The smaller political parties could change the outcomes of specific constituencies but can they change policy?
Much has been made about the disruptive influence of smaller parties at the next election. This debate often focusses on whether they can take seats from the major parties and the impact they will have in marginal seats. In rural areas, such as East Anglia and Lincolnshire, UKIP support has been high and could harm the Conservatives. In the South-West, where farming issues are high on the agenda, in particular dairy, the traditional scrap between the Lib Dems and Conservatives could be influenced by smaller parties.
What is often not looked at is whether any of the parties will shift the needle on any major policy areas. This becomes an especially important question if one of these parties does end up holding the balance of power in a coalition or confidence and supply arrangement. The impact that these parties could have on a number of policy areas is actually significant and food policy is no exception.
Like many industries, the biggest single change that could affect the food production sector is withdrawal from the EU. Many farmers receive payments from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which they would no longer be eligible for. Opposition to EU membership could prove problematic as UKIP try to secure votes in traditionally Conservative rural seats.
UKIP claim that, as a net contributor to the CAP, Britain would be better off continuing to subsidise farming itself. Even more changes would be seen in the fisheries industry where UKIP claim that the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) “was designed from the beginning to steal our fish. It has ravaged our fishing industry and caused catastrophic environmental damage.” Whilst these are the two most significant policies, Brussels has a huge impact in areas ranging from food labelling to the use of GM material, where UKIP is very supportive. Caps on immigration will also not help them to secure the votes of vegetable and fruit farmers, particularly densely populated in the East of England, who rely on seasonal migrant labour to help with picking.
The Green Party has a long-held policy of a complete moratorium on GM food, including for animal feed. Public opinion on GM food has slowly softened and the mainstream political parties have adjusted their position accordingly. Owen Patterson, for example, warned that Britain must embrace GM crops of face being consigned to the “the museum of world farming” when he became Secretary of State. To date, public opinion has gradually shifted away from the Greens but it still remains a volatile issue.
The SNP government in Holyrood has made a major play of promoting Scotland’s food and drink policy as a key component of the rural economy. In addition to whisky, Scotland has always had a strong national beef brand. Policy-wise there are no major shifts planned but, as a major commodity in Scotland, the SNP will seek to raise the profile of Scottish food and maximise support for the industry in any UK-wide policy should they hold the balance of power.
Wales has a strong farming tradition, particularly in lamb, and accordingly has a specific manifesto dedicated to farming. Plaid advocates CAP reform to ensure that Welsh farmers get a greater benefit. They are committed to widening the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to include dairy farmers, a recommendation made by the Defra Select Committee in January. Like the Greens, Plaid is opposed to GM and claim they will fight any imposition of GMO crops in Wales from the rest of the UK.
In an increasingly plural election debate, these views will get more airtime and thus could help to migrate the views of the mainstream parties. Additionally, in any post-election deals, less high-profile areas such as food could prove to be lucrative bargaining cards.