It’s the economy, stupid. So goes the mantra for what drives voting choice and therefore electoral campaigning. But, to some, food policy should have been far higher up in the agenda in recent elections in a number of countries. That argument is being heard loud and clear in the UK as the country nears polling day on 8 June, not least with Brexit the key reason why Prime Minister Theresa May called the election. Ben Cooper analyses the food policy positions of the main competing parties and hears from industry and campaigners on why the issue should have far more prominence as the election nears.

If ever there was an election when the food sector needs to defy the odds and get food policy on the agenda, it is the General Election to be held in the UK on 8 June. 

Brexit is, unsurprisingly, the predominating issue. It is the official reason the election was called, with UK Prime Minister Theresa May stating she needs “the strongest hand possible” in the country’s forthcoming negotiations with the EU and Brexit remains the most prevalent and politically divisive issue of the day. And Brexit is also the reason why this is such a crucial election for the food industry.

The food sector will be among those most affected by Brexit, and how critical questions are addressed, notably concerning trade, regulation and agricultural support, have direct implications for UK food manufacturers.

With these implications in mind, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents food and soft drink manufacturers operating in the UK, has for the first time issued a detailed “manifesto”, outlining five policy areas it believes must be addressed. Four can be said to be either directly or indirectly related to Brexit, with the manifesto covering areas such as trade, regulation, government support for R&D and exports and improving the UK’s skills base.

Virtual silence on an issue of national security

The FDF’s intention is to plant the idea firmly in the public and political consciousness that food is a matter of national security. 

It is a government’s duty “to make sure its citizens have access to the right amount of safe and nutritious food”, FDF director general Ian Wright says. “No-one is seriously suggesting we’re going to run out of food but it’s also the case that we could see, if this goes wrong, the level of choice and variety eroded and I think it’s important that the public makes a conscious choice in the way it’s voting and understands the implications.”

Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University in London, bemoans the lack of engagement on food and farming by the major parties.  “It’s absolutely clear that food is one of the biggest issues that’s got to be addressed and there is silence. There is silence across the political spectrum,” Lang says. “It’s astonishing. This is the most important election discussion about the food system since 1945.”

Perhaps the clearest indicator of the unprecedented significance of this election for the food sector is the unanimity among diverse stakeholder groups that food should feature in the campaign. “I have never known such agreement between the public health people, the environment people and different sectors of the food system that this is a momentous juncture, and if government doesn’t get this right the consequences could be very, very tricky,” Lang warns.

The path to Brexit

Given the vital importance of the EU Single Market and Customs Union to the UK food sector, any divergence between the parties over the path to Brexit is of considerable significance.

The Liberal Democrats offer the strongest opposition to the “hard” Brexit it contends the approach of the May government’s will take the UK, advocating staying in the Single Market and a second referendum on the final Brexit deal. 

The Labour Party also says it would offer a different path to Brexit but is vague on detail. While it appeared at one stage it might explicitly back remaining in the Customs Union, its manifesto, published today (16 May), makes no explicit commitment. It only says it would scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit white paper and replace it with “fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union”.

In this era of political surprises and confounded predictions, it is unwise to rule anything out but Conservatives’ lead in the polls, albeit significantly reduced from earlier in the campaign, suggests the differing stances on Brexit advocated by the various parties are somewhat moot.

Continuity likely

The only change to the political landscape after the election is likely to be an increased Conservative majority and arguably a strengthened mandate for the Brexit path upon which the UK is already embarked. The question is whether continuity at this stage offers any benefit to the food sector. 

Keen not to be seen as supporting any party, Wright chooses his words carefully when addressing this question. “I’m not going to make a judgment on behalf of the industry whether it’s a good or bad thing that we have the same party or a different party back in office,” he insists. 

However, Wright then adds: “I do think the Government has been very good about listening and is extremely engaged. The 2015-2017 May government has been increasingly engaged with the issues of the industry and has, to me, come a long way in understanding the significant detail of those issues, and I’m hopeful that whoever emerges in Westminster and Whitehall after June 8th is going to carry on that and will do so with increasing speed.”

In light of the unpredictable political environment that has now become the norm, Lang’s view is also salutary. “In reality, nothing is sealed until it’s sealed. That’s politics. Everything is actually open for negotiation until the signing on the treaties and on the dotted line. Nothing is fixed. In that world, there ought to be being debate.”

