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.