Turkeys do vote for Christmas: A Small Farm Future Election Special

I don’t make a habit of discussing party politics on this blog, but I guess a few comments on the recent British elections are in order.

Farming was basically a non-issue in the election, but the result has certainly disproved an old agricultural adage. Do turkeys vote for Christmas? Well, now we know that yes, sometimes they do. I’ve often despaired of the way that people so often vote out of unenlightened self-interest. But now that the people of England have voted out of unenlightened non-self-interest I find that my despair is not lessened. There was a turnout of 66.1%, with 36.9% of that figure voting Conservative. I think it’s safe to assume that more than 24% of voters will be hurt by Tory policies. Turkeys. Christmas. Why?

Maybe this story will help shed some light. I make a regular visit to a farm just to the south of Bristol. My journey starts in Frome, a town long past its industrial prime but enjoying a second lease of life as a quirky, arty, post-industrial sort of place. During the election campaign, Frome was green on black: a massive preponderance of Green party political posters against the darkness of the houses. I soon leave Frome and drive ten miles or so to Radstock, and ten miles or so out the other side. These twenty miles of countryside were blue on green: Conservative party posters against the green of the fields. Radstock itself was (mostly) red on black: Labour party posters in the houses, Radstock being a somewhat less post-industrial town than Frome, its last coalmine closing only in the 1970s.

Take a look at the electoral map of the country as a whole, and it seems my journey is pretty much a microcosm of national politics – Scotland excepted. Labour was the party of organised industrial labour, but this support base no longer exists, except in a few remnant and memorialising patches. Labour’s current leftism isn’t radical enough to appeal to the urban sophisticates of the postmodern city, and perhaps too radical to appeal to the regular middle class. But you would have thought that the Conservatives might have lost their support base too. We’re no longer a nation of toffs and aspirant working-class Thatcherites, after all. So those Conservative posters in the fields do puzzle me a bit. What are the Tories offering farmers that makes them so attractive, apart from a few sideshows like the badger cull that was so ludicrous it pretty much cost the Environment Secretary his job?

Partly perhaps there’s a grey area between farmers and landowners, with farming basically being a landowner’s hobby – and I can see that there’s much about the Tories to appeal to self-interested landowners. But I think it also comes down to political metaphor. We’ve become used to politics by soundbite, and maybe the Tories’ ones play better to an electorate long starved of an ability for extended political rumination: stability, hard-working families, fiscal prudence, self-sacrifice, immigrants, Englishness, all of which resonate in our sense of countryside and agriculture. A Tory-friendly press helps too. I think it’ll be a long, hard road to replace that narrative with a more credible one but I guess we have to try.

Oh well, there’ve been a few bright spots. In the simultaneous local elections, here in Frome every single one of the town’s 17 elected councillors came from the ranks of the Independents For Frome – surely an unprecedented result, and based on their solid good work over the last five years. And even the Death Star of Mendip District Council, though regrettably still Tory, now has three infiltrators from the Green Party within its ranks. The bigger national story is the astonishing result in Scotland for the SNP. It’ll be interesting to see how that one plays out, but perhaps the hopeful message is that an anti-austerity localist message can find a receptive audience given the right context. The relative failure of UKIP is also encouraging, the relative failure of the Greens less so. The farce of the first-past-the-post electoral system looms large in the face of the votes to seats ratio of the last three parties mentioned: perhaps the winds of change will have to start blowing on this one.

Meanwhile, it’s worth taking a quick peek at what the major parties did actually say in their manifestos regarding agriculture. Well, that’s easy in the case of Labour – virtually nothing, so perhaps those blue posters in the countryside and the red ones in the old industrial towns become more understandable. There’s nothing whatsoever in the SNP’s manifesto either, which makes it a bit harder for me to enthuse about their David v Goliath localism. The Conservatives say more – mostly about boosting the UK’s competitiveness in food exports and bringing back fox hunting. Not much succour for the small farm or the local food agenda there. It really is a landowner’s and agribusiness charter.

By contrast, there’s lots of stuff on agriculture that I can sign up to in the Green party’s manifesto and, er, in UKIP’s. The Greens were proposing a land value tax to partially replace income tax – quite right too, and long live Henry George. Though speaking of self-interest as I was earlier, as someone with a fair bit of property but not much income I’m not quite sure how this would have played out for me personally in the unlikely event of a Green government – their policies on a sustainable local farm economy look good on paper, but are rather vague. Weak support for farming coupled with an over-enthusiasm for land value tax could easily nail British farming to the wall. But the chances of the Tories introducing land value tax are precisely nil, so for now that problem is wholly theoretical.

As for UKIP – well, they’re surprisingly supportive of organic farming and other earth-stewardship approaches for a party that not so long ago was proposing to ban Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth from schools. You’ve gotta give at least half a brownie point to a party that mentions rare livestock breeds in its manifesto. And though the EU’s farm subsidy gravy train is a soft target, they load, aim and fire at it appropriately enough. Not quite sure who’d be doing all the hard work at the bottom end of the food system once UKIP had sent all the foreigners packing. But I must admit, I’m slightly drawn to their EU exit policy. EU agricultural policy is a real brake on retooling ourselves for a more sustainable small farm future, and exit would also have a salutary effect on all those little Englanders who consider Britain to be a cut above continental Europe – once we realised, too late, what an insignificant little country we really are and how much of our wealth is based on the unearned privilege of messing with other countries’ money, we’d have no option but to throw ourselves back on our own parochial resources, which would probably be no bad thing in terms of sensible agricultural policy. But if it came to a referendum, which I guess it will, I’m not sure I could abandon my internationalism enough to side with the nostalgic imperialist dreamers.

