Wednesday 19 May 2021

The Tory Attack on Farmers

It's easy to reel off the groups of people the Tories like to attack. In the age of Covid, in no particular order we've had Travellers, the young, the "woke", and trans people just to name a few. But the latest addition to the list is a curiosity, if not an anomaly. Farmers. Strange because if a popular imaginary about farmers' political preferences exist, one might expect them to be steadfastly Tory. Go into the countryside at election time and plenty of roadside fields have Vote Tory hoardings, and indeed the farmer should be the quintessential Conservative supporter. Polling suggests there is strong Tory support here. Petit bourgeois and tied to the land, they embody the party's virtues of hard work and the deep traditional embeddedness to place. And while it was the case the National Farmers' Union took a quiet remain position during the EU referendum, more polling evidence suggests the majority voted to leave the European Union. In other words a small constituency, but from which solid support is drawn and occupies a special place in the conservative imaginary.

In what manner are they under attack? Because of three developments that have come to light over the last week. There are the pledges outlined by environment secretary George Eustice, which aims to re-green the countryside. This pays particular attention paid to biodiversity, the protection and restoration of peat bogs, and a tree planting programme lifted straight from Labour's 2019 manifesto. This programme will apply to England only and can only work by taking some farm land out of use. On the face of it, this seems innocuous. Farmers would be compensated for their land, and might be employed to undertake some of these conservation efforts themselves. Were it not for the coincidence of the other two items.

In the government's replacement of the EU grants system, the Tories have come forward with a plan that would pay older farmers to retire. This ranges from lump sums of £50k to £100k depending on the size of the farm. Why, when farmers as a group are ageing across the globe and having trouble attracting the young is the government looking to get rid of the experienced hands we've got? According to Eustice, these measures would encourage new, younger entrants (without deigning to explain how or why). He also suggests the old system encourages lethargy as money was distributed dependent on the size of the holding, therefore farmers were incentivised to do nothing while the subsidies rolled in. This fits in with the wider plan. As the Tories want to end farming subsidies (so much for the promises of a more generous settlement outside of the EU). Easing out older farmers with the carrot might undercut opposition later.

But what's this? There are reports of cabinet divisions over the proposed Brexit trade deal with Australia and New Zealand over farm subsidies. As the Tories are desperate for anything that improves on the third country terms of trade the UK had as an EU member, nothing can be allowed to get in the way. After all, this was one of the supposed advantages of moving "out of Europe and into the world", crowned by photo opportunities for ministers signing deals. But what is at stake is more than episodic advantage and fleeting good optics. Whenever a putative trade deal with the United States is mentioned - the real prize as far as Boris Johnson is concerned - animal welfare and food standards makes their unwelcome presence felt. Who fancies a drumstick of chlorinated chicken, or hormone-injected steak? The NFU has led the charge against the Tory desire to sacrifice British food standards to secure their deal, so it makes sense to undermine their position now by redirecting farmers toward conservation efforts, buying them out, or sacrificing them early on the altar of the small change of an Australia/New Zealand agreement. And if you don't buy this interpretation and put it down to usual leftist ravings, this is precisely the argument Paul Goodman has offered on Conservative Home.

What chances the Tory arm is the recent recomposition of their vote. The social weight of a comparatively tiny number of farmers, even if a good proportion of them are loyal supporters, is nothing versus the vote captured across their recent gains in the Midlands and North. Especially when Labour's formers seats are demographically drifting away from them and, as Hartlepool and the metro mayor results in Birmingham and the North East underlines, are likely to carry on doing so. By removing a well-organised interest group from the table, the easier it will be to sideline opposition to trade deals with the US or anyone else where agricultural subsidies and standards have to be dispensed with. Therefore the so-called row between Eustice and Liz Truss about farming is not one of principle but of timing: Truss wants support gone so the Tories have their deal, while Eustice also wants to withdraw the support - but not before the sweeteners are in place. As far as farmers are concerned, the government has everything but their best interests at heart.

What does this mean for the Tory base? Evidently, the government thinks it can evade flak from the backbenches. The way farmers are being constructed as undeserving recipients of handouts and as obstacles to fulfilling their Brexit fever dreams might be enough to win over enough MPs exposed to farmer-friendly pressure. On the other hand, it strikes at the rural affinities of the more traditional Tory, and as we have seen over the last 18 months the backbenches can be antsy if the mood takes them. And what might happen outside of the seat arithmetic of who supports what and when? The electoral coalition might be strong, but a direct attack on the interests of a constituency close to the party's hearts might spur the further fraying of the Tory organisation in such places and, given support for the Liberal Democrats is unusually high among farmers, see them benefit. But the likelihood of this resulting in damaging consequences is, unfortunately, as far from certain as can be - especially how the LibDems are still much reduced, even in their former west country strongholds. It seems then the government are secure enough to carve out and carve up this section of support. The Tories' problem lies not with the farmers, but when they go after other sectors of their coalition. An easy victory here strengthens the tendency to hubris, and from there the propensity to coming unstuck.


