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

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage