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Steve Reed interview: 'There’s a definite perception Labour doesn’t get rural voters'

Steve Reed (Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer)

12 min read

Shadow Defra secretary Steve Reed talks to Sienna Rodgers about Labour’s drive to win back rural voters, how the party plans to show respect for the countryside, and his recipe for the perfect roast potato

As the MP for Croydon North and a former London council leader who originally hails from St Albans, Steve Reed, 60, seems an unlikely choice for the post of shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary. But he is known as an attack dog – or, put more kindly, an effective campaigner – and Keir Starmer has given him a clear mission: to convert the countryside to the Labour Party cause.

“There’s a definite perception that Labour doesn’t 'get' rural voters,” admits Reed. “That is reflected in the fact that we only won two rural seats at the last general election. So that is certainly how rural voters feel. 

“We did badly in urban areas, suburban areas, and rural areas. We lost everywhere to everyone, to be frank”

“I think in part that’s because Labour had allowed itself to become viewed as being too much of an urban party, and people living in the countryside felt that a party that urban didn’t fully understand their way of life. 

“Labour has to correct that. We’ve been working very, very hard to engage with rural voters, but also to start treating the countryside with respect and treating rural communities with respect.”

The shadow cabinet member is happy to engage in the self-flagellation that has become a hallmark of Starmer’s Labour, determined as the party is to come across as repentant. “Labour did badly everywhere in 2019,” says Reed. “We did badly in urban areas, suburban areas, and rural areas. We lost everywhere to everyone, to be frank.”

“We have to show that Labour is listening to rural communities in a way that hasn’t been the case in recent years,” he adds, hinting that this was a deficiency not only of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership but Ed Miliband’s too.

Although Reed points to recent by-election victories in Wellingborough, Mid Bedfordshire, and Selby and Ainsty as proof that Labour is “making headway in winning back the trust of rural voters that we’d lost in the past”, he is careful not to sound complacent. “By-elections are not a general election. We know that there’s more work to do.”

The straight-talking front bencher held the justice brief until Labour’s September reshuffle, when he was appointed instead to head the shadow Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) team. It is no secret in Westminster that there had been tensions between Reed and Starmer’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper. These were exacerbated by a briefing war following the release of attack ads that claimed Rishi Sunak wanted paedophiles to walk free. 

The controversial ads aligned with Reed’s punchy style but did not go down well with Cooper, who was known to dislike his “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” outlook, in the words of one Labour insider. (“That’s not how I would describe it,” notes Reed.)

Did his hard-hitting approach make colleagues feel uncomfortable? “No, no, no, no, no,” he replies. He ducks the question on strained relations and instead mounts a defence of his campaigning tactics. “If you look at every single election, for my adult life, the Tories punch hard. And they’ve won the last four general elections in a row. Labour needs to win the next election, and we need to pin the Tory record of failure on the Tories. Otherwise, they will be hitting us, and we won’t be hitting back.”

Labour must make its case “robustly”, he adds. “If we don’t do that as sharply as the Conservatives will do it to us, we will lose the argument. It’s just, sadly, the nature of modern campaigning.”

Steve Reed
Steve Reed (Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer)

Under Reed, Labour has dumped Corbynite policies on rural affairs. Asked about the 2019 promise to re-establish the Agricultural Wages Board, he says: “That manifesto is no longer Labour’s policy platform.” On the pledge to plant two billion trees by 2040, which attracted scorn at the last election, he similarly emphasises: “As I said, that whole manifesto no longer stands. It led us to our worst defeat in 85 years. We’re looking at our policy on tree planting, and I’ll come up with an announcement in due order.”

He also rules out a Scottish-style ‘right to roam’ policy, which would give everyone an assumed right of access to the English countryside. Soft left MP Alex Sobel had endorsed it as a shadow Defra minister last year, before he was sacked and Reed came in. “Our intention is to increase access to the countryside, but in a responsible way, not as a free-for-all,” says Reed.

Some would like to see everyone have the right to a green space within 15 minutes’ walk of their home. What does he make of that suggestion? “It’s a lovely idea, although it’s quite hard to do when you’ve got a heavily urbanised population without access to green space currently,” he says.

“In the new developments – Labour is looking to build 1.5 million new homes over a five-year parliament – I think it’s important that access to green space would be part of the planning decisions that get taken around that.”

One charity putting forward this proposal, the Wildlife and Countryside Link, recently made headlines after it also said, in a submission to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Race and Community, that the countryside has been influenced by “racist colonial legacies” and it is perceived as “a white space”.

The quoted view “doesn’t make much sense to me”, Reed says, but he does not dismiss it entirely. “I represent a very diverse community – my constituency is 65 per cent BAME – and I know there are concerns that some of our citizens from more diverse backgrounds have about going into the countryside, and we need to make sure that the countryside is open and accessible for everybody. 

“You can’t deny there’s that perception. I don’t think it’s to do with racism in the countryside. There are all sorts of reasons: most of our diverse communities live in urban areas, and we probably need to do more, particularly with younger people, to get them out into the countryside.”

Reed recently visited a “fantastic” project in Dartmoor, Shallowford Farm, welcoming young people from inner urban areas so they can experience living and working in the countryside for a few nights. There, they look after animals and learn about food production. 

“It just opened a whole new world to them. One of the things the organisers of that project told me is that for many of those young people, they’ve never experienced complete silence before. If you’re out on Dartmoor at night, there’s no light, there’s no noise,” he explains. “We need to look at more projects like that.”

