THE BLOG

On 'Betrayal' And Badgers

31/08/2016 16:52
Michael Sullivan via Getty Images

All of us who resigned from Labour's front bench have come in for criticism in recent weeks, and sometimes abuse. Having stood down from the shadow Environment brief, I've had people expressing a particular kind of disappointment. There were those who saw my appointment as a real chance for Labour to adopt a more radical green and animal welfare agenda. I've been told I've "betrayed the badgers" and "left innocent animals to die". That I have abandoned my principles, betrayed my core beliefs: "Your principles are trumped by your allegiance to the PLP, even your veganism is usurped" said someone on Twitter.

Many saw my appointment - a vegan in the Defra brief - as vindication of their belief in Jeremy Corbyn. Again from Twitter: "only an open-minded, progressive, left-wing, independent, courageous person like Corbyn would give you that opportunity".

The idea that Jeremy handpicked me for the Environment job because I'm vegan, and all that goes with it, is a bit far from the truth. I wasn't the first person to be offered the job. Gloria de Piero was asked and turned it down. Others may have been approached too; Defra isn't everyone's dream job! And Jeremy didn't know I was a vegan then. I told the Chief Whip when she called to make the offer, warned there'd be some flak; she passed the phone to Jeremy and I had the same conversation with him. He did say to me on a later occasion, that he'd had many more people praising my appointment than criticising it, which I appreciated.

When the shadow Defra team had its first - and only - meeting with Jeremy in the Leader's Office, I set out in detail where I wanted to push the policy agenda: on food, farming, air pollution, the circular economy, animal welfare, and more. Defra may be a small department but it's a very wide brief. He agreed with the concerns I raised about TTIP's impact on food standards, animal welfare and the environment, and said he'd convene a meeting of relevant Shadow Cabinet ministers to discuss TTIP more broadly, although that didn't come to anything. Jeremy sent us away with two asks: he wanted us to look at agricultural colleges and market gardens.

That was the only steer we got during my nine months in the job. Obviously my brief wasn't up there with the major issues that would demand a Leader's almost daily attention, such as health or the economy, so for most of the time I just got on with it, without much contact with Jeremy's office. There were areas of policy which were quite time-consuming - such as our review of Labour's waste strategy, or wrestling with how farming could be made both more economically viable and more environmentally sustainable, and of course, flooding. We worked hard, and scored the occasional 'win'. An urgent question challenging the Government's reluctance to apply to the EU Solidarity Fund for financial support for flood-hit areas forced a U-turn, as did our opposition to Government plans to deregulate statutory Animal Welfare Codes, which would have handed over control to the pig and poultry industries.

When the Leader's office did venture into Defra territory, they didn't talk to the shadow team. We weren't consulted before Jeremy made his call for the pumps in Bridgwater, Somerset to be moved up to the flood-hit areas of the North, which he later had to backtrack on. And we weren't asked for our input before Jeremy led on air pollution at PMQs: an issue we'd been doing a lot of work on, challenging Government complacency and inaction in the context of the Client Earth court case and the Volkswagen scandal. His office was clearly under-staffed and in a bit of a muddle. Letters to Jeremy on Defra issues were passed on to us months later for a reply.

He occasionally had ideas. He told me he wanted to visit Pickering, in North Yorkshire, to see their work on natural flood defences, after reading an article in the Independent about it. But despite months of trying, we couldn't get a date from his office. After a visit to Ecotricity in May he decided he wanted Labour to have a rural conference, in late summer, in Stroud. I had my reservations, as party staff would be tied up with Annual Conference at that time of year, but I pulled together some thoughts, and tried to follow up with his office - to no avail. We also spent months trying to set up a meeting between Jeremy and key environmental groups from the Green Alliance; we eventually got a date in the diary but the Leader's office cancelled it after my resignation.

In February I put together a very detailed PLP brief for the EU referendum campaign on the impact of Brexit on the environment, with some input from the shadow DECC team too, and submitted it for approval. I thought it would help Labour to reach people who were left cold by the transactional nature of the EU debate. That it might inspire young people in particular, and help MPs doing local debates. I also thought it was something Jeremy might feel more comfortable with. But it was sat on for months before it saw the light of day.

Jeremy did start to mention "important environmental protections" during the EU campaign although it was David Cameron who visited RSPB Rainham Marshes to highlight the issue. At one point he mentioned bees. (To those journalists on Twitter asking what the hell he was on about, it's a topic on which MPs have received hundreds of emails, so it's not "that" obscure). There was actually a very valid point to be made, if it had been developed properly, about the UK Government's opposition to an EU-wide ban on neonicotinoid pesticides: a good example of what 'taking back control' would mean under a UK Government with an ideological aversion to regulation. But the point wasn't really made, so people were left a bit baffled.

