Review of rural manifestosBeing a notorious floating voter who can bob in any political direction, Thursday's decision time creates a void in the pit of my stomach. What to do? Who to support?
Before I grasp the stubby black pencil I want to to know where I'll actually be putting my cross. No point in taking my newsagent's advice "put a cross in every box - then you can't be wrong!"
After weathering the priministerial debates, absorbing the Today programme, Parliament channel, Sky News, CNN and others surely there has been enough material to make a reasonable decision? The problem is the more information, the more muddled it all becomes. The cross roads gets bigger, but the direction no clearer.
To resolve the problem I made a rational and objective study of each party's rural Manifesto - hoping for an answer.
The Conservative tome
The 18 pg Conservative manifesto 'A New Age of Agriculture - Our Agenda for British Farming', with a pastoral cover, is signed by shadow ministers Nick Herbert and Jim Paice. The promise is farming with fewer regulations, fair competition, effective action on animal disease, environmental protection.
Rationalising and improving farm inspections is appealing, and cattlemen will like the promise of positive immediate action on TB and badgers: "We will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas of high and persistent levels of TB in cattle."
The conservatives seem to have cottoned on to the value of bio-gas (which we featured inWinter 2006/7 Vol 15-4 ), and their manifesto says that 3,000 farm based digesters in Germany compare with 20 in the UK. "According to the National Grid, up to half the country’s domestic gas heating could be met by turning waste into biogas..."
With regard to funding, the conservatives say: "We will redirect existing funding to increase the proportion of spending under the rural development programme on measures to help the farming industry modernise and meet future challenges."
The Labour large print
The 10 page Labour manifesto, 'A future fair for rural Britain' has a green cover with felt tip puzzle that looks impossible to solve. Here we have a wider remit but far fewer words. Six of the large print pages carry no more than a paragraph or two. It starts off optimistically, telling us "Rural communities are, by and large, healthier, better educated, happier and less likely to experience crime than those in urban areas."
I soon find myself reading it with a Gordon Brown voice. It's his language - the anonymous authors sound so close to the PM to be uncanny. Here are the facts as he sees them: "We have doubled the size of Labour’s Rural Development Programme..."
The manifesto is quick to tell us what the others would do: "Working with Business Link and the Regional Development Agencies – which the Tories would abolish – we have ensured..." comes on page 2, yet searching the Conservative document I could find no reference to the abolition of RDAs. Later it says in relation to Europe: "The Tory policy of isolation will leave us helpless in defending our interests." Not so positive given how short the document is anyway. The Labour promised policies on TB, market competition and a supermarket Ombudsman (see my blog of Feb 4 2010 ) match those in other manifestos.
The Labour manifesto says "assess the national importance of the County Farm network for providing opportunities for young people to get into food production, and issue guidance for local authorities in how this asset is managed in the national interest " What does this imply? Limited term county council tenancies? - County Councils becoming even involved in farm management? - Parts of CC farms converted into allotments and greater public access?
The Lib-Dem pamphlet
On to the Lib-Dems 'Manifesto for farming and the uplands - change that works for you' gets signed by Nick Clegg and Tim Farron. At 7 pages it is less paper, but more words than Labour. The promises read the same - supermarket regulation - "Reform farm payments, cut waste and ensure farmers get the support they need" sounds all-embracing, as does "Help for hill farmers".
Dig deeper and you don't find much extra substance. A large detailed paragraph is devoted to Lake District lamb producers still affected by Chernobyl whose lambs have to be checked before marketing. But no mention of TB, clearly showing what a problem badgers are to the Lib-Dems as well as farmers. And there's something which is plainly wrong in this sentence: "...our ability to maintain watercourses that have such a crucial role in flood prevention." Where's the evidence that cleaner ditches in farmland reduces flooding? The facts are the reverse - bunged up ditches hold rain water. Farmers in the uplands need to be encouraged to retain heavy rainfall through grassland aeration, not helped to clear ditches.
All manifestos feel the need to flatter, and all promise action on the main issues. Any talent show jury would pick the conservative manifesto as the winner, in terms of detail and presentation. The language is clear, unlike Labour's section on rural youth: "We know that young people in rural affairs often find it more difficult to get work..." Rural affairs? Did anybody proof read it?
Will I now leap into the polling booth, certain of the way I should be voting? Or are there more important things, such as the character, honesty and integrity of the candidates who seek my support? Roll on Friday!
PS Amid all this, a new issue of Practical Farm Ideas is out. No politics, no products, but 48 pages of "Made it Myself" ideas for livestock and arable men, and a helpful piece for all - 'Maxxing your Single Farm Payment'. It is reading that will make any farmer's life easier, more positive and productive, whichever party gets into power.