Political Print: Food’s off the table at the Labour conference

Hopes of the party promoting a bold new vision were dashed with the shadow DEFRA secretary sidelined in Brighton this week. By Nick Hughes.

It’s party conference season, hence it’s time for the Print to snap out of its summer hibernation to pore over the food and environment policies of our current and future leaders.

However, those of us looking for a bold new vision that moves the Labour Party beyond its election manifesto might just as well have stayed in bed.

The shadow DEFRA secretary, Sue Hayman, wasn’t deemed worthy of a speaking slot on the main stage in Brighton this week, her role restricted to speaking at cramped fringe events in budget hotels.

With a political “big beast” in the form of Michael Gove in charge at DEFRA and promising all things to all people, one might assume Labour would be doing everything in its power to amplify its own vision for food and the environment. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

It doesn’t help that the job prospects of a DEFRA shadow are much akin to those of a Premier League football manager. Kerry McCarthy, Rachael Maskell and now Hayman have filled the role during the past two years and have struggled, not unreasonably, to carve out both a clear personal identity and a compelling party narrative.

This mattered less when Labour was 20 points adrift in the polls but becomes more important now that the party is positioning itself as the government in waiting, and even more so given the significant proportion of EU law that relates to food and the environment.

With Hayman missing in action a grudging Print was forced into scrutinising other keynote addresses to get a feel for Labour’s current position.

There were themes running through a number of speeches of relevance to the food sector. One that was returned to time and again was the disruptive impact of technological change, a phenomenon that is already affecting the food supply chain from the way in which food is produced right up to how it is delivered.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said Labour was “determined that Britain embraces the possibilities of technological change”. However, the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, struck a more cautious note when he warned that automation threatened to make much of contemporary work redundant unless properly managed.

The urgent need to tackle climate change also received significant attention (it was instructive that Labour chose to give its guest speaking slot to the climate activist Naomi Klein). McDonnell promised that a future Labour government would “become world leaders in decarbonising our economy” with a publicly owned energy supply based on alternative energy sources. And Corybn made the important, but often neglected, point that there is “no contradiction between meeting our climate change commitments and investing to build a strong economy”.

Although Brexit remained the elephant in the room for much of the conference, McDonnell also warned that any attempt by the Conservatives to water down or undermine protections on employment, consumer or environmental rights would see Labour “give them the political battle of their lives”.

Elsewhere, there were more specific policies announced or reaffirmed, including pledges to introduce a real living wage of £10 an hour; to give every infant a free school meal; and to ban junk-food advertising on family night-time television.

Hayman, during her fringe discussions, talked of strengthening the remit and powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator and introducing a seasonal workers scheme for the farming sector.

These pieces of the jigsaw go some way to forming a picture of Labour’s priorities but there remains a reluctance to articulate a clear and passionate vision for food and the environment in a way that reaches a wide audience.

The Print doesn’t expect Gove to be quite so reticent when he takes to the stage in Manchester on Monday.

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