Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Change of government, change of fortunes?

So Gordon Brown has ended weeks of speculation and set the date for the next general election (6 May in case you missed it).

It is to be expected that the vast majority of farmers will vote Conservative, following their natural instinct that "the Tories are the party of the countryside".

houses of parliament.jpgThis is in defiance of the other commonly-held belief that "farmers are always better off under a Labour government".

Both notions are questionable, as it is the exchange rate that has the greatest influence on farm profitability, not the political hue of DEFRA ministers.

But with the Tories ahead in the polls, the question on most farmers' lips will be "what difference will a change of government make to British agriculture?"

The short answer, to my mind, is "not a lot"...

Most agricultural policy is set at European level and the approach taken by both Labour and Conservative agriculture ministers when seated around the negotiating table in Brussels has been entirely consistent.

The stance taken by John Gummer (Conservative) at the time of the 1992 MacSharry reforms was remarkably similar to that taken by Nick Brown (Labour) with Agenda 2000 and then by Margaret Beckett (Labour) during the 2003 Fischler reforms. In other words, cut CAP spending, reduce market intervention and increase trade liberalisation.

The minister of the day may give it a certain gloss when it comes to national implementation, but as any viewer of Yes Minister will appreciate, actual policy is determined by civil servants and party officials.

It is therefore little surprise to see so much similarity in the current positions held by both the Conservatives and Labour in the run up to the May election. This is born out in the excellent analysis by my colleague Johann Tasker, setting out the policies of each of the main parties.

On red tape, cost sharing, a supermarket ombudsman, food security, new entrants to farming, conservation, GM crops, pesticides, research and development and climate change there is very little to choose between the two main parties.

The same cannot be said of the Liberal Democrats, however, who on just about every issue have a more vigorous and pro-farming stance.

For example, they want to have seconded farmers involved in DEFRA decision-making. They oppose cost sharing proposals. They favour a legally-binding supermarket code of practice. And they have pledged to reverse under-investment in R&D.

The obvious response to this is that the Lib Dems aren't going to be elected, so they can pretty much say what they want. They'll never have to deliver on it.

But, as Johann says in his article, if the result of the election is a hung parliament, then there is just a chance that the Lib Dems could win a seat or two at the cabinet table.

Tim Farron for DEFRA secretary? It would certainly make a refreshing change.

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