The strange case of the disappearing department

Has anyone heard from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

Of all the government departments to lead, you might think the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is a bit of a cushy number. You could hardly say it's high profile. You might know that Caroline Spelman is the Secretary of State, but I challenge any of you to pick Richard Benyon, Jim Paice or Lord Taylor of Holbeach out of a line up. I've just done a Google image search of all three and I'm still not entirely sure I can.

But as it happens, there's a case that Defra might be one of the more challenging ministerial portfolios. It has a nasty habit of biting politicians in the backside. Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing minister, calmly scuttling off on relaxing away-days to Cumbria and Cornwall, when suddenly - splat. An almighty political combine harvester creeps up behind them and the next thing they know they've been sliced to a bloody pulp.

Back in 2001 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff - Defra's predecessor) was serenely going about its business when it was hit by the Foot and Mouth crisis. The department's media officers, who until that point had little more strenuous to do than draft press releases about EU fishing quotas, were suddenly elbowed aside by a cohort of thrusting Number 10 media advisers, stomping all over their patch like the FBI containing an alien invasion while telling the town sheriff to keep his nose out of it. A year later, as a result of the department's inability to cope with the farrago, Maff had been brutally and swiftly dissolved: Defra was born.

And it's a department that's still tussling with some of the issues that led to its creation. It spent £113m on land for the disposal of animal carcasses as a result of Foot and Mouth. Last year Private Eye reported on the news that land it had bought at Throckporton for £3.8m had been sold for £831,000, to a man who'd previously been jailed for dumping contaminated waste. Whichever way you look at it, that's probably not a great deal.

Caroline Spelman's combine harvester moment, of course, was the sale of Britain's forests. It made so much sense on paper, didn't it? The Forestry Commission was one of those quangos that was regulator, owner and sole profiteer - it was stagnant, and devoid of incentives to do anything new or exciting. Time to hand that land over to communities and charities.

How gaping the gap between political theory and reality. In practice the Forestry Commission is no such thing. In practise the shoddy presentation of the plan meant it managed to enrage sandal-wearing environmentalists, marmalade-dropping Telegraph readers and everyone in between. Even I was annoyed, and I don't even like forests that much. Spelman was forced into a U-turn the scale of which hadn't been seen since Napoleon fled Moscow, apologising for getting it totally "wrong" and even "thanking colleagues for their support during what's been a difficult time," as if admitting to some secretly-held drug dependency.

It's interesting to look at this retreat in retrospect. There was no determination from Number 10 to fight for the bill as there has been with the NHS reforms. It was a bad bill, but that's never stopped governments trying to get them passed before. And how interesting to learn a few months later that the National Trust and the Wildlife Trust had actually presented Spelman with "shopping lists" - of 171 areas of woodland that they considered perfectly suitable for purchase thank you very much. Doesn't seem to square with Dame Fiona Reynolds of the National Trust's public pronouncements: "We were created by three Victorian radicals who were not afraid to stand up and say society needs beauty and fresh air. It is wonderful to remember that," she said, fingers no doubt tightly crossed behind her back.

At the time of Spelman's retraction, so mealy mouthed had it been, there was acceptance she'd taken one for team Cameron. She has previous in this regard. She prostrated herself before the Cabinet upon getting the job by offering a 30 per cent cut in four years - from £3bn to £2.2bn - by far the largest. The cuts will largely impact on civil servants and quangos (reduced from 92 to 39). The U-turn and departmental shrinkage appear to mean we have a Department that, for us muggles, is doing a passable impression of the Ministry of Magic. We've heard it's there: we just can't see it. Departments - even under Tory rule - are supposed to bother us with initiatives and pronouncements. It's infuriating: but it's their job. Look at this! Do this! Don't do that! From Defra we hear almost the opposite. Don't mind us; we've got everything under control. Ooh look over there; a squirrel.

Perhaps it's because there's a bigger storm around the corner. If you think the print publishing industry is a basket case, it's nothing on farming. The average farmer relies on subsidies - the EU Single Farm Payment (SFP) - for their annual income. It was supposed to be an interim measure, and is paid to farmers per acre of land they farm - whether they produce food or not. And for many livestock farmers, they may as well not bother. Despite rising farm outputs, incomes are declining due to rising costs in feed and fuel. Three quarters of arable farmers need the subsidy to make a profit.

