UKIP’s astonishing success in last week’s by-elections has potentially far-reaching implications for farmers. Alistair Driver analyses a changing political landscape.
Change is coming, the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) first elected MP announced as he arrived at the House of Commons on Monday to take up his seat.
Nobody connected to politics can disagree any longer following the seismic events of last Thursday, when Douglas Carswell’s by-election victory over the Conservatives in Clacton, with a majority of over 12,000, was not even the most dramatic result of the night.
At the same time in the Greater Manchester, Heywood and Middleton constituency, UKIP’s candidate lost to Labour by just 617 votes, almost overturning a huge majority.
UKIP and its charismatic leader Nigel Farage has now set their sight on higher goals. A second Tory defector Mark Reckless has a real chance of following Mr Carswell back into the Commons when stands in the Rochester by-election next month.
Recent polls put the party currently at between 14 and, in one case, 25 per cent of the national vote.
The party’s own private polling has given it the belief it could land as many as 25 seats at next May’s General Election, after which the possibility of it entering into a coalition Government -and assuming some real power - is real.
Even if it does not reach that heady number and make it into Government - as many analysts expect as the party’s people and politicies come under increased scrutiny in the run up to next May - the UKIP vote will sway the outcome of a number seats, including in rural areas, as it eats up core votes in the heartlands of the three main parties.
The Conservative mantra of ‘vote UKIP, get Labour’ repeated endlessly at its recent conference in Birmingham reflects a genuine fear within the party that the UKIP surge could open the door to Ed Miliband’s party. That message clearly didn’t get through in Clacton.
But the Heywood result shows the UKIP also poses a big threat to Labour.
For farmers, the rise of UKIP, already the biggest UK party in the European Parliament, could be highly significant.
The party is indisputably driving much of the current debate on issues like the UK’s relationship with Europe, the CAP and immigration, forcing the hand, in particular of the Conservatives on these issues
The UKIP factor is already in play.
UKIP’s core policy is its desire to exit Europe, which, according to its agriculture spokesman in Europe Stuart Agnew, would help release farmers from the shackles of EU regulation, such as CAP greening, NVZs, and restrictions on pesticides and GM crops.
But, as the NFU’s head of Parliamentary Affairs Matt Ware says, this creates a dilemma for some potential rural supporters, who may sympathise with UKIP’s core principles.
“It will be a double-edged sword as they might sympathise with UKIP about Europe but they know they would not get the same level of domestic support. The UK Treasury is quite idealeolically set in reforming the CAP and reducing it. We get it from the right wing, such as Owen Paterson and Boris Johnson, who raised it at the Conservative conference and the left wing who don’t see spending on farmers as a priority,” he said.
Against that, Mr Ware said farmers are frustrated at the way legislation intended to apply across 28 member states, such as CAP greening, often proves to be burdensome and achieves very little at national level. But farmers have also been frustrated at the way EU legislation has been gold-plated at UK level, he added.
Mr Agnew, a Norfolk farmer and former member of the NFU council, acknowledges farmer concerns over the CAP but insists UKIP would retain Single Farm Payments if it led the UK out of Europe.
He said UKIP would not be able to revert to ‘old-style deficiency payments’ but would have to adapt, for example, to the US scheme of counter-cyclical payments or the Canadian crop-price insurance scheme.
“We are now saying there will be a Single Farm Payment for farmers. It will be worth £80/acre for lowland, £64/ac for SDA and £11/ac for moorland, which will get the benefit of headage payments,” he told the recent UKIP conference.
He said farmers would qualify by farming land to Entry Level Stewardship – a ‘British scheme’ – standards and that payments would be capped at £120,000.
But the situation regarding the CAP is not necessarily as simple as that. In reality, while UKIP is providing some of the momentum, it would not be in power, or at least the main Party, if the UK left the EU and/or the CAP was ‘repatriated’ to any large degree.
David Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership, if he can not re-negotiate the UK’s relation with it - many Tories, like Mr Paterson and Mr Johnson, would like to see this negotiation include a significantly diminished CAP.
