Despite promising to ‘get Brexit done to support British farmers’, the government has recently signed a trade deal with Australia that will, according to the National Farmers’ Union, cause “irreversible damage” to rural communities and “the demise of many, many beef and sheep farms throughout the UK”.
Small family farms, including in my own constituency of Sheffield Hallam, could be priced out by cheap imports from large-scale Australian agriculture companies. Their economies of scale allow them to undercut prices, and they use inhumane and environmentally damaging practices that are, rightly, banned in the UK. As our first post-Brexit trade deal, this will set a precedent for all future deals, ushering in a new era of unregulated, tariff-free trade that will spell disaster for our farming communities while protecting the interests of global capital and the wealthy elite.
As a northern MP who grew up in a small cattle market town in rural Yorkshire, I know how fragile our agricultural industry is and the pivotal role it plays in supporting rural communities. Even prior to the pandemic, these communities were struggling – and in the past year that has only accelerated. The UK-Australia trade deal, which represents the biggest threat to our agricultural industry yet, is a further betrayal by a Tory government that has continuously taken rural England for granted. And to its own peril: these communities, the so-called ‘Blue Wall’ of rural England, are starting to fracture.
Many wrongly assume the Tories are the political home of England’s rural farming communities, that people who live in the countryside have always voted Tory and always will. But the reality is far more complex. Take the former Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside, Joan Maynard, who worked hand-in-hand with the National Union of Agricultural Workers to abolish the tied cottage system. Maynard delivered what has been described as the greatest social advance for people living in the countryside, improving the lives of millions of agricultural workers.
Our rural communities have deep-rooted cooperative traditions and values that stretch back for generations. The Lincolnshire Cooperative is a consumer cooperative founded 150 years ago. The co-op, which is owned by its 290,000 members, recycles all its profits locally, sharing dividends with its members in Lincolnshire and the surrounding counties and supporting and investing in local services and community groups.
That tradition of cooperating to build wealth in rural communities continues today through the work of Labour in local government. North Ayrshire Council is championing community wealth building as a more realistic and far-reaching way to improve economic wellbeing. It has recently approved a council-owned solar farm project that will generate 34% of the council’s energy needs and reinvest £13m back into the community. These aren’t Tory ideas; they are Labour ideas, based on cooperation and mutual aid – values at the heart of our democratic socialism. We must build on them to offer an alternative, supporting local farmers and rural communities to thrive.
Because it’s in everyone’s interests that our famers do thrive. Moving away from carbon-intensive food imports and making Britain food-secure is an integral part of tackling the twin climate and ecological emergencies. Labour would reduce the carbon footprint of our food by supporting sustainable farmers who produce and sell food locally and increase domestic food self-sufficiency. We would also encourage eco-friendly practices such as agroforestry, greening our agricultural economy so that UK farmers can deliver for climate justice. Businesses like Our Cow Molly in my own constituency, which produces dairy for the city without any fossil fuels and distribute to local businesses, are already leading the way in this regard.
At such a crucial juncture for the farming and agricultural sector, the government should be empowering rural communities to meet the challenge of the climate crisis, putting farmers and agricultural workers in the driving seat. Instead, the Tories are set on signing away the viability of UK farming, without thought or care for the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. But Labour is listening. Our rural review, led by my colleague Luke Pollard, will kick start the process, reaching out to our rural communities and constructing a coalition – from farmers and seasonal fruit pickers, to agricultural workers and landowners – to build wealth in our rural communities, and green British farming.
Labour will always stand up for all our diverse communities, whether rural or urban, centring the needs of people over global capital. That’s why we’ll continue to oppose this trade deal and any that are similar, and why we will fight to empower rural communities to build the local, sustainable agricultural sector that our people and our planet need.