Jeremy also accused the Government of "gassing badgers". Months earlier I'd asked him to reaffirm Labour's opposition to the cull when he got a chance, as people had, somewhat unfairly, been accusing him of going quiet on what he'd said during the 2015 leadership campaign. We hadn't heard anything since, and were a little surprised to hear him bring it up during the EU campaign. The cull is actually about shooting badgers, not gassing them - gassing was outlawed in 1982 - so that was a bit of a 'head in hands' moment in my office, but no-one else seemed to notice. It's just another example of how things could have worked out better if we'd worked together.

On badgers - we've heard this week that culling will be rolled out into new parts of the country, despite the reams of evidence that culling is ineffective, unscientific and inhumane. We all want to eradicate bovine TB, but culling is not the answer. I was told after my resignation that I "could have stopped the badger cull" by staying in post. Well, no, I couldn't. This year's roll-out of the cull is an executive decision. It doesn't require a parliamentary vote. Subject to Natural England granting licences - which is little more than rubber-stamping - it's entirely in the Government's gift. And we are not in Government.

True, if I'd stayed in the Defra job, I'd have had a louder voice. But my predecessors, Mary Creagh and Maria Eagle, did a great job vociferously opposing the cull, and look where it has got us.

So this brings me on to why I resigned from the post of Shadow Environment Secretary. I accepted a place in the Shadow Cabinet in the first place, when others refused to serve, because I thought it was important to honour Jeremy's mandate, and to try to make things work. Although I hadn't supported Jeremy in the 2015 leadership contest, I was as frustrated as many other members were with the excessive caution and timidity at the heart of Labour. It felt like the chains had been shaken off, and there would be space to be a bit more radical, a bit more ambitious with our environmental policy.

And although I didn't feel there was much buy-in from the Leader's office, I was prepared to carry on ploughing my own furrow, metaphorically speaking. But my concern steadily grew over what I was hearing from colleagues, such as Heidi, Thangam and Lilian, and what I was seeing at shadow cabinet meetings, where Jeremy tended to read from a prepared script, didn't respond to our questions, and didn't convey any sense of strategic direction or leadership.

At one PLP meeting Jeremy started talking about how vulnerable people "were being forced to borrow money from hedge funds". Angela Eagle and I caught each other's eye. Did he really not know the difference between loan sharks and hedge funds? And, again at PLP, Emma Reynolds asked Jeremy if he "supported big businesses like Jaguar Land Rover who employ thousands of people in my constituency". His answer was "of course I'm aware that big businesses exist and I'm also aware that many of them don't pay their taxes". He simply couldn't bring himself to express support.

Another example, albeit from after my resignation: Jeremy came in for a lot of criticism for saying on June 24th that Article 50 should be triggered "now". At the PLP hustings a few weeks later he showed he still hadn't got his head round the process, responding to a question from Meg Hillier by saying "we have two years in which to trigger Article 50". But the two years comes after Article 50 is triggered. It's how long we have before we actually have to leave the EU. That lack of grasp, when he'd presumably been prepping for such a question, bothers me.

It was during the referendum campaign, when the stakes were so high, and at the two-and-half hour shadow cabinet meeting on June 24th that my growing concern, tinged with exasperation, turned into despair. I felt it would have been self-indulgent and an abdication of responsibility to continue in a job I loved, keeping my head down, rather than facing up to what was necessary to give the party a fighting chance of winning a general election.

It is vital now we chose a leader who can bring the party together and who can provide an effective and dynamic opposition to a new Tory government which tries to present itself as occupying the centre-ground, but has in fact moved firmly to the right.

I will absolutely do all I can, as a backbencher and a South West MP, to campaign against the badger cull, and I will continue to highlight other animal welfare and environmental concerns. Since resigning I've spoken in a debate about banning snares, and I was at the Hen Harrier Day rally at Rainham Marshes. I told campaigners I would front up the parliamentary debate on driven grouse shooting if the petition got to 100,000 signatures, and now that it has, I will keep that promise.

In the two weeks that Parliament is sitting in September, I have in my diary debates in Westminster Hall on the badger cull and on South Korea's dog meat trade, plus events hosted by the League Against Cruel Sports, the RSPB and IFAW. I have also joined the Environmental Audit Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the environmental impact of Brexit and has just published an excellent report calling for a ban on microbeads. My commitment to these issues has in no way diminished.

But I didn't come into politics to just say things. I want to do things. It would be easy for me to spend my time speaking at rallies and events like VegFest, addressing animal welfare campaigners and conservationists, telling people how much I agree with them, and soaking up the applause. I would feel good about myself, and they would feel good about me.

But what counts is who is sitting at that desk in Defra, giving the go ahead for badger culling to start next week. My fear is that unless Labour starts to get serious about getting back into government that will never be us.

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