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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Green party calls on Labour, Lib Dems, and Plaid Cymru to form a "progressive alliance" next election

Will Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron and Leanne Wood agree to meet for talks?

The Green party leadership have called upon Labour, the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru to work together to challenge the Tories at the next election. In an open letter, the Green leaders stress the exceptional circumstances occassioned by the vote to leave the EU:

“In a spirit of openness and transparency, we are writing to you as leaders of parties which oppose Brexit, to invite you to a cross-party meeting to explore how we best rise to the challenge posed by last week’s vote to Leave the EU.  

“We have a UK Government in chaos, an economy facing a crisis and people up and down the country facing serious hardship. There is an urgent need to make a stand against any austerity and the slashing of environmental legislation, human and workers’ rights, that may come with Brexit. 

“With the growing likelihood of an early General Election, the importance of progressive parties working together to prevent the formation of a Tory-UKIP-DUP government that would seek to enact an ultra-right Brexit scenario is ever more pressing.

Caroline Lucas shot down a rumour that she would be joining Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. But her party has decided to call for a progressive alliance and an early general election. 

Key to such cross-party talks would be the demand for electoral reform, as the leader Natalie Bennett added in a statement:

“Central to such a progressive alliance would be a commitment to proportional elections for the House of Commons and an elected second chamber.”

The call for a more plural politics follows a post-referendum surge in Green party membership, with up to 50 people joining per hour.

Here’s the letter in full:

Open letter to: Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron, Leanne Wood on behalf of Green Party of England and Wales,

In a spirit of openness and transparency, we are writing to you as Leaders of parties which oppose Brexit, to invite you to a cross-party meeting to explore how we best rise to the challenge posed by last week’s vote to Leave the EU.  

Britain is in crisis and people are scared about the future. Never have we had a greater need for calm leadership to be shown by politicians.  

We have a UK Government in chaos, an economy facing a crisis and people up and down the country facing serious hardship. There is an urgent need to make a stand against any austerity and the slashing of environmental legislation, human and workers’ rights, that may come with Brexit. 

With the growing likelihood of an early General Election, the importance of progressive parties working together to prevent the formation of a Tory-UKIP-DUP government that would seek to enact an ultra-right Brexit scenario is ever more pressing.

This is an opportunity to recognise that a more plural politics is in both the Left’s electoral and political interests. This crisis exposes the absurdity of our first past the post electoral system.  Just 24 per cent of those eligible to vote elected the government that called the referendum. The only fair way to proceed is to have a proportional voting system where people can back the politicians who they believe in, rather than taking a gamble and not knowing who they will end up with.  

The idea of a progressive alliance has been floated for several years, and proposals have once again been put forward in the context of the current crisis.  We believe that the time has come to urgently consider such ideas together in the context of a Westminster Government. We recognise the very different political situation in Scotland, given the strongly pro-EU majority there. We hope that co-operation between progressive parties their can ensure that this mandate is respected, and we will support them to keep all options open.

We look forward to your response,

Natalie Bennett, Leader of The Green Party of England and Wales

Steven Agnew MLA, Leader of the Green Party of Northern Ireland

Alice Hooker-Stroud, Leader of Wales Green Party

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.