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‘Morally bankrupt’: Tories may pay price for ignoring farmers

<span>Rishi Sunak talks to Minette Batters during the National Farmers’ Union conference.</span><span>Photograph: Adrian Dennis/PA</span>
Rishi Sunak talks to Minette Batters during the National Farmers’ Union conference.Photograph: Adrian Dennis/PA

Farmers often feel ignored by Westminster politicians. Now, however, as a general election heaves slowly into view and the fight for the rural vote begins, it was not a huge surprise when the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, turned up at their annual conference.

Sunak told farmers: “I have your back” and waxed nostalgic about the bucolic British countryside and his experience milking a cow.

But after years of very unpopular post-Brexit trade deals and a bungled agricultural transition from EU farming payments, it didn’t feel like this charm offensive landed. The response from the farmers in the hall was muted at best.

Minette Batters, the outgoing president of the NFU, gave both barrels in her speech immediately before Sunak on the “morally bankrupt” decisions made by Conservatives over recent years. She seemed also to take Sunak’s proclamations of love for the British farming sector with a pinch of salt.

It’s no surprise to see the Tories turning up here. Farmers have long been one of the most stalwart cores of the rural conservative vote, but recent polling by the Country Land and Business Association found that people in rural areas are defecting to Labour in huge numbers, with the party’s share of the vote having climbed to 37%, up 17 points on the 2019 general election result, and the Conservatives’ share falling 25 points to 34%.

The Conservatives hold 96 of the 100 most rural seats, but they face losing more than half to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, including those of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Hunt and Thérèse Coffey. The loss of votes among farmers was a factor behind three byelection losses – North Shropshire, Tiverton and Honiton, and Somerton and Frome – to the Liberal Democrats.

The big question at the conference, however, was why Labour had put in such a low-key showing. Sir Keir Starmer and the shadow environment secretary, Steve Reed, were invited to speak at the conference, but declined. They instead sent the junior shadow farming minister, Daniel Zeichner. None agreed to speak to the Guardian about their farming policy.

There is a feeling that Labour is sitting back and watching the Conservatives fail in this politically fraught sector.

Batters implied she did not trust Starmer or Sunak to protect British standards. “Oh gosh, trust is a big word,” she said, adding that Sunak was a huge improvement on former prime ministers Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, who wanted to liberalise trade policy, which would have undercut British farmers.

She is watching to see if Sunak puts core trading standards – that is, not accepting food produced to vastly inferior standards – in the Conservative manifesto. “Really, the Conservatives have to be very, very clear at the next election that they will introduce the Core Standards standard,” she said.

Meanwhile, she is not entirely sure what Labour’s plans are.

“With Starmer, I’m not yet sure what their trade policy is, if I’m honest, and therein lies another challenge. Labour must have policies. They have no trade policy that they have shared publicly.”

Henry Morton, an arable farmer, seemed unconvinced by Sunak’s warm words: “Well, he needs our votes doesn’t he,” he said. “I think he did all right. He’s obviously out there to get as many votes as possible from the farmers but he said some positive things.”

Colin Rayner, who farms in Windsor, is a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative but thinks there is nothing Sunak can do to win the farming vote. He said: “I don’t know if farmers will vote Labour – I think they will stay at home and not vote.”

The Brexit trade deals and phaseout of EU farming payments had left farmers mistrustful of Conservatives, he said, and they may not gain that trust back “for a generation”.

Martin Cockerill, a Yorkshire farmer, was cautiously optimistic about what Sunak said: “I think the realisation that food security is important is finally emerging and he spoke to that. But farming is still not treated as important by politicians in England.”

He seemed pleased that Sunak had talked up his rural background. “He mentioned his neighbour who has a pig farm, and that was striking, that he actually speaks to his neighbour who’s a pig farmer.”

Labour has also chosen to fight on areas that could ignite culture wars and ruffle feathers in the rural community, promising to end the badger cull and end trail hunting, the replacement for foxhunting in which hounds chase a scent rather than a fox. The right-wing press has already accused Labour of “class war” and a “new foxhunting row”.

The Welsh Labour party has also been facing protests from farmers, and Batters has accused the leadership of stealing the future of farmers by forcing them to plant 10% of their land with trees to receive public funding.

Related: I have your back, Rishi Sunak tells farmers at NFU conference

Farmers do seem to warm to Starmer more than Sunak. The Labour leader received a warm welcome at the NFU conference last year and Batters said Sunak was “picking up a lot of legacy” from Truss and Johnson, who were widely regarded as having betrayed rural workers.

But Perkin Evans, a Welsh farmer, told the Guardian: “Look at what’s happened in Wales. There are fears among English farmers that as soon as Starmer gets in, he will cut the farming payments budget.”

Perhaps that need for caution is why Labour politicians have remained so quiet around the flagship farming conference: the rural vote may be up for grabs but there is plenty of anger in these forgotten communities that is ready to ignite.