Tory Defra Ministers Liz Truss and George Eustice, who once stood as a UKIP election candidate, spoke at the Conservative conference, of their desire to start thinking now about what the new CAP should look like - whether it is administered from Brussels or London.
Neil Parish, a Devon Conservative MP, said he would like to see more flexibility on how the CAP is implemented, particularly in areas like CAP greening, but warned handing the agricultural purse strings to the UK Treasury would spell ‘danger for farmers’.
“You would get more under a Conservative Government than a Labour Government but farmers would not get the support they are getting now,” he said.
He said the question of whether Mr Cameron would lead the UK out of Europe will depend on the extent to which he can negotiate a better and more flexible deal for the UK. “If they are determined not to give us any ground, he may lead us out of Europe,” he said.
Labour MP and Shadow Farming Minister Huw Irranca-Davies said Europe was where a ‘seismic difference’ existed between Labour and UKIP and eurosceptic Tories.
“We have argued for the good of farming that we need to be in the driving seat in Europe, including proper CAP reform. We need to make our voice heard in a leadership role, not at the margins,” he said.
Then there immigration. UKIP wants to take a tougher line and ‘regain control of our borders’, by leaving the EU. This includes a points-based visa system, along the lines of that in place in Australia, time-limited work permits and ensuring immigrants financially support themselves and their dependents for five years.
All parties are watching the public reaction to UKIP closely on this issue. Mr Cameron this week pleaded with the public to give him ‘one more go’ at negotiating a better deal with the EU to limit the number of incomers.
During a visit to Rochester ahead of next month’s by-election, he said: “We need further action to make sure we have more effective control of migration. We should have one last go at negotiating a better deal.”
According to Mr Ware, the ‘dogma from all sides on immigration policy’ is already impacting on farms. The NFU is currently lobbying for a replacement to the successful SAWS scheme that gave access to non-EU labour for UK farmers and growers until it was scrapped this year.
“SAWS was highly successful with a 99.7 per cent return rate. It has become very obvious in dealing with the Home Office that there is absolutey at all for any replacement scheme due to the coalition immigration policy. If they open another scheme their immigration figures will be skewed,” he said, adding that this could potentially lead farmers and growers struggling to find labour in future years.
Mr Parish stressed the importance of migrant workers but said more controls were needed on immigrant workers.
Mr Irranca-Davies acknowledged Labour’s past failings on immigration but said it now had a ‘firm set of proposals’ and did not feel under pressure to ‘out-UKIP UKIP’ on the issue.
Essex farmer and NFU vice president Guy Smith, who farms in the Clacton contituency that now boasts UKIP’s sole MP, said scrutiny of the impact of UKIP’s policies needs to be stepped up.
“Waking up last week to find myself now living and farming in the first UKIP constituency tends to focus the mind on the possibility of leaving the EU and running a farm business without the CAP,” he said.
“I’m not necessarily against the prospect but I’m worryingly short of detail as to what the exact plans are. Would we retain support payments and would there be some sort of UK Cross compliance? Would we become like Norway or Switzerland and join EFTA which might mean we still get all or some of the red tape? What would the import/export regime in food and drink be with the rest of the world?”
He said in the run up to the General Election, British farmers will ‘need to ask searching questions of all parties as to how a change in our relationship with the EU would affect agriculture’.
“When it comes to the CAP, British politicians of all persuasions seem keener to tell us what they would scrap rather than what they would put in its place.
“We need to interrogate the agricultural policies in the manifestos to make sure we aren’t being fobbed off with half baked whimsy that if implemented wouldn’t actually hold water.
How UKIP’s current surge in popularity translates into seats next May is anyone’s guess. The party challenge in convincing the public it has more policies than Europe and immigration and more substance behind Mr Farage. The de-selection of UKIP’s candidate in Mr Eustice’s marginal Cornwall seat highlights some of the issues it faces.
The main parties are all acutely aware of their need to respond to the UKIP threat.
