Shadow Brexit Minister, Jenny Chapman MP, said that “the mother of all battles” was going to take place in Parliament as Brexit legislation is debated over the next few months, and promised that Labour would win some of those battles given the Government’s small majority in Westminster.
Speaking at the Countryside Alliance fringe event at the Labour Party Conference on Monday (25 September), Ms Chapman said that Labour was focused on the outcomes of Brexit, which included maintaining high standards in food production and environmental protection. The Darlington MP said it would be wrong for Labour to commit to staying in the Single Market and Customs Union at this stage of the Brexit process, but did say that retaining tariff free trade with the EU for food was a “red line” for Labour, and said that the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal “sent a shiver down my spine”.
She acknowledged that if Labour wanted to govern again it needed to win the trust of rural communities and gave a commitment that “it is never again going to happen – when we have an election where a part of the country is ignored [by Labour]”.
Fellow MP, Helen Goodman, who represents Bishop Auckland in County Durham, raised the importance of farming for rural communities in her constituency. She said that hill farming in particular was extremely important for the environment and tourism, and claimed that the low incomes of these farmers made them vulnerable to changes in trade and agricultural policy which Brexit will bring.
Will Straw, who led the campaign to stay in the EU during the referendum, urged Labour to commit to staying in the Single Market and Customs Union as the only way to avoid the “fiscal hit” of the leaving the EU. Along with trade, he said that immigration, support payments, and environmental policies would be key and urged Labour to put the countryside “front and centre” of the Brexit process.
Tobias Phibbs, from the Fabian Society, said it was important to think about why so many people in rural areas voted to leave the EU. He claimed that “globalisation had not worked for the countryside” but warned that this could be made worse by rushed trade deals, and urged Labour to oppose a “race to the bottom” approach in farming and foods standards.
Liam Stokes, from the Countryside Alliance, spoke from his experience of standing to be a Labour councillor in a rural seat in Wiltshire where Jeremy Corbyn was brought up. He urged the party to acknowledge that it had a “rural problem” which needed to be addressed through a change of identity as well as policy. He explained that farming is an important part of the culture of the countryside and therefore Labour needed to engage with agricultural issues if it wanted to win trust in rural areas more broadly.
Over 40 people attended the meeting with delegates from across country as well as stakeholders and parliamentarians. It was a lively debate on issues which are likely to dominate this Parliament.