Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer has promised the NFU Conference that a Labour Government would not allow a repeat of the ‘shocking’ events that left the pig sector in crisis last year.
Sir Keir made a clear pitch to farmers when he appeared at the Birmingham event, seeking to contrast Labour’s willingness to engage with the industry and address some of the issues it faces, with the Government’s failings in certain policy areas.
At one point, he quoted the former director-general of MI5, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, who 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,” Sir Keir told delegates.
He covered various aspects of farm policy, including labour shortages, which has been a huge problem for other sectors, including horticulture, but was most starkly seen in pork processing plants last year, resulting in a huge backlog of pigs on farms.
“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,” he said.
He stressed that the reality is that 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,” he added. “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 field.”
Public procurement pledge
Sir Keir also repeated a pledge made by Shadow Defra Secretary Daniel Zeichner at January’s Oxford Farming Conference – that 50% of all food purchased by the public sector will be ‘food that is locally produced and sustainable’.
“We’re committed to reforming public procurement – using it sensibly and carefully – to build up our sovereign capabilities in key industries,” he said.
“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.”
A notable pledge where Labour clearly sees an opportunity to win over farmers disillusioned with the current Government’s approach was on trade deals, including hinting at closer relations with the EU, while also describing the Australia deal as a ‘£300m hit to British food and farming’.
“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,” he said.
‘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.”
He told the conference Labour was ‘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,” he concluded.