“A new relationship with the countryside” – Starmer’s NFU speech

Keir Starmer

Below is the full text of Labour leader Keir Starmer’s speech to the National Union of Farmers this afternoon.

Thank you, Minette, and thank you conference. It’s great to be here with you again. I have to say, when I’m asked to come to an NFU event, I never quite imagine a venue like this. I imagine in my head the rolling fields of Yorkshire or perhaps your farm Minette, a beautiful farm in the beautiful countryside. But anyway – here we are in Birmingham.

And you can take it from me, the local bull-ring isn’t quite what you might think. But, as it happens, there are farms near here – of course there are, this is Britain – even in the most built-up part of our country, you’re never far from a farm.

I was on one this morning, near Solihull, with Rupert – an NFU member, naturally, and yes Minette – I was wearing my boots and that bomber jacket – as I was when I came to your farm. It actually took me back, because it’s a little known fact that my first job when I was about 14 years old was on a farm, because I lived on the Surrey-Kent border. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated job. I was allocated to pick up stones in the field for about 50p, but it was a farm and it was my first job.

I spoke to Rupert this morning in Solihull. Rupert grows cereal crops and tends to a herd of beef cattle – a mixed farm, and amongst the things he told me is that sometimes it feels like farmers aren’t listened to. I thought about that, because I talk quite a lot about respect. It’s not something you can tax or regulate. But as a value that shapes how we see the world, how we feel about our country, I think it’s really important.

I saw it with my dad. He was a toolmaker and worked in a factory all his life. He always felt people looked down on him, didn’t respect him and what he did. My sister is a care worker. What she feels about the respect shown to her efforts in the pandemic, by the government, I’d probably better not share with you. Conference, my point is this, I go around our country and I know there’s a feeling that politics doesn’t respect people. I know there’s a sense that the decisions which affect communities are taken miles away, by people with little empathy for their challenges, that somehow politics is done to people, not with them. And I know this sentiment is especially strong when it comes to farming and the countryside. So let me acknowledge Labour’s role in that.

It’s not deliberate – we do care deeply about the countryside. But if we face facts, all too often when I reflect on the Labour Party, we have come across as the party of urban Britain, only mentioning the countryside to say what we can’t do, not what we can. So if I only get one message today, let it be this – this is a different Labour Party. I won’t bore you with all the details, but over the last three years I’ve had an intense focus on changing our party. We’re a changed party – from top to bottom. We’re a party that’s fit to serve, that is compassionate and competent, that aspires to govern for every corner of our country, and that seeks a new relationship with the countryside and farming communities on this basis. A relationship based on respect and on genuine partnership.

Tony Danker from the CBI spoke this morning just before lunch. Tony knows that my Labour Party wants to transform the way Britain is run and that we will give communities the tools to control their economic destiny and that can only be good for the countryside. But also, that we see real partnership – with businesses, with unions, with communities, as an economic imperative. That’s the scale of the task. The damage this government has done means we all need to pull together, to change how we go about things, to try something new to get the growth our country needs. Farming is a massive part of that – it’s nearly 60% of the food we all consume, renewable energy for ten million homes, custodians of 70% of our land and, of course, four million jobs.

And then there’s net zero – a monumental challenge for this industry – but one you have run towards. Net zero by 2040 across England and Wales is tough, but right. It’s a reaffirmation of farming’s role as custodians of our natural environment, and if I may say so, the sort of leadership we need to drive our country forward. Minette, I want to thank you and this room for that leadership because it’s very important and for your openness in always, not only listening to Labour’s case, but challenging us when we’re wrong. The best decisions are the ones that are held up to the light and survive scrutiny, and the worst decisions are the ones that have never been challenged.

Let me assure you and this room that openness will be reciprocated by my government if we win the election next year. Conference, what I hear from Minette, and what I heard on the farm this morning is the same as I hear from businesses across the country – the need for certainty, for stability and for a long-term strategy. This isn’t the place to waste words on the government but make no mistake, they aren’t going to get this. They aren’t going to understand their chaos has a cost. They can’t change themselves, they won’t change our country, they’re part of the broken system that creates that feeling – the lack of respect for communities across Britain. Short-term crisis management, instead of long-term solutions. I call it ‘sticking-plaster politics’. And it’s at the heart of so many challenges that grip our country right now.

Distracted by short-term obsessions that fixate Westminster. Held back by a cynicism which uses low trust in politics as an excuse to narrow our ambitions. Blinkered to the potential of an active government setting the direction, we lurch from crisis to crisis. Always reacting, always behind the curve. A sticking plaster, never a cure, and unable to raise our sights and nurture a collective sense of mission. Farming is a cut and dry example of this. You are going through a huge transition with the environmental land management schemes – in the main, a good transition – a system that rewards public good is right.

We can’t lose sight of food production. We can’t lose sight of farming as a business. But sometimes, because of the sheer breadth of farming’s contribution and its social importance to the environment and nature, to the countryside, its way of life and our national identity, we can lose sight of farming’s ultimate goal. We need that contribution and we need sustainable food production. You can have both – and Labour will work with you to get both. But conference, I know this shift is everything to British farming, the stakes are so high – livelihoods are on the line. Rolling these schemes out well is the difference between viable farming businesses and abandoned farms.

We can’t have underspends in the allocated money. We can’t have farmers struggling whilst they wait for the right SFI standards to be announced. We can’t have everyone burnt out by the bureaucracy and constantly moving goal posts, it’s too important. Especially now, in this trading environment, your input costs – energy, fertiliser, feed – gone through the roof. But the market pressure, the social pressure, which comes with rising food prices, still remains. You don’t need me to tell you all about that, that every day seems to bring a new existential risk to British farming. From bovine TB, to avian flu and dramatic changes to our climate, or that losing a farm is not like losing any other business – it can’t come back. It’s why the lack of urgency from the government, the lack of attention to detail and the lack of long-term planning is not on.

You deserve better than that. You deserve a government that listens, that heeds early warnings, that shows the level of ambition needed to tackle the challenges you face. This is the country that developed a vaccine – for the world – in less than 18 months. And yet it’s nearly 15 years since the threat of bovine TB escalated sharply across the countryside. Are we really saying an active government – a government with purpose – couldn’t do better than that? No, it’s sticking-plaster politics, a way of governing Britain that will end with my Labour government.

But conference, here’s the challenge. Any responsible incoming government must take seriously the need for certainty. The short attention spans in Westminster – I see them every day – they’re part of the problem. But the world did change when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine last year. And the war hasn’t stopped.

As you may have seen, I went to Ukraine last week, flew to the border with Poland, and from there you get a 12-hour train to Kyiv. That takes you through vast Ukrainian countryside and farming lands, and I could see for myself the impact that this awful conflict is having on farmers and on their land there. I also had the privilege of meeting President Zelensky and saying to him, face to face, that support for Ukraine in the United Kingdom is genuinely united, that there will not be a political divide. And also, should there be a change in government next year, the support will remain the same.

But the part of the trip that struck me the most was going to the outskirts of Kyiv. I went to some of the neighbourhoods that were most impacted in the early days of the conflict. I’d seen some of the images before, and you may have seen them, of civilians blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs and shot in the head. I went to talk to the people who had gathered those bodies up on the roads that I walked down with them. Their friends, their brothers and sisters, all left to retrieve their bodies, put them in a mass grave, which they dug in the church that I was standing in on Thursday of last week.

It was important and certainly humbling in their sense, whether it’s farming or the railways, that every day, they will go back to work. They will not be defeated. If the railways are going to get bombed, they’re going to rebuild them and get the trains running again. That courage and resilience was absolutely incredible to see. It really brought home to me yet again just how awful it was. So I’m very pleased that the solidarity this conference has shown in the face of the consequences is inspiring. A solidarity that shows the best of this nation, standing shoulder to shoulder with farmers who now till on the frontline of freedom. But the world did change, just under a year ago, and the consequences have to be managed.

So, on environmental land management – I have said: it’s the right direction. There’s no point overturning the apple-cart. But where there are problems, we will work with the NFU. We will work with everyone who wants to see the rural environment well managed. We will fix them. That’s partnership. Equally, the principles that drive the Rock review into tenant farming are sound.

Nothing shows the value of certainty more clearly than this. Tenant farmers need a fair deal. They need to know their futures are secure. Look, I want to see more solar farms across the countryside! We’ve got high hopes for solar energy in our green prosperity plan. There’ll be opportunities for farmers, opportunities for rural growth, cheaper bills, and in the long-term, real energy independence. But we can’t do it by taking advantage of tenant farmers, farmers producing good British food on carefully maintained, fertile land. They can’t plan properly if the soil beneath their feet isn’t secure. It’s a huge barrier to planning sustainable food production, so we’ve got to give them a fair deal, and we’ve got to use our land well.

We’ve got to do it, conference, because we need food – the world has changed. “Feeding a changing world” – that’s the strapline here. And it’s true – that is the challenge. What’s happened to energy production since the war broke out shows where this is heading. All around the world, businesses are looking again at the resilience of their supply chains, reacting to the crises we have faced and will face in the future, countries must do the same. That’s not protectionist, it’s the reality of delivering national resilience in our era. The former director-general of MI5, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, has said food supply “is part of our national security”. She’s right, food security is national security. That’s why the Labour Party is committed to buying, making and selling more in Britain.

