If Labour cares so much about the price of milk, why doesn't it join with dairy farmers?

Milk has been over the news recently, but there's a silence on the left over the plight of its creators.

Over two thousand angry farmers jostled their way into the hall. Chequered shirts and ruddy faces replaced the stereotype of the pale adolescent protester. Many had left their dawn milk rounds to flood to Westminster and speak out against the latest round of price cuts forcing them under. You could feel the anger in the thumping ovation received by the first speaker:

"I have never seen this level of frustration before, nor have I seen such determination to right the wrongs of this industry," thundered Mansel Raymond, dairy chairman of the National Farmers Union, "Society doesn’t realise that this market place just doesn’t work."

The left generally ignores rural campaigns. A child of the trade union movement, Labour grew up to address inner-city concerns in urban areas where the majority of voters now reside. We forget our brothers and sisters in the countryside suffer similar injustices. New technology hasn’t changed things. Documenting the farmers’ protest (#SOSdairy) got almost no response from a twittersphere that remains urban in composition and priority.

But if there was ever a case of irresponsible capitalism, this is it.

Take Emily and Rob Bradley, a young brother and sister who run a family farm on the Isle of Wight. They start milking at 4am and work until 6pm, cleaning, managing and feeding. Throughout the night they get up to check their herd of some 360 cows, looking out for calves and heifers that need support. For all this, buyers offer them 20p per litre.

"It’s disgusting how little we’re paid compared with the effort we put in," says Rob, "The supermarket does almost nothing. . . most of the public don’t know what we have to do. Youngsters think milk is made in the shop."

"We’ve spoken about whether we’re carrying on. We’re only just breaking even and we’ll be making a loss and going into debt if these price cuts continue. . . If it comes to it we’ll take direct action."

If this was just the result of the brutal efficiencies of the market, maybe we’d accept it. But there is no free market here. Farmers only have a handful of processing companies to sell to – Wiseman, Dairy Crest and the Co-op First Milk – who can collude to set prices. This year these giants have slashed the price of milk by 4p a litre – at an average cost per farm of £50,000 – with the latest cut due to come in next month.

What’s worse is that farmers are stuck in these contracts. Even if the processing company decides to change its milk prices half way through a term, the farmers cannot walk away. One processor – Dairy Crest – gave farmers just four days notice of its last cut.

Processors say the latest move is the result of a decline in the commodity markets for skimmed milk powder and wholesale cream, but it’s interesting that the less powerful partner always seems to be the one to take the hit.

With the farming minister Jim Paice recently being caught out for not knowing the price of a pint of milk (46p by the way), the Conservatives – who usually manage to hoover up some 85 per cent of rural votes – are also looking out of touch.

Addressing the angry crowd of farmers at Methodist Central Hall yesterday, Paice said that ministers were "not in the business of setting prices" and that he would do nothing to reverse the cuts, adding, "There will be no return to the old days of central government interference".

Adding a heavy-handed state intervention on to an over centralised market may well create more problems. But there are other actions the government could take to solve this imbalance of power. They could introduce a law allowing farmers to terminate a contract with three months notice (although the minister says EU rules prevent this). Or they could increase investigations and sanctions for price collusion. These measures wouldn’t block the free market; they’d empower it. Farmers could also help themselves here by starting co-operative processing chains of their own.

"I don’t think politicians realise what it’s like," says Rob, "They should come and do a milk internship for a few weeks and see what we do here. See what it’s like to deliver a calf or get bruises or broken fingers from young heifers. The dedication we have to show."

Dairy farmers have already sprayed thousands of litres of milk outside the European Parliament to protest against the low prices and the phasing out of quotas. Here in the UK, the direct action is continuing. Seven hundred farmers came out to protest in Stafforshire this month, and there is deep unrest in Scotland. Farmers for Action say that more disruption can be expected – perhaps even during the Olympics – if prices continue to fall.

It is clear that farmers are at breaking point. As far as they see it, price cuts mean farm closures. Their numbers have already dropped by 40 per cent in the last ten years, and according to the Food Standards Agency, about three farmers are now leaving dairy farming every week. Farmers will do anything to stop further cuts because they have nothing to lose.

"As young farmers we need to see a future," says 17-year-old Oliver Yeatman who works on a small farm in Dorset, "It’s a lot of hard work and you’re not going to join if there’s no money in it. I’m at level three of my diploma in agriculture and I’d love to be a full time farmer, but it could be a waste of time."

If Ed Miliband truly believes in responsible capitalism, he should take this on. Farmers should be given the chance to work. Shutting them out will only decimate the supply chain. In the long term, that means we’ll all be paying a higher price for milk. Challenging this trend wouldn’t just leave the country better off, it would also demonstrate Labour could speak to the countryside as well as the towns.

Farmers protest EU agricultural policies. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle