Can Labour's roots in agriculture guide the party's future relationship with farmers? Will Barber Taylor explores Keir Starmer's speech to the NFU this week.

Keir Starmer’s recent speech before the National Farmers Union is the first time a Labour leader has addressed the union since 2008, when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. Even though that speech was only over a decade ago, it feels much longer.

Since then, we’ve had a global financial crisis, the Conservatives entering government again, Brexit and now coronavirus. Each has seemed like a disaster piled on top of another disaster. It would therefore seem, for many people, as if Keir Starmer arguing that Labour should work with farmers is somewhat misguided. Why, they might say, is he talking to a group that are perceived to be inherently Conservative?

I and Starmer would argue that they are mistaken. The Labour Party has strong roots in the agricultural community – not only was Keir Hardie the son of an agricultural stock, as Starmer mentioned in his speech, but his socialism was derived from his encounters with unfair landowners and landlords. Hardie’s book From Serfdom to Socialism explicitly makes the case that there is a long and noble tradition of agricultural workers fighting against oppression in British history and that that history inevitably leads to a socialist future. Yet it is not just the past that is important for why Labour can and should work with rural communities but the future also.

The future for many farmers looks bleak. Both Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic have severely impacted trade supplies and made it difficult for many farmers to survive. Rural crime, which particularly targets farmers and their machinery, has gone up rapidly in the last few decades. This has been exacerbated by cuts to the police, which will surely only continue at an increased pace in the next few years as the Chancellor searches for some way to extract himself from the economic crisis that is occurring. The inadequacies of the Conservatives leave open room for a conversation between Labour and farmers – an opportunity to convince them that Labour in government will help them and ensure a better economic deal for them and their families.

Farmers will also be crucial to Labour’s policies not just on infrastructure but climate change. Any large building project, like HS2, that Labour sets out to engage with to modernise British transport will involve dealing with landowners and farmers and it is better to ensure a healthy dialogue than to presume they won’t be willing to talk. Similarly, given the impact cattle and other livestock farming has on the environment, for any impactful changes to be made to tackle climate change farmers must be involved. Starmer’s call for more British produced food to be used was not, as some suggested, an attempt at nationalism but rather a sensible argument. If more food is grown, reared, and consumed domestically then the impact of transporting food to Britain will be cut, which will have a benefit on the environment.

We shouldn’t view rural communities as just farmers of course – it would be wrong and inaccurate to think that simply because someone lives in the countryside that they are a farmer. Labour must connect with local communities that have been deprived of banks, have seen their libraries close and under-investment in their local utilities. The Conservatives, supposedly the party of investment under Boris Johnson, have done nothing for these communities. They have continually and regularly failed to stand up to banks that isolate communities by depriving them of easy access to money. They have failed in working with local authorities to ensure that libraries continue to remain open. Their arrogant, lackadaisical attitude to rural communities means that Labour must step up to the plate and champion their interests.

Whilst Starmer’s speech on its own is not likely to sway rural communities towards Labour, it is certainly a welcome start and one that will signal Labour’s future ambition to champion the interests of people in areas that have been left behind by the government.

Will Barber Taylor

Will is a writer and member of the Labour Party. He is passionate about local communities and progressive politics that can help people. He is reading History at the University of Warwick and is working on a short book on Philip Snowden.

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