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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide