Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer made Labour’s pitch for the farming vote with a keynote speech that included pledges on national food resilience, rural services, and, notably, on the food bought by schools, hospitals, prisons and Whitehall departments.
“The next Labour government will commit to this – 50% of all food purchased by the public sector will be food produced locally and sustainably,” Sir Keir told NFU23 delegates.
“That is £1.2 billion of public money spent on quality food that is genuinely better for peoples’ health.
“And 50% is just the minimum. We will do everything to go beyond it. Food security is national security.”
This means that farmers need business certainty, including on labour availability, rather than “sticking plaster politics”.
He told delegates: “Sometimes, because of the sheer breadth of farming’s contribution, we can lose sight of its ultimate goal. But we need sustainable food production.”
That was especially the case in a world fundamentally changed by the Ukraine war, Sir Keir said, but it didn’t mean environmental aspirations should be pushed too far down the pecking order. “You can have both,” the Labour leader said.
The Labour leader said the NFU’s net zero aspirations for 2040 were “tough, but right”,
Sir Keir claimed that the current government had “given up” on farmers and rural communities, evidenced, he said by “that trade deal” with Australia, which he described as “a £300m hit to British farming”. He said a Labour government would “remove barriers to exporters, not put them up” and “protect high British standards, not water them down”.
Sir Keir vowed to reform countryside public services and to sweep aside the notion that politicians don’t respect the people they represent, and the sense that some communities had politics “done to them”.
“I know this sentiment is especially strong when it comes to farming and the countryside,” he added. “Let me acknowledge Labour’s role in that. It’s not deliberate; we care deeply about the countryside, but all too often in the past, we have come across as the party of urban Britain.”
If rural voters were swayed, they would see “a different Labour Party”, he promised, one that would ensure there were adequate police officers to address antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping, or off-road biking in the countryside.
“We’ll get 13,000 more police into our towns and villages, more police on countryside streets,” Sir Keir said.
“Nobody should be waiting over an hour and a half for an ambulance, or get burgled time and again with no prosecutions.
“Nobody should be comfortable that mental health support is scarcely available.
“But all of this requires a different approach. One that is designed – from the start – with respect for the challenges of the countryside.”