Labour is flying high in the (UK) polls, while Keir Starmer and his team have long been courting business – with demonstrable success.

But ask the farmers of Wales what they think of Starmer’s colleagues in the Senedd in Cardiff and you’ll get a decidedly frostier response, or even one peppered with a stream of profanity.

Much like the Welsh government’s disastrous and divisive rollout of its default 20mph speed limit, its proposals for a new, post-Brexit farm subsidy framework – dubbed the Sustainable Farming Scheme – has gone down like a cup of sheep dip.

And the nation’s farmers are angry. Very angry.

As NFU Cymru president Aled Jones told The Grocer this week, the Labour administration’s plans, fronted by rural affairs minister Lesley Griffiths, have been subject to mounting concerns since they were first floated in 2018.

Then, amid a growing financial crisis that has impacted farmers across the UK, the Welsh government published its own independent impact assessment into the proposals in January.

Modelling, based on the potential economic effects of the planned scheme, painted a bleak and “shocking” scenario where meeting the SFS’s proposed conditions could devastate what was an already beleaguered farming sector.

Due to the need for those taking part in the scheme to have to devote 10% of agricultural land to tree planting and a further 10% to wildlife habitats, the impact assessment calculated a 122,200 reduction in Welsh livestock units, in effect a 10.8% reduction in Welsh livestock numbers, NFU Cymru said.

UK and European farming protests

The plans would also lead to an 11% cut in labour on Welsh farms – the equivalent of losing 5,500 jobs based on current employment levels. And this would end up reducing its output by £125.3m, leading to a loss of £199m to farm business incomes.

But then farmers – who were already looking to mirror their European counterparts with protest action over the proposals and a host of other challenges such as low returns from buyers – were further enraged by the Welsh government’s tin-eared response to their concerns.

Outgoing first minister and Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford’s attempt to defend the plans in mid-February merely accelerated a desire by farmers to protest when he said: “The bargain cannot be that the public puts its hand into the pocket to put millions of pounds, maybe £300m every year on the table, for farmers to just do whatever farmers think they would like to do with it.”

So basically, if you want our subsidies, you’re going to have to accept our position.

Read more: Wales farm protests could have been avoided says NFU Cymru chair

Those protests culminated in a gathering of more than 3,000 farmers on the steps of the Senedd last Thursday and a symbolic installation of 5,500 pairs of wellies on the same steps yesterday – to represent the potential lost jobs from the proposals.

But it didn’t have to be like this, argues NFU Cymru’s Jones, who this week told The Grocer had government listened earlier, it could have been a very different situation. After all, Defra’s plan for its Environmental Land Management scheme – while criticised in many parts over its rollout – has not prompted the same bad feeling or protest action.

One of the main issues around the SFS proposals is what Jones points out is a failure to engage with concerns over self-sufficiency and food security – an issue which the UK government has done recently, after Rishi Sunak’s pledge last month to carry out an annual food security index.

And it seems the Labour government’s high-handedness over the proposals, just like with its speed limit policy, has alienated many, with a host of commentators pointing to how complacency now permeates a party that’s been in power ever since devolution came to Wales in 1999.

Welsh farming jobs in jeopardy

Griffiths declined a request by The Grocer to put forward her case this week, with a spokesman saying the Welsh government’s “seven-year conversation with farmers to design future farming support is ongoing”.

He added it was “committed to continuing to work with farmers to develop the Sustainable Farming Scheme”. Concessions had already been made around a pledge to carry out an updated economic analysis of the proposals, and consider an evidence-based review of any further and alternative proposals, he said.

A visibly flustered Griffiths last week told S4C she was “listening” as protesters thronged outside the Senedd, adding she would continue listening to concerns outlined in the consultation.

But according to Aled Jones this week, “she may have said she was listening but it was only under [the] pressure” of recent protests.

“We simply cannot see government move forward with a scheme that puts 5,500 Welsh farming jobs in jeopardy,” Jones added.

Those sentiments have been shared by farmers across the country, with Farmers’ Union of Wales president Ian Rickman pointing out that while the concessions were positive “it is truly disheartening to think it has taken thousands of us standing on the steps of the Senedd for the Welsh government to acknowledge the severity of the situation”.

This is clearly a self-inflicted PR cock-up of immense proportions that could have been avoided, and one that has undermined both a key industry for Wales and the prospects of many producers – at a time when the Welsh government has been seeking to increase food production.

And if ministers in Cardiff misread the mood of the consultation and press ahead with their original plans, we may be seeing even angrier demonstrations in the months to come.