Labour MP and Shadow Farming Minister Huw Irranca-Davies stressed by-elections ‘have a different behaviour’ to General Elections but acknowledged UKIP could determine the outcome of a number of rural seats.
He said the battle is now ‘wide open’ for the general election.
But he said: “The message from Labour is that you cannot and should not take any vote for granted now. What you can’t argue against is there is a real upsurge against the mainstream parties, which is ironic considering UKIP is headed by the most establishment of establishment politicians,” he said.
“What we have to do is make our voice heard more strongly on showing leadership in Europe, not being on the margins, amplifying the messages about cost of living and rural services and sticking to our guns on immigration,” he said.
“Now UKIP has a Westminster MP, I really hope scrutiny of UKIP and its policies will be stepped up.”
Mr Parish agreed UKIP showed no seat could now be considered ‘totally safe’.
“I am not worried but nor am I complacent because the longer we go on and the wider the divide, the more dangerous it becomes come for the General Election.
“I feel I can stand on my own record in my constituency. But what is worrying me is that to deliver a lot of the policies that the Conservatives that are minded to vote UKIP want, like a referendum on Europe, cutting red tape and tackling TB we need a majority Conservative.
“We are not going to get that if we lose too many people peeling off to UKIP. We have got to up our game and up our message.”
UKIP’s position in Brussels has always been a slightly contradictory. The party with the biggest contingent of UK MEPs, 24, is only in Brussels to try and get the UK out.
This week, its position became even less stable after the group it was a part of collapsed. After his stunning May EU election success, UKIP leader Nigel Farage formed the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group with other eurosceptic European political parties.
But on Thursday, a Latvian MEP announced she was leaving the group to become an independent, meaning the group was no longer legitimate as it does not contain MEPs from seven member states.
While UKIP can try to rebuild the group, the development could potentially cost it £1m in EU money the group was due to receive next year, according to reports.
Commenting before, the collapse of UKIP’s group, Fay Jones, an NFU lobbyist in Brussels, gave her perspective of how influential UKIP is in Brussels.
With UKIP’s whole purpose being to leave the EU, it’s inevitable that they won’t have the same degree of influence.
Their determination to vote no on all plenary votes- whether this is good or bad for the UK- is a missed opportunity for UK farmers. The question of being in or out of Europe isn’t currently on the table so it’s up to all UK MEPs to fight for British farmers.
That said, Stuart Agnew brings his experience as a British poultry farmer to bear in the Agriculture Committee. He is a vocal, active member of the committee – well known throughout Parliament. Securing some amendments in committees, and holding the Commission to account is very much to be welcomed. He recently invited the new Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, to join him on farm to see the impacts of the 3-crop rule on farm. More MEPs need to be highlighting the ways in which such rules are not working for British farmers and need to be changed.
Whilst it’s essential to have an experienced voice of farming around the table in Brussels, Stuart can often be the lone voice on agriculture within his party. With the spotlight ever more so on the UK Independence Party, we will be looking to more MEPs, and candidates in the Westminster elections, to show an equal commitment to engaging with their farmers.
Unless and until a referendum is called, the European Union needs to deliver for UK farmers and in order to achieve this all MEPs need to be vocal champions for British farmers in Brussels.
“In Brussels they have done absolutely nothing. If we end up in the next General Election where UKIP are almost holding a balance of power and we have a vote to leave Europe, where does that leave British agriculture?
“I would say in a big hole becaue we will have all the restrictions and further trade barriers against us. The Europeans, if we are not in, will make sure we are bloody well out. The CAP payment will be much lower and it will put us in a very difficult position.”
Frank Langrish, Sussex
“At the moment, they are saying the right things, we empathise with them. It is good that there is more excitement in politics. I wouldn’t vote for them yet but I think there is going to be a real challenge there next year from UKIP to all the parties.
“It is anyone’s guess what might happen, to the point it is quite worrying. They need to come out more clearly with their policies on Europe. If they are going to be considered a serious party they have also got to look at the countryside and agriculture and all the rural isues.”
Stuart Yarwood, Cheshire