A more gradual transition

It has been suggested by some commentators that calling an election now, rather than waiting until 2020, will give May greater flexibility as the negotiation period draws to a close, particularly with regard to securing a transition period after the two-year Article 50 process is concluded. 

A gradual transition may well benefit food companies, given the importance of the EU to the UK food sector. Wright says a longer transition period would allow more time for the “practical realities of the Brexit process” to be addressed.

Ben Reynolds, deputy chief executive of food and farming pressure group Sustain, agrees an extended period of adjustment and transition could be positive but warns against the detrimental effects of “five years of uncertainty”.

Wright also posits that were May to be returned with a stronger mandate, this may put her in a position “to make policy that at least has the potential to be accepted by those on both sides”.

The fact the Conservatives have, in recent by-elections and local elections, effortlessly regained voters from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) reflects the unequivocal and uncompromising approach May has taken to Brexit since becoming Prime Minister. As 70% of food companies responding to the FDF’s pre-referendum survey did not support Brexit, there are likely to be many in the food industry who would welcome a softening of her stance.

The FDF has tried to put the industry on a footing to enable it to make the best of current political realities. Nevertheless, given the sector’s reliance on EU trade and migrant labour, it is not an oversimplification to suggest the “softer” the Brexit settlement eventually is, the better for UK farmers and food manufacturers.

By the same token, the course currently embarked upon could be seen as the worst the industry might have hoped for. However, while May’s political objective over the coming weeks is to continue to hoover up UKIP votes, it is not inconceivable once the election is won her priorities may change, or she may be forced by events to reappraise them.

“If she gets a fairly clear workable majority, I think she’s then in a position at least to assume some authority for some of the decisions which may not be liked by one or other party and also for some of the trade-offs which undoubtedly are going to have to be made,” Wright says, once more choosing his words very carefully.

Unanimity on farm payments

There is also unanimity among different stakeholders regarding farming subsidies. Reynolds says this issue is “fundamental”. The Government’s current commitments on subsidies only go up to the end of 2019, which is two growing seasons, Reynolds points out, and farmers need to make longer-term plans. “The political parties really need to take this on board and say in their manifestos what they are going to do.”

On the need for clarity on farm payments Sustain finds itself in rare agreement with both the National Farmers Union and the FDF. “We know that the government has said it will continue with farm payments until 2020 but that is only now two years away,” Wright says. “Farmers need to know, and actually all of the food industry needs to know, what’s going to happen in ’21, ’22, ’23, and now that that is within the purview of each of the parties seeking to be the Government, they should tell us what they’re going to do.” Agricultural subsidies will also be a critical component in negotiations around any new free-trade agreements.

Vision needed

Equally, there is broad consensus among stakeholders about the need for a long-term plan for the UK food system in the wake of Brexit. In its manifesto, the FDF calls for a sector deal for food and drink within the Government’s industrial strategy, launched earlier this year, to “drive transformational industry growth”.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) began work on a 25-year plan for food and farming in 2015. That process appears stalled by Brexit and a leaked draft was heavily criticised. Reynolds says it resembled a “five-year export strategy for food producers” rather than a 25-year food and farming plan. Lang describes the draft strategy as “pathetic” and “inadequate”, adding it is “astonishing” a long-term vision for food and farming is not being made a priority.

Even when an election result appears to be a foregone conclusion, Reynolds says it is an opportunity to have issues discussed, and to “up the ante” in key debates by challenging parties to go further than their rivals. In its manifesto, Sustain is looking to highlight issues such as greener farm subsidies, extending the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, sustainable fishing, childhood obesity and agricultural workers’ pay.

How much success campaigners will have cutting through the noise of Brexit remains to be seen but it is interesting to note the Labour manifesto does include commitments to ramp up engagement on childhood obesity, reinstitute the Agricultural Wages Board and expand the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Labour says it would publish a new childhood obesity strategy within its first 100 days in power, with new measures relating to advertising and food labelling, viewed by campaigners and public health experts as critical omissions from the government’s plan launched last August. 

In reality, the momentousness of Brexit makes this an election like no other, though it does seem to be conforming to the norm that food policy struggles for airtime. An overseas correspondent recently remarked on the BBC’s Dateline programme that this is “one of the most boring elections” she had covered in the UK owing to the dominance of one party, and at the same time “one of the most important in decades” because of the long-term implications of the decisions the next government will have to make. On the latter point, food companies will be in total agreement.