“It’s reached crisis proportions. We do not have a river in this country that is not polluted with toxic sewage anymore”

The shadow Defra secretary likes to go for walks through the countryside himself and goes camping every summer. “I go off with a couple of friends, we pitch a tent, we cook food on open fire, we enjoy sitting out under the stars late into the night, enjoying the occasional glass of wine,” he says. “It’s so relaxing. It’s so therapeutic. It’s so beautiful.” He even spent his stag do camping.

Unlike Starmer, Reed is a meat eater, and he likes a Sunday roast. So much, in fact, that he has conducted serious research for it. “I once took a week off work in my old job, when I was a publisher, to try and perfect the making of the roast potato. I tried different varieties of potato in different types of oil at different temperatures in order to get the best golden crispy exterior and the softest, fluffiest interior,” he recalls.

“That is a skill that has stood me in very good stead for many, many years ever since.” His top tips? Use Maris Pipers, salt the water well when parboiling, and sling a half a lemon in with the potatoes – he is convinced it gives them more crunch.

So, when the Countryside Alliance says it suspects Labour in Wales will “ban game shooting through the back door”, are they wrong to worry? “We have no plans whatsoever to do anything of the sort. As long as shooting is done responsibly and within the law, then shooting can continue,” he says firmly.

“It’s one of those areas where there are people in the countryside who, for them, that is part of their way of life, and they don’t want urban people like me telling them how they should and shouldn’t live.”

Steve Reed
Steve Reed (Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer)

Another source of controversy in Wales is the Labour administration’s Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS), which has led to protests by farmers who do not want the pressure of planting a certain number of trees in return for post-Brexit subsidies. Reed declines to say whether the SFS should be rethought and instead promises to review how all environmental land management schemes (Elms) are performing.

“I currently can’t do that because the [UK] government, having introduced them, has now refused to publish any interim data about how they’re operating. Until I can see how they’re operating, it’s very difficult to say we’d want to tweak them. My concerns are the government is not publishing the data either because they haven’t collected it, in which case they’re incompetent, or they have collected it and don’t like what it says, in which case they’re trying to cover up failures.”

(When these comments were put to Defra, a spokesperson said: “These claims are incorrect. Our teams have collected and published an abundance of data related to our Environmental Land Management schemes.

“This includes uptake data for the Countryside Stewardship scheme, and we will be publishing further data in this area three times a year going forward. More widely we also publish a bi-annual farmer opinion survey outlining their views on our vision for farming, as well as data on how our £2.4bn funding commitment for the sector is spent – showcasing how we’re delivering for our hard-working farmers.”

Labour has said, however, that Defra has not published data on the outcomes of Elms, particularly the impact on food production and nature restoration.)

“What I’ve said directly to farmers is, I think in principle the Elms make sense, so we’re not going to overturn the applecart, we’re not going to start again from scratch. But I do want to see how we can tweak them to improve them because I don’t think we should be pitching food production and the conservation or restoration of nature as being in conflict.”

In Kent, blockades have been used to express opposition to cheap imports after Brexit. Reed sympathises with the protesters, saying: “Farmers and producers have been extremely badly let down by this government. The Conservatives promised them all sorts, and then did the precise opposite: 6,000 producers have gone bust since 2017, and one of the reasons is the Conservatives erected massive barriers to exports by British producers into Europe.” A new veterinary agreement with the European Union would take down those barriers, he says.

Would Labour introduce – as the National Farmers’ Union urges – targets for food production in the same way there are environmental targets for farmers? “Clearly, we need to do more about food security. Part of that will be working with farmers so that we can maximise production, we want to do that – but in a way that doesn’t cause further damage to the environment, given that we’ve already got one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world,” Reed replies. 

“But there are other levers that we can pull to help with that. The public sector spends £1.5bn a year on buying food. We want at least 50 per cent of that to be locally produced and sustainable.” It seems unlikely this goes far enough to satisfy frustrated NFU members.

Where Labour has a very clear plan is sewage dumping; Reed has identified it as a key voter priority and spends a lot of time in his shadow cabinet role looking – oh, the glamour – at untreated sewage in rivers. 

“It’s reached crisis proportions. We do not have a river in this country that is not polluted with toxic sewage any more,” he says. “I have announced that Labour will ban bonuses for water bosses who are overseeing the illegal dumping of toxic sewage in our waterways. We will hold water bosses criminally liable for repeated and severe law-breaking if they are responsible for it. 

“We will introduce compulsory and independently overseen monitoring of every single water outlet so we know what’s coming out of them, and there will be instant automatic and severe fines for every illegal discharge. Now, give the regulator the power to do all of that, and suddenly you’ve got a regulator that can regulate.”

Reed refuses to countenance the Lib Dem-backed idea of replacing water companies with not-for-profit, community-run organisations, saying he wants to “make a difference quickly” and “if the Lib Dems want to sit there and fiddle with architecture, they can pitch that to the voters – it will mean the waterways will continue to be full of toxic sewage for years to come”. 

But the Labour environment chief is most impassioned when talking about giving communities control over their green spaces. It was Reed’s idea for this House interview to take place at the Rookery in Streatham, a pretty garden managed by a local co-operative he helped set up when leader of Lambeth council.

“Britain is a largely urban society – most of the population lives in urban or suburban contexts – and their green spaces are very, very important to them. That is how they experience nature locally, and we shouldn’t disregard that,” he says, before excitedly showing us his favourite spots in the Rookery.

“You’ve got a lot of kids living in urban areas, brought up in flats without even access to outside space or a garden, who just don’t experience those things. I think all of us should. We live in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. We have incredible countryside. We have incredible green spaces. They need protecting.” 

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