David Handley as president of the National Farmers’ Union? Don’t laugh - it could happen. The leader of the militant Farmers For Action has got himself nominated for the top job in British agriculture, which is up for grabs on February 28.
The nomination comes after Handley set up Better NFU last December, a campaign group with the aim of overthrowing the NFU’s current leadership, which is headed by president Tim Bennett.
His opponents fear that, if elected, Handley would turn the NFU into a much larger version of FFA, which is notorious for its penchant for disruptive direct action. And those fears are well-founded.
“Look at the unions in Italy, France and Southern Ireland,” Handley says. “In the past five years they have all called their membership out on to the streets. I am not saying militancy is the only way. David Handley is not militant every day of the week and I prefer dialogue. But there comes a point where you have to be proactive.”
Handley admits he stands little chance of winning, but says this is because of the way NFU presidents are elected. Only the 92 members of the NFU Council can cast a vote, which gives rise to charges of cronyism.
Handley says: “If the NFU were a proper democratic organisation with one member, one vote, then I would give Bennett and Kendall a run for their money.”
Peter Kendall is the other and most realistic challenger to Bennett’s presidency. He is also Bennett’s deputy, and his decision to stand is potentially more harmful to Bennett than a challenge from Handley.
Kendall, 45, insists he has great respect for Bennett, 52. But he also believes the NFU needs a younger president. “I’m offering an alternative to Tim’s leadership, not criticism of it. I think I would bring a different style. We need to be more proactive.”
Retailers and processors will be relieved to hear that Kendall’s use of the word “proactive” isn’t quite as euphemistic as Handley’s.His plan is to create a well recognised figurehead for the NFU in a similar mould to Sir Digby Jones, something he believes the NFU lacks under Bennett.
Says Kendall: “The director general of the CBI has been really beneficial to industry. I see a higher profile role for our professional staff. I want to empower them more.” This figurehead could be Kendall himself, but his comments about empowering staff and his admiration for Jones make it more likely that it would be a senior staff member who, while not a farmer, had the skills needed to represent agricultural interests.
One frontrunner for this role would have to be the NFU’s director general, Richard Macdonald. He is charismatic, smart, diplomatic and commands respect throughout government and the supply chain. His influence has traditionally been behind the scenes, but under Kendall’s leadership, that could change.
Bennett’s immediate predecessor, Sir Ben Gill, was a high-profile figure, largely on the back of the key role he played in driving the government’s mass cull policy during the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001. But Bennett dismisses the notion that he has suffered from having to succeed such a personality. “I deliberately set out to ensure the NFU was more than one person. I wanted my sector chairmen to be more high profile. And anyway, I don’t want to have a high profile on the back of a farming disaster such as FMD.”
This ‘quiet man’ approach has not gone down well with those who liked a vociferous Sir Ben. Farmers’ Weekly ranked Bennett only 16th in a list of farming’s most powerful individuals, just one place above Handley.
However, it’s the failure of the NFU’s voluntary buyers’ charter - conceived as an alternative to the OFT’s code of conduct - that is perhaps the biggest disappointment in his time as leader, though he lays the blame for this squarely at the door of others.
“We’ve been working very hard to make the supply chain work, and we’ve not necessarily had very good support back from the supply chain,” he says.
If Bennett feels betrayed by Kendall, he doesn’t show it. Far from crying “Et tu, Brute?” Bennett says if he is re-elected, he will happily have Kendall as his deputy. Kendall has also been nominated for that post. But does Handley have a chance?
Bennett laughs. “I hope not. You have to be credible to deal with the supermarkets and government and I don’t think an NFU with David Handley as president would be credible. It’s clear we have to find solutions to many things. But you don’t find solutions standing on the sidelines and shouting.”