What the new Shadow EFRA Minister Kerry McCarthy’s speech tells us about Labour’s policy on food and farming.
The appointment of the vegan MP Kerry McCarthy as Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs attracted a lot of criticism from the industry as well as pundits – arguably being one of the most controversial appointments alongside John McDonnell. Stuart Agnew from UKIP stated that “McCarthy will have little in common with either the producers or consumers of food and would be better described as the Corbynist who would like DEFRA to be renamed the Department for Eradication of Farmers and Rural Areas”. A butcher described the appointment as “putting the fun police in charge of Christmas”. The criticism hasn’t been on her veganism as such, but rather what her views mean for Labour’s farming policy and its ability to engage with the rural community – of which a significant portion is involved in animal husbandry. In an interview earlier this year with Viva Life, McCarthy was quoted as saying “I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco with public campaigns to stop people eating it.” Needless to say, this only heightened concerns with the industry about the impact of McCarthy’s stance.
Her speech at Labour conference was therefore her opportunity to calm the waters and set the record straight about her priorities as Shadow Efra minister. In fact, the majority of her speech was dedicated to not only criticising the Government’s policy record but also assure people that she fully supports British farming. These two priorities constituted the core of her speech, and consequently many of the left-wing policies industry feared, but many Corbyn supporters praised, were toned down to deliver a more centrist, moderate message. And looking at the speech, it is possible to note certain priorities that the Shadow Minister will emphasise going forward.
- Food waste will be a key issue for Labour
Earlier this month McCarthy introduced the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill 2015-16 into the House of Commons, and it is likely to be a key policy that she will push through. In 2012 McCarthy introduced a Food Waste Bill, which informs the newly tabled Bill. This means that McCarthy will be at the forefront, pushing for greater measures to tackle the current level of food waste and will be a key politician for retailers to engage with.
- Food labelling and food security remain political hot potatoes
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue of clearer food labelling, making it clear when customers eat British and local produce, and the need for greater scrutiny into the food supply chain were addressed. Considering the overall consensus across parties, it is likely some action will be taken in this area. Yet Labour may push to increase the authority of the Food Standards Agency, whose powers McCarthy saw as diminished by the Government.
- Animal welfare is likely to move up the agenda
While McCarthy used her speech to affirm her commitment to supporting British farming, it is undoubtedly the case that we will see animal welfare become a top priority for the Shadow team. It could mean that issues such as slaughtering methods and farming conditions will be pushed up the agenda. Meat producers and manufacturers may expect to defend their practices, and while a potential minefield for the Shadow Minister to navigate, it is probable that it will be a significant priority.
- The Shadow Efra team will broaden the discussion beyond food issues
Notwithstanding the emphasis on food production in her speech, we can expect McCarthy to push the Efra portfolio to greater emphasise issues beyond food production. Water and air quality were mentioned and in light of the controversy surrounding her views on meat it is probable that these issues will be more vigorously debated. What this will mean for Elizabeth Truss, the Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, shall be interesting as her key policy under both the Coalition Government and the current Conservative Government has been the promotion of British food, domestically and internationally.
- There will be a close cooperation between the Shadow Efra and Shadow ECC teams
The above point is further highlighted by the recognition of closely knitted Shadow Efra and ECC teams. Towards the end of the speech McCarthy noted that she will work closely with Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change to tackle the threat of climate change. This means that the priorities across the two Shadow departments will be more coordinated to challenge Government policy. Particularly as we move closer to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, it will be interesting to see how this closer partnership will manifest.
- Labour will continue to oppose the badger cull and fox hunting, as well as fracking
The appointment of McCarthy will not signal a fundamental break with traditional Labour policies in food and farming. The continued opposition to the badger cull and fox hunting was clear, as was her intention to challenge the government on its policy regarding fracking.
- It is unclear how well this will appeal to rural voters
Following the Conservative victory at the 2015 General Election, it was painfully clear that the Labour Party must increase their appeal to rural voters. Rural housing, transport and the welfare of the countryside were noted in her speech, but it is unclear whether the initial outlines of Labour’s rural and food policies will be enough to garner the level of support needed for 2020. It is essential that Labour is able to appeal to the rural, meat producing regions of the country. For this, engagement is important, and Labour has to be seen as supporting industry and the rural community, as well as responding to their predominantly urban support base. It will be a delicate balance to strike.
Whereas McCarthy’s appointment proved controversial, it is the time ahead that will shape the degree to which Labour can reconcile the food industry with their new kind of politics.