Editor’s View: Farmers and MPs more similar than you think

How do you feel about our current crop of politicians? If you’re anything like the rest of the population, the answer is probably “not good”.

Survey after survey show politicians are the least trusted people in the country – in stark contrast to farmers, who are consistently found to be the most trusted actors in the food supply chain.

See also: Who is Steve Reed, Labour’s new shadow Defra secretary?

About the author

Abi Kay
Deputy editor
Abi has been deputy editor at Farmers Weekly since January 2023, after defecting from rival Farmers Guardian where she worked for almost seven years. Prior to that, she was part of the NFU’s government affairs team and spent five years as an assistant to a rural MP. She has won numerous awards for her journalism and is passionate about telling farmers’ stories. 
Read more articles by Abi Kay

Bashing our political leaders has become something of a public sport, with most of us taking the view that they’re fair game.

Even the usually genteel RSPB got in on the action last week, branding a series of ministers “liars” on social media after the change to nutrient neutrality rules, before swiftly apologising and saying it was the policies, not the people, it meant to condemn.

But perhaps – whisper it – farmers and politicians might have more in common than we like to think.

Politics is in need of professionalisation, and many commentators would say the same of agriculture.

MPs arrive in Westminster knowing very little about how to do the job. There is no guidebook for being a “good MP”. Everyone does things in their own way, and some value certain traits above others.

One MP might enter parliament wanting to campaign on a single issue of national importance, another may want to prioritise tackling local problems, and a third may do anything to get promoted in order to achieve as much change as possible.

Much like farmers, who have to be mechanics, conservationists, agronomists, vets and accountants at any given point in time, politicians are expected to be social workers, publicists, philosophers, campaigners and legislators.

Both are thankless jobs, done in the public eye, often with limited support. Little wonder, then, that the two industries have a serious mental health problem – with one survey finding three in four MPs suffer from anxiety and depression.

That anxiety and depression probably come, in part, from the fact that there is no formal training to be an MP. It might be their job to scrutinise the law, but they get no legal instruction.

And those who make it to ministerial level can expect no formal orientation at the department they’re in charge of either.

Ultimately, the people who govern us are shaped by the dysfunctional system they’re a part of.

And party leaders, come reshuffle time, have to select their top teams from this shallow pool of talent.

I don’t mean that in a pejorative way; it’s just a statement of fact. Sir Keir Starmer only has 195 people to choose from when picking a new shadow Labour Defra secretary, as he did this week.

You can reduce that number further when taking into consideration existing front bench experience and party faction politics.

Then fewer still of those people will have agricultural knowledge, given the size of the industry and the urban nature of most Labour constituencies. 

So it is perhaps no surprise that we’ve ended up with a Croydon North MP in this post, who has no discernible prior interest in farming, but could well end up as Defra secretary following next year’s general election.

That is a feature of the system, not a bug.

But perhaps we can take some solace in this. Just as with farming, sometimes a fresh pair of eyes from someone with no preconceived notions is the best outcome – especially in times of challenge and change.

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