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A new dawn for food politics

Labour has won the opportunity to plot an alternative path for the UK on issues like food and the environment, but does it have the appetite for radical reform? By Nick Hughes.

A landslide in name only? The Labour Party under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer swept to power last weekwinning 412 seats and a majority of 174 in the UK Parliament. The result exposed the vagaries of the first past the post system with Labour winning just 34% of the popular vote. Reform UK, by contrast, won 14% of the vote but only five seats in the House of Commons while the Green Party attracted 7% of the vote and won just four seats. This has led some commentators to caution that Labour’s huge majority is built on sand, albeit it is difficult to gauge the impact on vote share of tactical voting, particularly in seats where the Liberal Democrats were the main opposition to the Conservative Party.

Mandate for net-zero.  What is not in doubt is that – following recent backsliding by the Conservative Party and outright scepticism from Reform UK – there is now a clear public mandate for politicians to get on and deliver the UK’s net-zero commitments after parties that have voiced full-throated support for decarbonisation of the economy won a majority of both votes and seats. A key plank of Labour’s manifesto is to create a zero-carbon electricity system by 2030 with a focus on wind and solar alongside investment in carbon capture and storage and green hydrogen. New chancellor Rachel Reeves moved swiftly this week to lift the de facto ban on new onshore wind infrastructure as part of a range of proposals aimed at unblocking the UK’s planning system.

Hello, goodbye. It was a bad night for former Defra secretaries of state with Theresa Villiers, Ranil Jayawardena, Therese Coffey and Liz Truss all losing their seats and taking with them their collective bank of food and farming knowledge (insert your own punchline here….). The new man in the Nobel House hotseat is Steve Reed, who has shadowed the role since September last year, with the experienced Daniel Zeichner named as farming minister. Ed Miliband, a long time champion of ambitious climate action, returns to the cabinet as secretary of state for energy security and net-zero, while among the intake of new Labour MPs is a former head of campaigns and advocacy at WWF (Katie White, Leeds North West) and ex-head of the Environmental Justice Commission (Luke Murphy, Basingstoke). Four new green MPs will exert pressure on the government to live up to its environmental commitments and push ministers to go further in many areas.

Lib Dem revival. Another leading storyline from the night was the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats who won a record 72 seats, many of which lie in rural regions of the south and south west of England. The party made tackling sewage in rivers and seas a key feature of its campaign and pledged an extra £1bn in funding a year to farmers in its manifesto. The party could be a key influence on food policy over the next five years having called for a “holistic and comprehensive” national food strategy and demanded the renegotiation of the government’s widely criticised trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand.

Labour offers few clues. And what of Labour’s approach to food? I wrote recently that, publicly at least, the party is keeping its cards close to its chest with “nothing in its manifesto to shift the impression that structural reform of the food system is not on Sir Keir Starmer’s immediate agenda”. This, it should be noted, stands in contrast to the kind of conversations Labour has been having privately with NGOs where the talk is of a more urgent, interventionist approach to food systems reform. Campaigners report especially positive engagement with new health secretary Wes Streeting on topics such as tackling ultra-processed foods and restricting marketing of unhealthy products. Indeed, there is a sense that Labour’s “Ming vase strategy” during the campaign reflected a desire to avoid attacks by its political opponents rather than a lack of appetite for reform. With a large majority behind it, Labour has the parliamentary power to push through even the more contentious of its plans, but the circumspect nature of its manifesto means it lacks a clear public mandate to deliver radical change. Will that act as a brake on Starmer and his top team? We’re about to find out.

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