It counts for 36 per cent of the EU's annual budget. New legislation aims to reinstate payments linked to production where there is evidence of so-called "slipper farming" (faking the production of food), but God only knows how Defra will ensure farmers abide by regulations given they're haemorrhaging civil servants. And last year the department's own study showed the UK would be the worst affected of any of the 27 EU member states if the SFP vanished - 75 per cent of livestock farms would trade at a loss.

Last year Spelman produced another U-turn: it got much less attention than the forest sale, but it was no less significant. Early in 2011 she told the Oxford farming conference she wanted to end farmers' dependence on subsidies. You can imagine how well it went down. Soon she was "clarifying her position" once more - she didn't want "dogmatic" scrapping - she wanted "reform" so that farmers "could stand on their own two feet". A far more (pardon the pun) friendly speech at the corresponding event this year generated no headlines.

Mind you, some farmers could be forgiven for thinking subsidies have already been scrapped. The Rural Payments Agency, an executive agency of Defra, was formed to pay out £1.7bn a year in subsidies to English farmers in the form of SFPs. Last year we learned £300m was paid out in extra staff to sort out backlogs in payments, and £327m to the EU in fines because of SFP errors. The Commons Public Accounts Committee met in November hoping to hear of improvement - instead it heard about £53m set aside for EU disallowance fines relating to SFP. These late payments have left farmers in penury. A quarter of them live below the income poverty line of less than £20,000.

It's a tough enough time to work in agriculture- not only is your union spineless (witness the complete lack of support it gave during the supermarket milk price war), but you're overseen by a department that seems to be doing little to help. Even on badger culling, Defra has first wrung its hands and left it to the farmers (the Big Society option), before it delayed the decision till May. The department's recent food and drink export plan was well-received and a step in the right direction for a sector that could really boom if it's able to tap into the Russian, Chinese, Indian and Brazilian markets, but there is so much to be done. At present none of them figure in the top ten countries to which we export agri-food and drink.

After you've downsized, there's a problem with laissez-faire policies, and more so with delays: you might stay out of the headlines, but sooner or later people who take any interest will start to think there's nothing happening at all. Whether it's the badger cull or reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2013, there's a simple point - a department might be able to keep a low profile for a while, but it can't disappear.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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The quiet civil war for control of the Labour grassroots machine

The party's newly empowered far left is trying to wrest control of local branches.

“Party time! PARTY TIME!” A young man wearing a Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt appears on screen and starts dancing, accompanied by flashing emojis of a red rose and a party popper.

“There’s only one game in town and it’s getting our boy J Corbz into Downing Street”, he announces, and to do that, he is planning to explain the “nitty gritty” of local Labour politics, and, promisingly, “give a little gossip on the way”. The man is Michael Walker of online left-wing outlet Novara Media, and the video has been watched more than 38,000 times on Facebook in just two weeks.

So why should Labour members suddenly be made to care about “structures, factions, conference, selections, rule changes”? “There were shedloads of people who got involved in the Labour Party for the first time by knocking on doors during the general election,” Walker explains, “but to make sure that the Labour Party represents their voices as it goes forward, they’re going to need to take getting involved in Labour’s bureaucratic structures seriously.

“There’s a risk that the party structures and bureaucracy will try and shut down participation in the Labour Party just like they did last summer, and we want to make sure that it can’t happen again.”

While the Parliamentary Labour Party is going into recess as a more united group since the election than it had been in the past two years, there is a quiet war still being fought at local level. Now that their man has proved that he could exceed expectations and turn Labour into a solid opposition, Corbynites want to make sure that the centrists cannot keep a hold on the internal party machine.

This involves projects like Walker’s catchy videos, and Momentum’s Your Labour Conference website, which encourages members to get interested in the election of the conference arrangements committee, in order to have more of a say on what gets discussed at the party’s annual conference.

“We recognise the fact that sometimes the Labour Party can be a bit of a labyrinth and something which can be pretty hard to work out, and we want to push people forward and help them get more involved,” a Momentum spokesperson says. “We’re trying to make it more open and more accessible to younger people and help people understand what’s going on.”

With tens of thousands of people joining Labour over the past few months – including around 20,000 since the election – their intentions seem noble: the Labour party internal structure is, after all, notoriously complex. However, it isn’t clear how the existing members who are involved in local organising – a lot of whom are or were until recently sceptical of Corbyn – will deal with this new influx of activists.

“Corbyn supporters are no longer the underdog in the party, and understandably people who joined recently are highly motivated to get their opinions across, so they’ve been turning up in droves at local meetings,” says Richard Angell, the director of Blairite organisation Progress.