Bottom line message – roll up your sleeves, there’s political work to be done. It’s just that I’m not quite sure what it is. So perhaps instead I should forget about the politics and just focus on producing my veg as best I can. And maybe some turkeys too.

PS. …and talking of birds, I thought I’d put a new header image up since the old one of my farm was so out of date it bore little relation to present circumstances. So here’s a picture of starlings flocking over Vallis Veg’s winter treescape.


15 thoughts on “Turkeys do vote for Christmas: A Small Farm Future Election Special

  1. If your turkeys could vote (and might be reliably counted on to vote your conscience) then by all means… get crackin’ (oops, I suspect that’s not a turkey thing). Turkey’s are having a pretty tough time of it on our side of the pond. Am quite sure our turkeys would be for any party that had health care well represented in their platform (our version of a manifesto I suppose).

    And rare livestock breeds being mentioned in the manifesto – that does sound interesting. This Yankee wonders whether other party manifestos are so full of BS that UKIP figured they might as well put the bull right out front. If so it seems quite decent of them. Or maybe they were thinking pork barrel politics? We seem to have plenty of that on the western shores of the pond.

    The politicos over here are lining up their ducks, rolling up their sleeves, and making hay. Other political metaphors of agricultural provenance will be set aside for now. The next election here is still 18 months off on the calendar, but the cycle is already here. I blame sociologists, anthropologists, and politicos. 🙂

    The crew and I planted some soybeans today, life on that front is good.

    • “I blame sociologists, anthropologists, and politicos” …quite right too, we’ve got a lot to answer for. I’ll look forward to a plant breeder’s perspective on your 2016 elections.

      • Can’t think of anything more dismal than the upcoming 2016. A proud people who once through off the yoke of aristocracy now might face the choice of voting for the next in line of two dynasties. sigh. Time to read my Edward Gibbon again.

    • Do americans use ‘getting our ducks in a line’? Does it have the same origin as here which is a reference to 1970’s working class house decoration as seen in vera duckworth’s house?

      Went on an anti austerity protest yesterday in Bristol called by three teenage girls on twitter. I estimate 10,000 to 15,000 people turned up (on a weekday). We would easily have filled a football stadium. Not one union banner and only one party one (green party). We got to castle park expecting a few standard speeches by the usual suspects to find the organisers paralysed by their own success. They were so cute we all gave them a round of applause. Lovely weather and a brilliantly defiant atmosphere.

      Managed to find a few old comrades and we’re all astonished there is a new generation that is politicised, though this is Bristol which would happily turn out for the slightest provocation.

      I’ve never seen the country in political mourning before, have you Chris?

      • Well, I remember a lot of glum faces after election nights during the 1980s…and after that ‘Nick Clegg, what were you thinking?’ moment in 2010.

        Or do you mean you’ve never seen the countrySIDE in political mourning? Certainly not when the Tories win, since the radical, the poor and the commoners have long been cleared out or marginalised. That’s obviously a challenge for creating a just and sustainable farming future in the UK – something we can perhaps look to learn about from other countries, and from the towns. Perhaps we need a few Bristolians heading out into the country to farm?

      • Hi Tom.
        Not sure about your 1970s reference to Ms Duckworth’s house decoration, but the way we Americans tend to employ ‘getting one’s ducks in a row’ or ‘lining up your ducks’ is merely to prepare – get organized. It seems less problematic than herding cats, but much more complicated than getting a conservative to vote for a tax cut.

        • http://www.corrieblog.tv/hilda%20ogden.jpg

          Sorry ’twas Hilda Ogden not Vera Duckworth. As you can see her ducks aren’t quite in a line suggesting disarray in the household. This was always the image that the came to mind when I heard the phrase and I just couldn’t imagine the same (“vulgar”) fashion for wall ducks made it across the pond.

        • Lining up your ducks vs. getting your ducks in a row… I’d always thought of the two uses as implying the same thing. Though with the hunting angle I do rather like lining up your ducks as the hunting usage. I suppose if you want to arrange your bag limit on the ground for the game warden then you might put your ducks in a row. Still seems an organizational thing though.

          And so long as we’re fretting over the ducks I do want to add that I saw a pair of ducks on the wing just yesterday. A not too common sight around these parts lately.

          • Yes it is an organisational thing over here as well, I was just wondering about its origin. The same with ‘he’s got a chip on his shoulder’ a phrase that means that you have suffered some indignity in the past which you keep reminding everyone even though everyone is sick of hearing it. I always imagine someone with a piece of fried potato on their shoulder when I hear that but am i interpreting it right and what’s its origin?

  2. Thanks all for such a wide ranging discussion, incorporating such eclectic matters as cross-cultural hunting metaphors, British soaps, and the thorny issue of proportional representation. Keep it coming…

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