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"Tory party could suffer consequences for disregarding farmers' concerns and being deemed 'morally bankrupt'."
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“Tory party could suffer consequences for disregarding farmers’ concerns and being deemed ‘morally bankrupt’.”

Rural farmers have expressed feeling overlooked by politicians in Westminster. However, with a general election approaching and the competition for their votes beginning, it was not unexpected when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made an appearance at their yearly conference.

Sunak reassured farmers that he is on their side and reminisced about the idyllic British countryside and his time spent milking a cow.

However, despite attempts to win favor with charm, the post-Brexit trade deals and mishandled agricultural transition from EU farming payments have been met with disapproval. The farmers in attendance were not particularly enthusiastic in their response.

Minette Batters, the departing leader of the National Farmers’ Union, strongly criticized the Conservative Party’s actions in her speech before Sunak, calling them “morally bankrupt.” She also appeared skeptical of Sunak’s professed support for the British farming industry.

The appearance of the Tories in this area is to be expected. For a long time, farmers have been a strong base of support for conservative politics in rural areas. However, recent polls conducted by the Country Land and Business Association have revealed a significant shift in voting patterns, with many people in rural areas now favoring Labour. In fact, Labour’s share of the vote has risen to 37%, a 17-point increase from the 2019 general election, while the Conservatives’ share has dropped by 25 points to 34%.

The Conservative party currently has 96 out of the 100 most rural seats, but they are at risk of losing more than half to the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. This includes the seats held by Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Hunt, and Thérèse Coffey. The recent decrease in support from farmers played a role in the party’s loss in three byelections – North Shropshire, Tiverton and Honiton, and Somerton and Frome – to the Liberal Democrats.

The main topic of discussion at the conference was the underwhelming presence of the Labour party. Despite being invited to speak, both Sir Keir Starmer and shadow environment secretary Steve Reed declined and instead sent junior shadow farming minister Daniel Zeichner. None of them were willing to discuss their farming policy with the Guardian.

It is believed that Labour is simply observing as the Conservatives struggle in this politically tense area.

Batters expressed doubt in the ability of Starmer and Sunak to uphold British standards. She stated, “Trust is a significant term” and noted that Sunak was a considerable improvement compared to previous prime ministers Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, who aimed to loosen trade policies that would have negatively impacted British farmers.

She is monitoring to see if Sunak includes core trading standards in the Conservative manifesto, which means not allowing food produced to significantly lower standards. “It’s crucial that the Conservatives make a strong commitment in the next election to implement the Core Standards standard,” she stated.

At the moment, she is uncertain about the specifics of Labour’s plans.

“I am uncertain about Starmer’s trade policies at this point, to be honest. This presents another obstacle for Labour as they must have clear policies. Currently, they have not publicly shared any trade policies.”

Henry Morton, a farmer who grows crops, appeared skeptical of Sunak’s kind statements. “Well, he wants our votes, doesn’t he?” he remarked. “I think he did decently. He clearly wants to gain support from farmers, but he did say some encouraging things.”

Colin Rayner, a farmer from Windsor, is a staunch Conservative but believes that Sunak has little chance of winning the support of farmers. He stated, “I’m not sure if farmers will vote for Labour – I think they may choose to abstain from voting.”

He stated that the withdrawal of EU farming payments and trade agreements due to Brexit has caused farmers to lose trust in the Conservative party. It is possible that it may take a generation for this trust to be regained.

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Martin Cockerill, a farmer from Yorkshire, cautiously expressed hope in Sunak’s words: “I believe that the recognition of food security’s significance is finally coming to light and he addressed that. However, politicians in England still do not view farming as a priority.”

He appeared content that Sunak had highlighted his rural roots. “He brought up his neighbor with a pig farm, which was noteworthy because he actually communicates with his neighbor who is a pig farmer.”

The Labour party has decided to focus on controversial issues that may spark cultural conflicts and upset people in rural areas. They have promised to put an end to the badger cull and trail hunting, a form of hunting where hounds chase a scent instead of a fox. Some media outlets on the political right have criticized Labour for promoting “class warfare” and causing a new debate about foxhunting.

The Welsh Labour party is currently experiencing backlash from farmers. Batters has denounced the party’s leadership for unfairly impacting the livelihood of farmers by requiring them to dedicate 10% of their land to tree planting in order to receive government funding.

Farmers do seem to warm to Starmer more than Sunak. The Labour leader received a warm welcome at the NFU conference last year and Batters said Sunak was “picking up a lot of legacy” from Truss and Johnson, who were widely regarded as having betrayed rural workers.

Perkin Evans, a farmer from Wales, expressed to the Guardian that there is concern among English farmers that if Starmer wins, he will reduce the budget for farming payments.

Maybe the reason for being careful is the cause for the lack of vocalization from Labour politicians at the prominent farming conference: while the rural vote may be uncertain, there is a lot of frustration in these overlooked communities that could easily spark.

Source: theguardian.com