the countryside to do and not what we can achieve together. But I’m determined to change that. That’s why I’ve asked Luke Pollard, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to lead a review of Labour’s rural policy in the coming months.
I want you to be part of that – and this is an open invitation I’m putting to you today. Because I want Labour’s next manifesto to offer as much hope and optimism to rural communities as to those who live in towns and cities. We won’t always agree on everything. But I’m convinced that there’s a lot more we share in common than most people might think. And I can assure you this: from now on, British farming and the countryside will never be an afterthought for Labour again. And Minette, I’ve still got those wellies, so if anyone wants to invite me to their farm, I’m ready! Thank you.