If today’s showing at the NFU Conference in Birmingham is anything to go by, the answer has to be yes.
The NFU is “proudly apolitical”, as stressed by president Minette Batters when she introduced the leader of the opposition at the conference’s afternoon session. But based on her warm words for Starmer, it was also clear the two are already talking at length about what a food sector under a future Labour government could look like.
In stark contrast to an often coruscating speech earlier today that criticised tracts of government policy, Batters introduced Starmer by revealing she had “enjoyed engaging with Labour’s shadow ministerial team” in recent months.
Unlike absent PM Rishi Sunak – who literally phoned it in via a rather cringey video espousing how great the food and farming sector was – a relaxed Starmer said he was “delighted” to be the first Labour leader to attend the conference in a decade. He took to the stage fully engaged with the myriad issues facing producers.
Starmer cited an earlier visit to a farm in nearby Solihull, where he met a farmer called Rupert who felt he hadn’t been listened to by those in power. As Labour leader, he pledged to do things differently if he became PM. And he didn’t just throw barbs at the government. There was also a thinly veiled dig at predecessor Jeremy Corbyn – Starmer stressed “this is a different Labour party” to that of recent years.
Labour is promising to move away from “sticking plaster” politics to deliver “a government with purpose”, in which he will listen to the concerns of business. He plans a big focus on safeguarding food security, which he stressed was an important part of the UK’s national security too.
“That’s why the Labour Party is committed to buying, making and selling more in Britain,” he said. To back that up, he announced a Labour government would set a minimum target for 50% of food procured for the public sector to be from UK producers.
Starmer also pledged to look again at the impact of trade deals with countries such as Australia and New Zealand, shaking his head at how Liz Truss championed the deal. And he alluded to a different approach to dealing with the EU, in his assertion that “distance matters” in trade. He pledged to negotiate a new veterinary agreement “not just in Northern Ireland, and not just to fix the protocol – for the whole of the UK”.
The Labour leader also bemoaned the government’s handling of the labour crisis, particularly when it came to the “absolutely shocking” way the pork supply chain had been “gummed up” by a shortage of butchers. However, Starmer’s position on staff shortages was rather less clear.
“I know the seasonal nature of farm work makes it unique, and that the seasonal worker route is a distinctive solution to a distinctive challenge,” he said.
“We will be pragmatic on that as well. But I also have to say – the reality is, the era of abundant cheap labour is over. That’s not about Brexit, it’s a practical challenge we’re going to have to work really hard to solve together.”
This would be a “totally new era for labour”, he said, which is clear in both senses.
But any hopes of a return to an era of free movement of workers in food production looks like a distant hope. So it looks like the food sector will need to face up to that challenge, regardless of who ends up at No 10.