To Win in the Countryside, Labour Can Start by Defending the Small Farmers

Mike put up a piece yesterday reporting the prediction that if Boris and the Tories get the no deal Brexit their paymasters, the hedge funds, want, 1/3 of Britain’s farmers will go bust in the next five years. These are going to be the small farmers, who were suckered into believing that leaving the EU would make things better for them. They were wrong, and Mike asks how much sympathy we should have for them, considering they voted for Brexit. Actually, it’s not difficult to understand how. We were taught about the EEC as it was then in geography at my old school, including the Common Agricultural Policy. I can’t remember the details, but this was geared to granting subsidies and rewarding the much-less efficient farming systems of France and Germany, and penalised our agricultural sector, which is much more mechanised and employs far fewer people. The system of subsidies, if I remember correctly, also tranferred money and funding from the advanced agriculture of northern Europe to the less developed farms of the grain belt around the Mediterranean. Given that the Common Agriculture Policy actually put our farmers at a relative disadvantage, it isn’t hard to see why our farmers, like the fishermen, wanted to leave.

However, the big farmers were advised not to vote for Brexit, didn’t, and probably won’t suffer quite as much as their smaller cousins. However, I do think this crisis offers Labour an opportunity to show Britain’s rural communities that it hasn’t forgotten them. There have already been discussions about how Labour could win in the countryside, including a Fabian pamphlet about the issue. Well, I think Labour can start by following the example of the Swedish Social Democrats in the 1920s and 1930s. I can’t remember where I read it, but I read somewhere that the Social Democrats’ 50 year stay in power began in the 1920s when it backed the small, peasant farmers against the threat of bankruptcies and land seizures. I think the party and its members not only opposed these in parliament and local councils, but actually physically turned out to stop the bailiffs seizing individual farms and evicting the peasant farmer.

There’s a crisis going on in the countryside. If you watch the Beeb’s Countryfile, you’ll have seen reports about British farmers rural communities being under threat. Apart from the continuing problems of British agriculture, many rural communities are also suffering from cuts to local services and a lack of housing that local people can afford, rather than rich outsiders. Also, if you read George Monbiot’s Captive State, you’ll also know how the corporativism of New Labour and now the Tories actually harms farmers and local small businesses. Corporativism gives government subsidies and positions to big business in return for their donations. New Labour especially favoured the big supermarket chains, like Sainsbury’s, and gave it’s chief, David Sainsbury, a position on one of regulatory bodies, because Sainsbury at the time backed the party and donated to it. However, the supermarkets offer their cheap food at the expense of the producers, who are bound into manipulative and highly exploitative contracts. One of the supermarkets boasted a few years ago about the money it was giving to charity. In fact, none of that money came from the supermarket itself – it was all taken from its producers. At the same time, supermarkets undercut small businesses, like the local butcher, greengrocer and so on. But this also creates unemployment, because small businesses like theirs employ more people. If Labour wants to improve conditions in the countryside for small businesses like Arkwright’s in the classic Beeb comedy series, Open All Hours, it has to attack corporativism and the big supermarket chains. But I can’t see that happening under a Blairite like Starmer.

I expect that most of Britain’s farmers are probably Conservatives. But this doesn’t alter the fact that, whatever they believe, the Tories have abandoned them and their policies are actively harming small farmers and businesses and rural communities. The Labour party can start winning back the countryside by actively and obviously defending those hit by Tory policies.

And that means protesting against the closures of small farms when the Tories’ no deal Brexit hits them.

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