Politicians are getting us all wrong

Especially when it comes to food. Sue Pritchard on the electoral power of bold, inspiring food policy.

29th September 2023

“No one wants to be told what to eat.” This old chestnut came up again last week in the Prime Minister’s speech when he vowed to scrap a 'meat tax’, which – confusingly – doesn’t even exist. Many people claim to speak for citizens when it comes to food. But, when you actually ask them, it is fascinating how nuanced and complex a conversation about food is. Ask people about food, and they will tell you about the society they want to live in – one that is fairer, greener and healthier.

According to polling commissioned by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, 78% of people think we need big changes to food in the UK and 82% say it’s important that we are producing food without harming the planet. Interestingly, this is most evident in the red wall seats all parties are so keen to reach.

We found red wall voters are MORE worried about the food they eat than the average UK citizen.

A significantly higher percentage in these seats worry about its environmental impact (64% vs 56% nationally) and 82% want substantial changes to the current food system (4 percentage points higher than the national average). The evidence in the recent State of Nature report will undoubtedly add to their concerns.

It’s not only the red wall seats. Of the 91 seats in which Lib Dems finished second in 2019, 80 are Conservative held. These seats, mostly in the South of England, include rural voters deeply concerned about the environment – not least the filthy rivers around them – while farmers struggle to make a living and food insecurity escalates.

What should politicians do in response? Over the summer, we started a series of public conversations and asked people “what do you really want from food?” The results are now out, and they couldn’t be clearer. People overwhelmingly reject excuses for inaction (like “no-one wants a nanny state”) and expect governments to use their power and resources to tackle the difficult issues. This is consistent across all political groups, even those who characterise themselves as ideologically opposed to ‘big state’ politics. There is widespread agreement, even within this group, that firm government intervention is needed to correct costly market failures, such as rises in pollution and diet-related illnesses.

Citizens want swift, serious, and radical action on food to protect health, nature and the environment.

After a decade of polarising and populist politics, shaped by mysterious and opaque ‘free market’ forces, in hock to vested interests, apparently afraid of their nannies, voters want more thoughtful, relevant and responsible politics. They want urgent action from government, they want better regulation of business, and - critically - they want their voices heard in shaping solutions. 

People are clear on the policies they want a government to implement.

They support restricting junk food advertising; setting higher standards for school and hospital food; placing tighter controls on the marketing and sale of ultra-processed food. They want farmers to be able to produce food more sustainably, with more investment and incentives to farm in ways that benefit climate, nature and health. They want practical help for citizens to eat healthy food, with targeted financial support for people on low incomes.

They are (and this may be surprising for politicians) open to the appropriate use of taxes and regulations to hold businesses to account, and to use the receipts to invest in a fairer deal for farmers and citizens. When they see the scale of profits generated by some businesses through this cost-of-living crises - the commodity traders, the AgriChem businesses, the food processors - they want those businesses to pay their fair share.

Food for thought for everyone watching the party conferences.

Citizens want visible political leadership and a serious plan of action across government. So where will they find the leadership they want, leaders with a real sense of urgency, ready and willing to back citizens who want bold, inspiring and optimistic politics to shape a healthier, greener, fairer future?