Political Print: What’s on the election menu?

The Tories are keeping things vague in their manifesto but their rivals have plenty to offer on farming and waste. By Nick Hughes.

It’s election time (again) which means the Print gets to play its favourite game of “count the number of mentions of food in the manifestos”.

Unscientific it may be, but the 2017 count neatly reflects the attention given to food-related issues in the manifestos of the three major parties (the only documents published at the time of writing).

The Liberal Democrats lead on 14 mentions, followed by Labour on 11 with the Conservatives trailing behind on just five. The Tory manifesto as a package is light on detailed food policy – understandably so since the Tories are the only party that will actually have to deliver on its promises, if the polls are to be believed.

In times of such uncertainty, firm pledges are barely worth the paper they’re written on, particularly in a sector such as food where laws and trading arrangements are so closely intertwined with the EU. Better, then, to keep promises vague and allow more wriggle room once a post-Brexit landscape become clearer.

The result, regrettably for the reader, is a parade of woolly recycled lines about the Conservatives’ desire “to grow more, sell more and export more great British food” and “to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it”.

Arguably of more significance are policies that don’t relate exclusively to the food industry. The decision to retain the target to reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands will have serious implications for businesses throughout the food supply chain. About 700,000 migrants work in the hospitality and foodservice sector alone and many thousands more are employed in food production and farming. The “cliff-edge” scenario the British Hospitality Association warned about last year just edged a bit closer.

A decision to bolster the education budget by replacing expensive universal free school lunches with cheaper free breakfasts may prove a similarly difficult sell. Free lunches are popular with parents and health campaigners alike and take-up of breakfasts will almost certainly be far lower. The policy is also likely to benefit retailers over catering companies, with a move back to packed lunches a probable outcome.

The Conservative manifesto is perhaps more noteworthy for what’s not included than what is. There is no explicit commitment, for instance, to maintain current food and environmental standards in future trade deals, which puts the Conservatives at odds with both Labour and the Lib Dems.

There is no mention, either, of DEFRA’s much-delayed food and farming plan, raising questions over whether it will ever see the light of day.

The manifesto also commits to paying farmers the same levels of farm support until the end of the parliament but not beyond, suggesting that right-wing Conservatives ideologically opposed to subsidies may ultimately get their way.

The opposition parties are stronger on the detail of farm support, with both Labour and the Lib Dems pledging to redirect funds towards smaller farms and to ensure that payments reward sustainable practices – a “public funds for public goods” approach that many NGOs have been advocating for years.

Both opposition parties promise to extend the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to include indirect suppliers of supermarkets, a pledge that will be welcomed by farmers. However, Labour’s commitment to ban the use of neonicotinoids will be received less warmly by the NFU, which has repeatedly campaigned for the use of the pesticides which have been linked with causing harm to bee populations.

The Lib Dems are by far the strongest on waste, promising to introduce a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups, to establish a statutory waste recycling target of 70% in England, and to extend separate food waste collections to at least 90% of homes by 2022.

A Lib Dem proposal to introduce a National Food Strategy to promote the production and consumption of healthy, sustainable and affordable food is also eye-catching, given the absence of a genuinely joined-up approach to food policy ever since Labour’s Food 2030 plan was canned by the coalition in 2010.

Proposals on advertising and food labelling get a brief airing by all parties as part of commitments to public health, but it is the Conservatives’ observation that “our decision to leave the European Union will give us greater flexibility over the presentation of information on packaged food” which is most intriguing. It suggests an intention to tighten existing food labelling rules including mandatory traffic light colour-coding – a scheme that is gaining traction on a voluntary basis in the UK but not favoured on the continent.

Commentators have been quick to point out that the choice between the parties in this election has been the clearest in years. And it’s true that the philosophies of the two main parties are poles apart, particularly concerning issues of taxation and public ownership.

But where business is concerned, their fundamental beliefs are, on paper, not so different. One of Labour’s guiding principles is that businesses that do the right thing are rewarded. This isn’t such a leap from a Conservative Party that says it rejects untrammelled free markets and believes companies should act in the interests not just of shareholders but employees, suppliers and the wider community.

Businesses like certainty, and so the recent cavalcade of elections and referendums will have been a source of frustration for many.

But in uncertain times, responsible businesses should take heart that the future government is on their side – whatever their political hue.

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