What does a Corbynite approach to food policy look like?
Having just hosted a food debate at the Labour conference in Brighton (organised by the National Farmers Union and the Food and Drink Federation), I feel I ought to be able to tell you. Alas, I can’t.
Instead, what I took from the debate last night – with a panel that featured the NFU’s Meurig Raymond and Minette Batters, the FDF’s Ian Wright, and Labour MPs Angela Smith and Nick Smith (no relation) – is that this is a time for hedging your bets.
The seismic changes within Labour following Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory – and the uncertainty it has brought – were palpable last night.
Angela Smith – an MP with deep knowledge of and obvious love for the food and farming brief – stepped down from the Labour frontbench earlier this month in protest over Corbyn’s stance on foreign policy. The fact she still decided to turn up and honour her commitment to the debate – and her pragmatic, business-focused language – only served to highlight that she is a big loss to the shadow Defra team.
New shadow Defra minister Nick Smith gained plaudits for gamely putting himself forward despite having been in his role for a very short time (he was a last-minute addition to the panel, squeezed in just moments before its start), and amiably navigated his way through questions on badgers, GM and veganism. His willingness to engage with the industry so early in his tenure, and his emphasis on co-operation and respectful listening, will have sent reassuring messages at a time when the industry is trying to get a handle on what to expect from Labour.
However, neither Smith can be described as a Corbynite (both of them supported Liz Kendall in the leadership contest), so while there was common ground on key issues last night, it remains hard to gauge to what extent the Smiths’ views will be representative of Labour policy.
Crucially, the shadow Defra team member who’s been making all the headlines – shadow secretary of state Kerry McCarthy – wasn’t present at the debate last night, though that much-quoted line about meat eaters and tobacco smokers was, inevitably, raised.
Both MPs were keen to reassure the audience that McCarthy’s personal views aren’t necessarily her professional views. “Kerry is a vegan but she wouldn’t want to impose her views on anyone else,” Nick Smith said.
And in her speech to the conference today (29 September), McCarthy tackled her veganism head on. “Yes. I am a vegan. Some people are worried by that,” she said. However, she added “I support British farming. I want it to be economically viable, environmentally sustainable and to have the very best animal welfare standards.”
In turn, Wright and Raymond promised they would withhold judgement until they had a chance to meet McCarthy.
This is clearly the right approach. After all, it is in the industry’s interest that the meat/tobacco episode is put to rest as quickly as possible. With food and farming facing some formidable challenges – and Defra budgets under increasing pressure – it is vital Labour puts forward a strong, effective opposition that is capable of challenging government policy. No matter how diverting headlines about vegans in the shadow Defra team might be, an opposition that is seen as the butt of jokes doesn’t serve anyone – least of all a sector as vital to UK society and economy as food.