“They’re not brilliantly organised but they’re there, and they turned up with this sense of 'we told you so', so they’re starting to win things that they wouldn’t have before the election.”

Centrist and centre-left Labour factions have often been the most organised campaigners in constituency Labour parties, and they’re now worried that if they were to get ousted, the party would suffer.

“Lots of our members are the people who hold the CLPs together – lots of people turned up in certain places to campaign, and the people who organised the clipboards, the data, did the work to make that happen are still a network of moderates,” Angell adds. “If Momentum tried to sweep them away in a vindictive wave of jubilation, it would backfire, and that’s what they have to think about now.”

Though the people at the helm of Momentum have never explicitly called for a takeover of the party at local level, some CLPs are struggling with bitter infighting. Lewisham is home to some of these battlegrounds. With three CLPs in the borough, the local Momentum branch is trying to gain more power in the local parties to implement the changes they want to see at that level.

“There’s an organised left-wing presence in all three CLPs in Lewisham,” a local Momentum organiser, who did not want to be named, says. “We want the CLPs to become outward-looking campaigning bodies, and we want them to be functionally democratic.”

What the branch also wants is to have a radical rethink of what Labour does at council level, and the activist was critical of what the councillors have been doing.

“Under the right-wing, Lewisham CLPs never really campaign on anything – they’ll occasionally have these set pieces, like the Labour day of action on education, which is good, but in reality there’s no one going campaigning on anything,” he says.

“The other thing is about the record of the council - no-one would deny that Labour councils are in a difficult situation, in terms of getting cut again and again and again, but equally at the moment, the attitude of a lot of Labour councils in Lewisham at least is 'it’s not just that there’s nothing else we could do, we’re actually going to go further than the Tories are demanding'."

“It’s not just that they’re saying 'oh, there’s not really anything we can do to fight back against cuts' but it’s also that they’ve actually absorbed all the neoliberal stuff.”

The response to these allegations from a long-term Labour member, who wants to remain anonymous but is close to the currently serving councillors, was unsurprising.

“It is utterly absurd to suggest that councillors want to cut services – Labour members stand for council because they want to stand up for their community and protect local services,” he says. 

“As for campaigning and taking on the Tories, it was the 'right-wing' Lewisham Council which took the government to the High Court over their plans to close Lewisham Hospital – and won. The 'right wing' CLPs worked tirelessly with the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, and we won.”

According to him, Labour is doomed to fail if it doesn’t unite soon, and he worries that left-wing activists may be getting carried away. “The vast majority of members in Lewisham are really pleased with the result and with the way the party pulled together – locally and nationally – for the election campaign,” he says.

“At the second members' meeting after the election, we had a discussion about how we all needed to carry on in the spirit of unity that we'd recently seen, and that if we did so, we have a good chance of seeing a Labour government soon.”

“It's a shame that some people want to label, attack and purge fellow members, rather than working together to beat the Tories. The more they focus on internal, factional in-fighting, the less chance we will have of seeing a Labour government and ending the cuts.”

Beyond the ideological differences which, as the election showed, can mostly be smoothed over when the party senses that it’s getting close to power, an explanation for the Labour left’s occasional bullishness could be its sense of insecurity.

After all, the wave of new members who joined after Corbyn became leader was hardly welcomed by the party’s mainstream, and the narrative quickly turned to Trotskyist entryism instead.

Momentum also spent many of its formative months being treated with suspicion, as a Trojan horse aiming to get MPs deselected, which is yet to happen two years on. Painted as the opposition to the opposition, activists from the Labour’s left had become used to being party pariahs, and need to figure out what to do now that they are in a position of power.

“They’re behaving like an insurgency still, but they’re in charge”, says Angell. “It’s quite a big change in mindset for them, and one I don’t think they’re really ready for.”

“We have shown that we will campaign for the Labour Party anywhere in the country, whoever the candidate is, to try and get the best result in a general election, and there is no acknowledgement of that from them at all.”

This was, amusingly, echoed by the Momentum activist – if there is one thing all factions agree on, it seems to be that the Labour left needs to figure out what it wants from the party machine it’s in the process of inheriting.

“Momentum nationally had a very good election, it mobilised a lot of people to go to marginals, and got a lot of people involved in campaigning, and that’s a step forward, to go from getting people to vote Corbyn to getting them on the doorstep,” he says, “but it’s another step from actually having a vision of how to transform the Labour Party.”

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.