Parties make their New Year resolutions

On the eve of a festive season general election, Nick Hughes takes a look inside the main political parties’ manifest-ho-ho-ho’s

‘Tis the season to be jolly: to sing carols around the Christmas tree, eat your bodyweight in mince pies, and … trudge to the polling station to vote for the future of the country.

There can’t be many people hoping a December election becomes a Christmas institution – for most of us it’s as welcome as a dollop of cold baked beans on our turkey (or vegan) roast. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is arguably the most important election in a generation.

Originally billed as a proxy second referendum, what’s notable about the campaign to-date has been how Brexit has largely played a supporting role in the public discourse. Although the Conservatives have anchored their campaign narrative around the promise to “get Brexit done” there seems little appetite among the public to rehash the same arguments that have consumed the nation over the past three and a half years. That’s not to say that people won’t be voting on 12 December with Brexit in mind, but that the battle for the support of wavering voters is being fought over a range of issues.

Climate, gratifyingly, is one of them. This is the first election where the response to the “climate emergency” (note the shift in language from climate change) is embedded at the heart of manifesto commitments rather than merely acknowledged in passing. The Green Party, unsurprisingly, lead the charge with their proposed Green New Deal, but more significantly Labour, and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats, frame their entire industrial strategies around a green revolution in jobs and infrastructure.

Even the Conservatives can reasonably claim to be taking a leadership role by setting a target for net zero emissions by 2050, albeit their manifesto commitments appear to fall some way short of the major shift in industrial policy experts say is necessary to deliver it.

Cross-party consensus has also emerged in other key policy areas. A “public money for public goods” approach to replacing EU agricultural subsidies has the support of all the main UK parties as does a UK-wide deposit return scheme to help tackle the scourge of plastic pollution.

On food policy more broadly, however, the main parties are rather more equivocal. It is striking, for instance, that each of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos have dedicated animal welfare sections but no chapter or sub-section on food more generally. Not only is this indicative of a long-term piecemeal approach to food policy but also, one suspects, where they believe the public’s priorities lie.

That’s not to say there aren’t standout proposals scattered throughout the different documents. A Conservative pledge to ban the export of plastic waste to non-OECD countries catches the eye as does Labour’s ambition to achieve net-zero-carbon food production in Britain by 2040. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, would require restaurants and takeaways to publish information on calorie, fat, sugar and salt content in restaurants.

The Liberal Democrats also state their support for a National Food Strategy, which the Conservative government has commissioned Henry Dimbleby to draw up by summer 2020. Dimbleby recently told Footprint that his strategy had received cross-party support; however, reference to it is conspicuously absent from the Labour manifesto, which talks instead of establishing a National Food Commission.

Where all the parties fall down is in their willingness to confront some of the more contentious issues surrounding our food system. It was notable during Channel 4’s leaders’ climate debate (a historic event in its own right) how, with the exception of the Green Party’s Sian Berry, leaders deflected the question on the need to reduce meat consumption by talking instead of the importance of supporting local food production. Telling people what to eat remains a political taboo, especially for politicians representing constituencies – or countries in the case of the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price – where food plays a critical role in the economy.

Manifesto commitments around food and the environment help illuminate how political parties view the challenges facing our food system and what they believe is politically possible to deliver. The reality, however, is that they pale into insignificance set against the bigger question of what the UK’s future relationship with the EU will be.

If manifesto commitments are the baubles, Brexit is the Christmas tree on which all other adornments will need to hang. Nothing will shape our future food system more decisively than how the outcome of the election unblocks the Brexit impasse. If we wake up to a hung parliament or minority Labour-led government on 13 December the signs point to continued close integration with the single market and the EU institutions that govern much (though not all) of the way in which our food system currently operates. If Boris Johnson returns to Downing Street, however, the future of trade, standards, labelling, agriculture, and many food and non-food issues besides are all up for grabs – for better or for worse.

It’s for this reason that the 2019 election will go down in history not simply as one that messed up Christmas, but one that changed the course of a nation.

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