1729torus said...

The DUP won’t like this, the Ulster Farmer’s Union was already getting a bit jittery about their Juche-Brexit attitude.

Ken said...

The suggestion is that the worst hit will be Scottish crofters and hill farmers, and hill farmers in Wales. As we know, Scotland is an SNP fiefdom, and Wales is sort of Labour. That only leaves the beef producers in England to kick up a fuss which the Tories might have to listen to.

Blissex said...

There is the usual complication here of the difference between "Tory", the Conservative Party, and "tory", the political faction. The Conservatives have both a "tory" and a "whig" political faction, each with some different flavours, and the farmers are a "tory" faction vested interest group, but not a "whig" faction one, and brexit, originally a "tory" goal, is being managed by the "whig" leadership of the Conservatives.

The "tories", including the farmers, intended "sovereignty" to mean "nationalism", to choose having rules in their own narrow interests, without compromising with other EU interests, the "whigs" transformed "sovereignty" to mean "globalism", that is to choose having fewer rules.

The LibDems may have been strong in rural areas for mostly ethnic reasons, but they are "whigs" too, so the "tory" farmers can hardly switch their vote to them.

«Therefore the so-called row between Eustice and Liz Truss about farming is not one of principle but of timing: Truss wants support gone so the Tories have their deal, while Eustice also wants to withdraw the support - but not before the sweeteners are in place.»

As to that both Eustice and Truss are thatcherite "whigs", like most Conservative MPs, but some are a little bit "wetter" than the others.

Note: as we saw in 2008-2009 even the "driest" thatcherite "whigs" become quite soggy when it comes to bailing out the "whig" interests of the financial sectors, so it is all relative.

Dipper said...

Consensus in my tory group is this is a key decision for this government, in that it is a decision on a field of its choosing (post Brexit) and reveals their priorities.

from that point of view, I'm fairly fingers crossed for a free trade agreement. Give in the the NFU and the government will find a long queue of special interest groups demanding preferential treatment and the end result is an impoverished economy with groups battling to seize a slice of the pie.

Farmers are notorious moaners. For years the Labour Party was the subject of this moaning so it is odd to find an organ of the left coming down heavily on the side of higher food prices for workers to keep the Landed classes in Range Rovers.

BCFG said...

So does that mean that if the Tories attack Travellers, the young, the "woke", and trans people then the left should attack home owners, the old, white people and those who strictly identify as a man or a woman?

For instance, older people are racist, support brexit and will be more likely to vote Tory.

I really don’t think the Tories have in any substantial way attacked ‘woke’ or even trans people have they? It seems to me that every year the Trans festivals etc get bigger and bigger. I just don’t see any major hostility to these groups.

Having said that ‘woke’ people need to be attacked with a lot more ferocity than is currently happening, as most of what they come out with defies all logic, they are most certainly shy on what their solutions would be. Wokism is just a liberal version of witch hunting and is a retrograde step.

One thing the technological and anthropological advancements of the 19th century did was to firmly place facts and science first and theory second. The notion became if the theory does not fit the facts the theory must go or be refined. Wokism is retrograde because it sees fit to reverse this trend, for wokists if the facts don’t fit the theory the facts have to go. This is a step back to medieval obscurantism dressed up as enlightened liberalism.

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

I am a little surprised that you view the abolition of basic farm payment as anything other than a positive. In essence, this rewards those who have holdings of "agricultural" land by the area they hold. It means that the largest land owners are subsidised to the tune of many millions. It discriminates against the small farmer. People are paid simply for owning the land, regardless of how well they manage it - either environmentally or productively. Replacing this with payments for using the land "public good" is a much needed reform.

It may be that the government is sacrificing farmers for trade deals, but they have done the same to many other sectors so that should hardly come as a shock. They will continue to cultivate rural support through turning a blind eye to fox hunting, allowing driven grouse shooting, and ignoring the long term ecological impact of the annual release of 60 million alien birds into the countryside so that people can enjoy shooting them.

The Tories have large majorities in most rural areas and it seems this is unlikely to cost them as the voters there are small "c" conservative and unlikely to change their vote in sufficient numbers to make a difference.

Unknown said...

I'm with Dr. Z and Dipper here.

No sympathy for the farmers at all.

Unknown said...

"Trans festivals"

Phil, why are youe reply guys so weird.

McIntosh said...

If the majority of farmers support the Conservative Party and voted for Brexit then I assume they acted rationally and in line with their belief systems even if it hits their economic interests. I cannot believe they were influenced by wishful thinking,demagogy and deception. They must have acted for a higher interests and be concerned about the nation and sovereignty.

Not sure why their is an attack on woke in this discussion, especially when such an eccentric definition is given of it. I cannot see what is wrong with tolerance,fairness, acceptance of difference and a desire for equak treatment. The alternative we see every day is hatred of woke, refugees, foreigners, human rights, the poor and students.

BCFG said...

"Trans festivals"

Unknown, you really need to get out more. Try one and you might enjoy it.