Farming barely registers with politicians

The political party conference season is upon us. Newspapers are awash with commentaries as to whether MP X’s keynote speech marks a turning point in their political career. Of greater interest to me are the promises that each party make for farming and rural matters.

Listening to the conference coverage on the radio from the comfort of a tractor seat, one cannot fail to find the whole charade (well maybe not all of it) intriguing.

MPs deliver their speeches to their most ardent and partisan supporters. These fans clap, ad nauseam, to a buffet of poor jokes, promises that are seldom quite what they seem, and a vitriolic blaming of everyone but themselves. The MPs depart stage left with a glowing sensation of a job well done. But is it? Wouldn’t the whole episode be more objective if the Labour MPs spoke at the Tory conference and the Tories at the Libdems?

This year’s conferences have been disappointing for farming and the countryside. All the parties proclaim that they are the most sympathetic to our needs. But beyond the pledges that everyone expected – the future of the CAP, sustainability and rural broadband – there was little substance. The policy makers have delivered nothing new, just shades of grey for the future of rural Britain.

The introduction of a “grocery adjudicator” was a common topic. But the more I read, the more confused I am as to who instigated the introduction of this quasi replacement for the supermarket ombudsman. All three parties have patted themselves on the back for the idea, but perhaps this crowing should have been saved for their conferences in 2014, as I understand that it is unlikely to be up and running before then.

My conclusion from these conferences is overriding disappointment. Apparently, most politicians regard farming as a second division topic.

For example, why does the issue of Bovine TB still appear be more about the welfare of the electorate’s feelings than the welfare of cattle themselves. Bovine TB isn’t hunting.

There was little talk of any intended new investment in agriculture. Spending vast sums of money in the quest for spurious Olympic medals seems to carry greater political traction than any spending on research and development into agricultural science.

Bring back the Agricultural Wages Board said one party at its conference. Is that it? There are concerns over the future of the UK’s food, energy and water security, yet one party decides that its headline pledge for rural communities is to canvass for the preservation of an outdated quango.

Historically, ministers have used MAFF and subsequently DEFRA as a springboard to a higher calling within government. But it is time that DEFRA is seen as a destination and not a career stepping stone.

Politicians need to stop trying to score points off one another for personal political gain and show farmers how deep their belief runs. They need to deliver fresh policies that drive farming forward. They should be prepared to take brave decisions in the interest of the countryside; not always be seen to pander to the vociferous whims of minority groups and NGOs.

Who knows, perhaps the word “Farming” may one day return to the lofty heights of being included in the title of a ministerial department.

Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit, with 130ha of organic arable. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.

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