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Political Print: Labour plays it safe on food policy 

The party’s food and farming lead was dismissive of the government’s record at a recent conference but gave little signal that Labour has the appetite for deep reform. By Nick Hughes.

“We do believe in having a [food] strategy and that is what we’ll be wanting to develop.”

So declared Labour shadow minister for farming food and fisheries, Daniel Zeichner, addressing a Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum in March.

Zeichner’s argument that there is “no coherent food policy in this country at the moment” is hard to contest, such has been the piecemeal way in which successive governments have tackled issues such as food security, sustainability, health and competitiveness. You arguably have to go back to the dying days of the Gordon Brown administration in early 2010 to find a credible attempt by central government to articulate a cross-cutting food strategy in the form of the Food 2030 document.

As it transpired, that particular document had a shorter shelf life than a pint of UHT milk. When the new coalition government was formed in May 2010, critics say food policy quickly defaulted to a “leave it to Tesco” philosophy: a phrase coined and regularly deployed by the doyen of food policy, Professor Tim Lang, to bemoan a lack of engagement with food by political leaders.

Prior to Zeichner delivering his pitch at the forum, Lang had opened proceedings with a typically passionate and cogent evisceration of the UK government’s approach to food policy. ”There is no overall or explicit UK food policy, that’s our problem,” Lang decried, while noting the presence of policy fragments spread over what he termed the “battle zones” of health, welfare, trade, safety, prices and poverty.

A potential change in government always holds the promise of a new approach. What we don’t yet know is just how ambitious Labour will be in addressing the issues facing our food system that have been so persuasively set out by the likes of Lang in his book Feeding Britain and Henry Dimbleby in his independent national food strategy.

Meat caution

Zeichner told the forum that the “cursory rejection” of Dimbleby’s work by the government was very disappointing; however he then went on to reject one of its core assertions – that we need to reduce meat consumption by 30% by 2032 in order to achieve the UK’s climate change and nature goals.

Meat, said Zeichner diplomatically, was a “really big” and “delicate” issue, before stating that Labour has “no intention of asking people to reduce their meat consumption”, nor does it plan to introduce a meat tax.

Zeichner’s caution is in keeping with a Labour policy platform that seems primarily designed to neutralise Conservative attack lines ahead of a general election that Labour is widely expected to win. Government ministers have largely failed in their attempts to pin a meat tax policy on Labour, but meat consumption has all the ingredients for a perfect political wedge issue, even more so now that farmers are protesting over a lack of support for food production coupled with the burden of new environmental rules.

Friend to business

One of Sir Keir Starmer’s primary aims as Labour leader has been to reposition the party as a friend to the business community. In February, Starmer and his top team including shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, welcomed hundreds of business leaders to The Oval cricket ground in London to hear Labour’s pitch to industry ahead of an expected election this year. One of the most striking passages of Zeichner’s presentation was his assertion that “the food system is about businesses” who have to be properly rewarded for their output – a nod to the fact that companies first and foremost need to be commercially sustainable. It segued into a section in which he explained how not all businesses have the capacity to deal with the complexity of issues facing the food industry at the moment and can often feel overwhelmed by the quantity of regulation and consultation, citing new import and export rules, deposit return schemes and extended producer responsibility as examples.

There is no suggestion that Labour would actively pursue a deregulatory agenda in government. Zeichner identified a “very real role for public policy” and the need for “rules and structures and regulatory frameworks to which everyone works, and proper enforcement to make sure those rules are fairly applied”. Yet he also stated that any government is going to be nervous about doing things that risk increasing the cost of food to consumers at a time when people are struggling. This had echoes of a previous declaration by shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, who insisted he was “not tin-eared enough” to impose anti-obesity rules such as a ban on volume promotions of unhealthy foods when costs were rising. Despite the launch of a Labour plan for child health in January, substantive, food-related health pledges remain thin on the ground.

Security, power and land

Such is the case too for policies that lie at the intersection of food and the environment, where Labour largely favours broad brush strokes over finer details (a common enough posture for a party of opposition). Zeichner stated that food security is a matter of national security. That’s not to be confused with 100% self-sufficiency, he clarified, which is not on the agenda, but Labour does believe more domestic food production to be important. Specifically, Zeichner suggested the UK can do more to ensure we can continue to produce the fruit and vegetables we need in light of the challenges facing the horticulture sector.

The shadow minister also diagnosed a problem of unequal distribution of power along the food supply chain and hinted at a stronger role for the Groceries Code Adjudicator under a Labour government. He broadly welcomed new regulations on fair dealing for the dairy sector, although he questioned why it’s taken so long for the government to introduce them, and he restated Labour’s commitment to ensuring that at least 50% of public sector food is produced locally or to higher environmental standards (the government has previously consulted on a similar policy).

Zeichner called out the government for its failure to produce a long-awaited land use framework, a promise made in its June 2022 food strategy. He criticised the lack of a plan within Defra to get to net-zero (the agriculture sector has been among the slowest UK industries to decarbonise) and said Labour would bring forward its own national land use framework. The new environmental land management scheme, meanwhile, could be simplified and improved “to get that mix of both the environmental and nature benefits we need as well as securing food production”.

Much of Zeichner’s top level analysis would have resonated with close followers of food policy, not least his acknowledgement of the “cross cutting nature” of the issues at hand. Yet anyone looking for hard evidence that a Labour government would engage in deep and difficult reform of the food system will have to search a little harder.