On Monday 29 November Keir Starmer decided to continue his crusade of making Labour ‘election ready’. Starmer undertook a reshuffle that brought forward some political heavy-weights including Yvette Cooper (Shadow Home Secretary) and David Lammy (Shadow Foreign Secretary). Those on the left of the Party saw it as a final purge of the Corbyn era figures from Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet, while those in the centre of the Party celebrated the move as an important step towards winning the next election (either in 2023 or 2024).
For me however, most concerning was the far less talked-about removal of Luke Pollard (MP for Plymouth Sutton and Davenport) from the shadow Cabinet. It was disappointing to see him replaced by Jim McMahon in the position of Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary of State. Pollard had been a very strong advocate for rural and farming communities, both at the dispatch box on the Shadow front bench and inside the shadow Cabinet.
At a Constituency Labour Party meeting that I attended several months ago, I asked Kate Green (the then Shadow Education Secretary) about policies and support for rural schools. She replied that I sounded like Luke Pollard at Shadow Cabinet meetings, where he would regularly raise the need for all shadow briefs and policy areas to consider rural communities. Only recently Luke challenged Labour’s attitude to rural areas.
It was even more telling how passionate Pollard was for his shadow DEFRA brief when several Tory MPs expressed their surprise and concern for his sacking. Simon Hoare, North Devon MP and major advocate for maintaining high trading standards on imported food and agricultural products under new trade agreements, tweeted his surprise at Pollard’s departure. Fay Jones (Brecon and Radnorshire MP) also noted how ‘good’ Pollard was as Shadow DEFRA secretary.
Pollard himself thanked Starmer for the opportunity to be on the Shadow front bench, though clearly was taken aback by his move, stating that he would have to ‘now refocus on new issues’.
Plymouth will certainly gain from Pollard’s energy and dedication, but rural affairs will suffer as a result. It was Pollard who was spearheading Labour’s rural policy review and had helped forge a relationship, particularly on the issue of trade agreements, between Labour and the historically Conservative leaning National Farmers’ Union.
It would be an odd change to make if it was just a means of clearing the Shadow Cabinet of all traces of Corbyn, with Luke Pollard having been appointed Shadow DEFRA Secretary under Corbyn in 2019. This is less likely to have been the case, with some Corbyn cabinet members still hanging on, such as Emily Thornberry (now shadow Attorney General).
Does Labour not care about rural affairs?
The change, though, does raise wider questions as to the direction of Labour. In particular it begs the question as to whether Starmer and his leadership team feel that issues surrounding rural communities and farming, including trade deals, have not done much to boost Labour’s polling, especially in the light of recent increases following the Tories’ sleaze scandals.
There does appear to be some sentiment that discussing rural and farming issues does not help the party nationally and will not secure either the red or even the blue wall. Focus for the party currently seems to rest on the need to exploit the moral and financial failings of the Tories. Rural and agricultural affairs do not feature in this.
In reality, though, it is the very rural constituencies which the Tories have taken for granted for decades, where Tory MPs involved in scandal and sleaze have arisen from. Owen Paterson has been the MP for the rural seat of North Shropshire, and may have utilised his contacts from his days as DEFRA Secretary to help him in a second job. Geoffrey Cox has ignored his rural constituents in Torridge and West Devon while away in the British Virgin Islands.
At the heart of these scandals are rural communities that have continued to be asset-stripped by political abandonment and economic irrelevance. They have increasingly become the playgrounds of the urban rich, while thousands who work and need to live in these communities become marginalised. Young people are being pushed out of these communities. Partly by house prices, but often by the vague notion of social mobility, where skilled employment, social fulfilment and aspiration is projected onto urban areas. It sees many young people forced to let go of their support networks, whether that be friends, family or local communities, with the idea that they are climbing the social ladder.
Urban attitudes to rural affairs
As David W. Orr, a Professor in Environmental Studies and Politics wrote back in 1994, at a young age we are being taught “from country and city alike, to be urban with urban appetites, skills, minds, dependencies, and expectations”.
Writing later (2004) in the Resurgence and Ecologist, Professor Orr argued that we teach our children that:
- The highest and best use of land is for shopping malls, roads, and parking lots;
- Land has little value beyond those of utility and economics;
- Some land is expendable as land-fills and waste dumps;
- The poor live on poor land, the well-to-do live on good land;
- Roads to satisfy our cravings for mobility trump community needs;
- Lawns are merely decoration maintained by use of chemicals and by fuels that will be exhausted in their lifetimes;
- Prime farmland is far less important than development;
- Biological diversity is less important than economic growth.
Rural affairs need a new champion
Labour, through Luke Pollard’s leadership, challenged these approaches towards rural communities. He sought to reach out and listen to rural communities, encouraging others to do so as well. In doing so he offered a counter to the political abandonment of these communities, their environment and land, by the Tories. Pollard brought a dedication and integrity to rural areas that I fear may be lost with his exit from shadow DEFRA.
Tory trade deals continue to erode farmers’ business viability, farming subsidy changes are not providing enough support to farmers especially in the form of advice, and rural communities are still waiting for a fair green new deal that considers better use and ownership of land, better and fairer public transport, and skilled employment for young people.
I just hope Jim McMahon will be able to take up the mantle as passionately as Pollard did.
Ed: George has written extensively for West England Bylines on Rural Affairs, for example this on rural transport.