We’re committed to reforming public procurement – using it sensibly and carefully – to build up our sovereign capabilities in key industries. It’s a crucial aspect of our industrial strategy, our partnership, our plan for national resilience. And seasonal, sustainable, British-grown food is a key part of it. So the next Labour government will commit to this: 50% of all food purchased by the public sector will be food that is locally produced and sustainable. That is £1.2bn of public money spent on quality food that is genuinely better for peoples’ health, a clear target for every year we are in government. And 50% is just the minimum. We will do everything to go beyond it. We will buy more cereals, more oilseed rape, more strawberries, more beef and more British apples, and we will open up new opportunities to export them as well.

Conference, there are three further areas where Labour will combine certainty with change, and trade is the first. It’s been obvious for a long time that the Conservative Party has given up on farmers. That trade deal with Australia, a “win-win deal” they called it. Well, it’s certainly a deal like no other. More than a £300m hit to British food and farming, and there is at least one Tory MP – she’s still boasting about it! Labour’s approach to trade will be very different – I can promise you that. We want to remove barriers to exporters, not put them up. Protect high British standards, not water them down. Understand that in trade, distance matters.

Everything in trade is up for negotiation – you can’t make cast iron guarantees. But we are going to talk to our friends in the European Union, and we are going to seek a better trading relationship for British farming.

We’re going to talk to them about a new veterinary agreement for agri-products, not just in Northern Ireland, and not just to fix the protocol – for the whole of the UK. But conference, just as being serious about growth means having a plan for trade. It also means having a plan to deal with the basic lack of people.

This is the second area where partnership with Labour will seek change. The tight labour market is crippling whole sectors of our economy at the moment – and I know farming has been hit hard. What’s happening to pig farming is absolutely shocking. Labour would not ignore that. We won’t allow a situation where temporary shortages gum up an entire supply chain. It’s anti-growth, anti-business, anti-farming. Equally, I know the seasonal nature of farm work makes it unique and that the seasonal worker route is a distinctive solution to a distinctive challenge. We will be pragmatic on that as well. But I also have to say, the reality is, the era of abundant cheap labour is over. That’s not about Brexit, it’s a practical challenge we’re going to have to work really hard to solve together. Trust me, all around the world, businesses are waking up to the fact we live in a totally new era for labour, the world has changed. But it can be good for our economy and good for farming – if it’s managed well.

So any movement in our points-based migration system must come alongside a plan, a shared undertaking and understanding to move towards a different model. Because over time, our goal must be to help the British economy off its immigration dependency, to improve pay and conditions, where we can. And to work together to get the technological innovation we need deployed in our fields. And carefully move towards a new, more resilient model for British farming, a model where you’re not nervously waiting each year to see if you have the staff. And where, whoever is in power, you’re less dependent on the Home Office to stop food rotting in your fields.

But conference, let me tell you one thing I won’t accept – that rural communities should be blighted by crime that routinely goes unpunished. This is the third area where we’ll offer change, where Labour always offers change: public services. Nobody should be waiting over an hour and a half for an ambulance. Nobody should get burgled time and again with no prosecutions. Nobody should be comfortable that mental health support is scarcely available. And with all these problems, I know there are subtle differences that make them even more worrying in rural communities.

If the NHS is telling heart attack patients to get a taxi, as they are in parts of our country, that’s a lot scarier if you live in the countryside. If your village has an anti-social behaviour problem, or a fly-tipping problem or an off-road biking problem and the only police officers around are in a station or custody suite miles away, filing an arrest, off the streets for hours, that’s a unique problem. And if you’re facing poor mental health because of stress and anxiety – which we know is a hidden challenge for many farmers – and there is a two-year waiting list for treatment, that will harm rural communities. Conference, the truth is, some of this comes back to people as well. So we have a plan – fully costed. In the NHS, we’ll get more doctors, more nurses, more health visitors delivering care in your community. And in crime, we’ll get 13,000 more police into our towns and villages. More police on countryside streets. And we’ll also have thousands more well-trained mental health staff, and which means we can guarantee treatment for everyone who needs it within a month.

But on public services, it isn’t just enough to have more people. We also need to reform how we work. We need our healthcare to be delivered where people are, not just in hospitals. We need our police to be visible, trusted, earning the respect of those they serve. We need our mental health services to understand the individual challenges we each face – challenges that are different in the countryside. All of this requires reform. All of this requires a different approach, one that is designed, from the start, with respect for the challenges of the countryside. That’s why dialogue and partnership are so important on every area. On public services and our economy, we need to show we are listening to the distinctive concerns of rural communities and work every day to build that relationship of respect. I am so grateful for the respect the NFU has shown me – inviting me here every year. It gives me the chance to show how important service, to all of our country, is for my Labour Party. Because the challenges the countryside faces, that farming faces – we need to take them on together.

That’s why we’re ready to listen, ready to partner, ready to serve. A fairer, greener, more dynamic future for British farming. Certainty and change. Stability and success. Environmental stewardship and sustainable food production, you can have both. It’s what Labour will offer, what real national resilience looks like, and I look forward to working with you to secure it.

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