The left's opposition to badger culls ignores the plight of our farmers

Rural workers' livelihoods are being devastated by TB. Labour should come to their defence.

"Dave" is not his real name. He’s too scared to tell me that. He’s been a farmer in Devon for over fifty years. He loves animals and knows everything about cows. He knows their moods, their temperaments, their individual identities. His family works fourteen hours a day seven days a week to serve and look after their dairy herd of 1,000, hand feeding them when they’re sick and nursing them through birth. It’s work of blood and sweat. He doesn’t shoot badgers, but since the government’s new trials started he’s been scared his family farm might be a target for animal rights activists.

"If I speak to you it will have to be anonymous because we’re terrified to speak up…." He says, "We’re attacked so easily right out here. It’s very isolated in the countryside and no dairy farmer can afford extra security right now."

This autumn a new controversy has split British politics. It’s the biggest rural-urban divide since fox hunting. To deal with the huge number of cattle being infected with TB, the government is piloting badger culls. Sites in the south west of the country will be allowed to shoot these cute little black and white creatures on the grounds that they are spreading this devastating infection that is killing cattle and crippling farmers. If the pilots are accepted and rolled out, some 100,000 badgers could be killed.

Parliament is set to debate the pilots on Thursday. To date, the argument has divided neatly along left and right lines. The new Tory environment secretary, Owen Paterson, says that it’s "sad sentimentality" to worry about badgers when so much damage is being done to the rural economy. On the other side, shadow environment minister for Labour, Mary Creagh, has called on the government to abandon the trial, dismissing it as a "shot in the dark". Brian May isn’t happy and the radical left is advocating the direct action that keeps farmers awake at night . As a self-declared lefty, I know where my team stands. But I disagree - I think our values might be better served supporting farmers.

My worry is this. The left has always been the party of cities and urban areas, growing as it did out of the trade union movement. It has never had enough to say to rural workers, as I’ve argued before. I’m worried that the countryside could be reduced to a play park for urbanites. I’m concerned that it will become a place to protect fauna and fauna, rather than to cultivate jobs and livelihoods. A place to visit at weekends, rather than strive through the weekdays. The Labour Party was supposed to be about labour – the clue is in the name – but we seem to be prioritising the concerns of people without a working connection to the land. How can Ed Miliband talk about being "one nation", when we have so little to offer these rural workers?

My friends say they are not against farmers, they just don’t believe there is any evidence that culling works. The evidence from the Kreb trial – the most thorough and widely quoted research - demonstrated that culling could result in a 16 per cent reduction in TB over nine years. It’s true that the methods used for the current pilots are slightly different – badgers are being shot outright, rather than caught in cages - and there was evidence that TB could be spread further unless hard boundaries are put in place. We can’t dismiss those concerns, but surely if the evidence is divided, the answer is more trials, not a complete lock down?

More research is urgent, because both sides agree that TB is devastating the countryside. We know that it has resulted in some 34,000 cattle being sent to the slaughter last year alone. That figure is worth reading again because it’s almost one death every fifteen minutes. We know that it has cost us as a country some £500 million over ten years. We know that something has to be done.

Farmers are paying for this pilot themselves because they say past experience shows that it works. When David started farming fifty years ago, he used to shoot badgers, and his farm suffered no TB. When EU regulations made badgers a protected species, he stopped culling out of respect for the law. Now there are badger sets everywhere and regular cases of TB are driving them under. This picture has been replicated at a national level. In 1998 less than 6,000 cows were culled for TB, now we’ve had 21,512 in the first half of this year alone.

"We don’t want to kill all badgers," says Dave, "It’s only when their numbers get out of control that they start causing infections. Because they have no natural predators, it’s up to us to keep the numbers down or they take over."

Working so closely with infected animals means that Dave’s son-in-law came down with TB himself. His family stood by as he lay in bed rapidly losing weight and coughing, but they still want to keep going.

"My family wish to carry on farming," says Dave, “My children have been to college and trained to do it. They love it and their children love it. It’s in your blood. There are very few other occupations open to you around here in your 40s."

Animal rights groups and charities say that the answer is vaccines and increased biosecurity. But there is no credible vaccine for cows, and the vaccine for badgers is extraordinarily difficult to implement. The NFU reports that you have to catch each badger in a cage, and then vaccinate them once every year for four years for it to be effective. As for biosecurity, the idea that farmers have enough money to invest in initiatives like full scale separate housing is naïve – and I’m not entirely sure that ending free range farming is desirable anyway.

It’s difficult to explain how difficult life in the countryside already is. Back in Devon, one of Dave’s neighbours has recently gone out of business. The price of milk paid to farmers has been slashed by 4p a litre this year, and supermarkets continue to sell milk at barely the cost of production. It’s been too damp to graze outside, so fodder supplies have been used up and the price of grain is biting. We’ve lost 40 per cent of our diary farms over the last ten years and TB is pushing more over the brink. And all the left is talking about, is the badgers.U

Update: After this article was published, I was contacted by Labour's environment team, who wanted to highlight the work they have been doing for rural communities. In particular, they recently pushed for a parliamentary debate about the government’s decision to abolish wage protection for 152,000 low-paid farm workers, something they say will take £240 million out of rural workers pockets over the next ten years. They say they have also supported dairy farmers' calls for more transparent contracts, and tabled amendments in the Lords calling for the Supermarket Ombudsman's powers to be strengthened. They say they have also highlighted how long-term youth unemployment has gone up faster in rural areas compared to cities in the first two years of this government. Finally, they wanted to point out that this BBC poll found that opposition to the badger cull was fairly similar in rural and urban communities.

Queen guitarist Brian May speaks with protestors as he joins a rally on College Green against the proposed badger cull. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.