Red horizons or blue sky thinking – what conference season told us about party commitments to farming

Dec 4, 2023

With the sun having set on party conference season, we now have a clearer picture of what the main parties will do for farming and rural communities if they succeed at the next general election.  

And with Labour significantly ahead in the polls and the bookies’ favourite to win next year, it is their policies Britain’s farmers will likely be facing.  

So, what were the key announcements from Labour, and can they endear themselves to rural Britain enough to attract the countryside vote.  

One of their first big policy announcements – to end the badger cull – might go down well with voters in urban areas but doesn’t offer great hope to farmers that the party is listening and is prepared to take the tough decisions rather than cave in to popularism.  

Building on this theme, Labour has announced mandatory method-of-production labelling on food and a commitment to phasing out the use of cages and crates on farms as part of its animal welfare commitments.  

Also included in its welfare manifesto is the proposed establishment of core standards for animal welfare in international trade deals, and a ban on live exports.  

The party is yet to make a firm commitment to include these announcements in their election manifesto, however.  

Elsewhere, Labour used the conference to announce reform of the apprenticeship levy to fund specific farming and biodiversity apprentices. Shadow rural affairs minister Toby Perkins made the announcement at a fringe event focusing on skills for nature recovery and biodiversity, which may give an indication as to the priorities of the government.  

Beyond this, Labour’s announcements for farming and the countryside were scant, with shadow farming minister Daniel Zeichner saying the rural offering in the party’s manifesto is going to be “broad brush”. 

“What I don’t think you’re going to see is lots of line-by-line detail on how we’re going to achieve things, because frankly, until we can see all the evidence for ourselves, that’s quite hard to do and I think there’s a lot we don’t yet know,” he told delegates.  

Equally, the Tory Party Conference did little to wow the nation’s farmers, with no new overarching polices announced.  

However, the scrapping of phase two of HS2 certainly raised some eyebrows among the farming community.  

For some along the route, it was relief as compulsory purchase and the dividing of farms as to render them unworkable will no longer continue.  

But the anger and frustration from those who have already been through that process is palpable, and the resentment caused may take generations to forget.  

Beyond this, a couple of interesting nuggets did emerge as the conference progressed.  

As part of the government’s pledge to remove unnecessary regulation, farmers’ favourite Therese Coffey announced mandatory tests for Trichinella in breeding pigs might be axed as there have been no cases from meat since 1969.  

The National Pig Association welcome the move but stressed the industry needed clear assurances it would not impact on UK farmers’ ability to export.  

There was also talk of the Red Tractor label being applied to exports, to reassure overseas buyers of the quality of British produce.  

Coffey also told an NFU fringe event that she was making some progress on enabling the public sector to buy more British food.  

However, her efforts are being hampered by World Trade Organisation rules and UK commitment on public procurement.  

Ian Parker, director at Whitley Stimpson and agricultural tax expert, said representation of farming issues at both main conferences this year had been poor.  

He said:

“It is hard to get a sense from either party the extent to which farming and rural communities will be a priority during the next election and beyond. 


“Although from Labour’s announcements, it seems clear animal welfare the nature recovery will be at the heart of their policies. 


“The Tories could be accused of being complacent and counting on the countryside vote regardless, which after nearly 14 years of Conversative rule, would be a mistake. They would have been wise to use the conference to reassure rural voters the Tory party still represents them, and they are a safe pair of hands. But that didn’t come.


“Hopefully, as we move towards the general election, both parties will announce more positive policies for rural Britain, leading to a healthy farming sector for all, whoever wins power.” 

Other articles

Loose lips sink ships …

Labour exchange set to open up access to seasonal workers

Tax case provides good news for landowners

Growing your farm partnership? Here’s what you need to consider …

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big … tax break!