Luke Pollard MP: 'Simply attaching the word Brexit means that the government can get away with things'
The sole survivor of Labour’s pre-election Efra team, Luke Pollard has four major Bills plus a climate emergency on his radar. The new shadow environment secretary talks to Georgina Bailey about fisheries, his plans for a coastal renaissance and his determination to stop Brexit standards slipping.
Luke Pollard’s new office is a mess. “You coming here has been good, it’s forced us to tidy it up a bit,” he laughs, after we move coats, bags and a TV screen out of the way to sit down.
You cannot hold the clutter against him though – as well as awaiting a delivery of shelves, the last few weeks have been somewhat busy for the Plymouth Sutton and Devonport MP.
As the last man standing after the election wiped out the rest of the Commons shadow environment team, and with other big hitters like Mary Creagh gone too, Pollard has been furiously waving the green banner for Labour. Although his promotion to shadow environment secretary was less than a month ago, he has had to hit the ground running with the Government publishing all four of its major Efra-related Brexit bills in quick succession: Fisheries, Agriculture, Environment and Direct Payments to Farmers.
“It’s not the circumstances that I would like to be promoted in. I would prefer Sue [Hayman] to have been reelected in Workington,” he says as we meet just ahead of the second reading of the Agriculture Bill in the Commons. “But you’ve got to seize every opportunity to push the climate crisis.”
Pollard has had a rapid ascent following his election in 2017. He was appointed PPS to his predecessor Hayman within a month and made shadow minister for flooding and coastal communities a year later.
What’s it like then, being promoted to serve in shadow cabinet which will no longer exist in a few months? “Liberating! Because you’ve got nothing to lose. We’ve three months and four bills to push the boundaries and talk about the climate emergency in a way that I don’t think this brief has done before.”
Like many of his colleagues on the opposition benches, the climate emergency is intrinsically linked to social justice for Pollard. He wants Labour policies to be “red on the outside, green on the middle”.
“There is a real risk that actually some of our poorest communities end up being the most carbon intensive, and then attract the blame for the climate emergency. We are at risk of having a two-tier response to the climate emergency: those that can afford to decarbonise and those that can’t.”
Pollard is alert to the electoral, as well as environmental, risks of this. “When Michael Gove was in charge of Defra, it really was the heart of government – it certainly was the heart of the grid,” he explains, “Gove pioneered taking what were traditionally Labour issues... and he made it his own.”
Ahead of the election Labour set out their own plans for a Green Industrial Revolution, including a commitment to reach net zero emissions by ‘the 2030s’. However in a campaign dominated by Brexit, the issue failed to cut through. “The real frustration is actually our 2019 manifesto was very good on green. It had a drive and ambition which we haven’t seen from any political party in the UK for, well, forever,” Pollard says.
“The difficulty is that if climate is spoken about as an abstract concept, and decarbonising is a pursuit that sounds difficult, framed in a way that says you’re going to have to stop doing things – well, that’s really hard people to vote for.
“The shadow environment brief fortunately gives me a platform, especially at a time where Labour is involved in a leadership crisis, to push for bolder swift action, but action that doesn’t leave people behind.”
"I fear there will be lots of parliamentary colleagues who will regard lower agricultural standards as a price worth paying for Brexit"
Near the top of the environment agenda is an issue close to home for Pollard: the Fisheries Bill, currently awaiting its second reading. “There’s probably at most a dozen MPs that get fishing in Parliament,” the self-declared ‘Plymouth nationalist’ laments.
“The problem is the Fisheries Bill is not about fishing. The Fisheries Bill is simply about identity. It’s about a post Brexit flag waving exercise... Taking back control of your waters only for the control of those waters to be immediately given away back to our EU friends in the wider trade negotiations – well, that’s just lining up disappointment for our coastal communities.”
Pollard would like to see two fundamental changes to the bill. Firstly, adding a requirement for fish caught under a UK quota to be landed at a UK port. “For every one job at sea, there’re 10 jobs on shore. So if you could double the number of boats landing into Newlyn or Grimsby or Plymouth, you could create hundreds more jobs in those communities.”
The other major change to achieve his “coastal renaissance” would be to redistribute the UK’s fishing quota away from the large multinationals that currently dominate to smaller fishers. “Two-thirds of the employment is generated by the small boat fleet that only has 6% of the quota,” Pollard explains. “I think there’s an opportunity to redistribute even a tiny percentage.”
On the Agriculture and Environment Bills, Pollard is mostly in line with the Government on some of the principles, particularly public money for public good – although, as ever, he wants a lot more detail. His major concern is what isn’t included, namely legal guarantees for animal welfare, environmental and food standards – particularly for imported goods.
“I don’t think British farmers want to drop their standards. I think there’s a risk that in a trade deal it will be permissible for food grown to lower standards to enter our market…what we’re then doing is undercutting our farmers.”
Despite government promises not to lower standards – and widespread public and media concern over a potential US trade deal resulting in imports of chlorinated chicken – Pollard is not reassured. “There is a real risk that simply attaching the word Brexit to anything means that the government can get away with things,” he says.
“The question, when confronted with the blunt realities of post-Brexit trade, is do you want a trade deal with the United States? If so, it comes with access to the NHS and agricultural access with lower standard products – will you accept that? I fear there will be lots of parliamentary colleagues…who will regard that as a price worth paying for Brexit.”
As Pollard points out, the prime minister hasn’t shied away from turning other promises into legislation, including in the recent NHS Spending Bill. But now the precedent has been set, “everyday they refuse to put that commitment [to maintain standards] in law is an extra day where the doubt about their future intentions grows,” he believes.
“I hope I’ve given greater voice to the climate crisis. And shown that you can be bold and radical without necessarily adhering to the old 1970s socialism or 1997 Blairism parts"
Turning to his own benches, what would Pollard like to see from Labour’s next leader? “I want to see, frankly, all the leadership contenders speak more about the climate emergency…[it’s] part of that challenge that we’ve got to rise to as a party if we are to ever be a party of government again.”
Pollard is backing Keir Starmer for the top job – and particularly likes his proposals for a federalist settlement beyond the recently lost heartlands. “There is a massive focus on the north and the midlands because of the change in Labour’s vote share in those communities. But the southwest remains the forgotten region.”
Given he nominated Rosena Allin-Khan to improve the diversity of the deputy leadership ballot (his preferred candidate is actually Angela Rayner), what does he think then of the critiques of Starmer – the only man on the ballot – for standing when Labour is overdue a female leader?
“I think there’s always a strong case for more equality in politics and we’re not there yet. There is an absolute case for more of it…but I’m supporting Keir because I think he’s the best person for the job.”
He wants all the current candidates, plus Clive Lewis, to get jobs in a Starmer cabinet: “That is a shadow cabinet that we can be proud of that shows the breadth and depth of our party.” And – although ideally none of them would take the Efra brief – Pollard knows his time in the shadow cabinet may end come April. He wants his audition period to count either way. “I hope I’ve given greater voice to the climate crisis. And shown that you can be bold and radical without necessarily adhering to the old 1970s socialism or 1997 Blairism parts.
“The weird thing about being a dodgy lefty from Plymouth is that we’re so far away from all those fights, and there’s not enough of us.”
If the new leader doesn’t keep Pollard on, he hopes that the “impatient” approach to tackling the climate emergency will endure. “Whether it comes from the left or the right of the party, I want the right answer. And if I can do that in three months, that’ll be good. And if I do something else afterwards, then so be it.”
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