After the latest U-turn and Orwellian excuses, ANDREW FISHER suggests that when out canvassing, Labour activists need to encourage the public to vote for them quickly, before the policies change
With bigger issues going on at Westminster and around the world, the Labour Party yesterday snuck out another U-turn on one of its progressive policies, one that would bring England and Wales into line with Scotland on the public’s rights of access to the countryside.
On January 13 this year, Labour’s shadow nature minister, Alex Sobel, said, “Our National Parks should be open to all… Labour will expand the right to roam as part of our programme for Government. Our natural spaces are here for us all to share for biodiversity, wellbeing and equity.”
Two weeks later, the policy was formally announced by then Shadow Environment Secretary Jim McMahon, who said: “There are still huge parts of England and Wales that are off-limits when it comes to the right to access, whether that’s woodlands, cliffs, rivers, where the rights that we are afforded in open countryside aren’t then mirrored in those places. That needs to change.”
McMahon has since been replaced as Labour’s environment spokesperson Steve Reed, the MP for Croydon North. And the policy has now been binned. The Guardian reports that Labour had U-turned after “after opposition from some landowners’ groups”.
The Labour Party was founded to take on powerful vested interests, not to capitulate to them.
The opposition of wealthy landowners was known when Labour announced the policy just nine months ago. But Keir Starmer’s Labour is nothing if not inconsistent, and those who thrive in its environs are MPs cast in Starmer’s own image; without vision or principle. Like Reed.
The left-wing Momentum group responded to the latest U-turn by saying, “it’s disappointing to see Labour backtrack”. The country’s only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, tweeted, “So disappointing to see Labour U-turn on extending right-to-roam … I’d urge Labour to think again.”
Dominic Dyer, a wildlife and environmental campaigner – who was chief executive of The Badger Trust for seven years – said it was a “worrying sign of growing influence of landowners and farmers on Labour environment policy”.
The right-to-roam was a flagship policy of the Blair Government. But while the policy had a powerful slogan, the legislation itself was under-powered, and the right-to-roam that became law in 2000 applied to just 8% of England’s countryside.
Until yesterday, Labour had been pledging to create a Scottish-style right to roam in the English countryside. Twenty years ago, it was the then Scottish Labour government that brought in a more expansive policy, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. It maintains a cross-party consensus in Scotland, with the SNP and Scottish Labour backing the policy.
It allows more expansive rights access rights to land, with sensible exceptions such as land on which crops are being grown. It applies to the rights to walking, cycling, horse-riding and wild camping, and access on inland waterways for canoeing, rowing, sailing and swimming.
In May, Labour explained that “like in Scotland… Labour’s right to roam will offer access to high-quality green and blue space in the rest of Britain. We will replace the default of exclusion with a default of access.”
But yesterday, a Labour party spokesperson made this Orwellian statement: “Let me be clear that under Keir Starmer’s leadership, Labour has never committed to a Scottish-style right to roam.”
In 1984, George Orwell wrote: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” And so just as, “Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia”, we must all memory-hole the previous commitments and pretend they never existed. A bit like Keir Starmer has with the pledges he made his leadership campaign.
On July 31, less than three months ago, the then shadow nature minister added some more detail to the Scottish-style policy, pledging that, “Labour would legislate so that people visiting National Parks have the right to wild camp, as well as expanding public access to woodlands and waterways.”
When it was first announced in January, I tweeted enthusiastically for the policy, saying “Good policy and good news from Jim McMahon”.
It is getting to the point where, if Labour announces a policy, instead of analysing it, you should start the timer running to see how long it lasts before the inevitable U-turn. Perhaps any future enthusiasm for Labour policy should be prefaced with: “For as long as this remains Labour policy, it is welcome…”
One should feel sorry for Labour canvassers at the next election. How will they know what are their party’s policies when asked by voters? How can Labour’s dwindling band of dedicated volunteers keep track? Perhaps they could create a sense of urgency by advising people to vote for them quickly, before the policies change.
As the Conservative Party sinks into a quagmire of bigotry, conspiracy theory and in-fighting, its poll ratings collapse and there is a growing consensus that they deserve to be booted out.
But it is hard to muster much enthusiasm for the alternative when they can’t seem to articulate with any consistency what that alternative might be.
- From 2015 to 2019, Andrew Fisher, pictured right, was the Labour Party’s Director of Policy under Jeremy Corbyn. He is a former chair of the Croydon Central Constituency Labour Party. Fisher is also the author of The Failed Experiment – and how to build an economy that works, and in between appearances on Radio 4’s Today programme and BBC’s Politics Live, now writes regular columns for InsideCroydon
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