Listening to rural voices
The roots of the Labour Party have always been very closely associated with the urban working class – representing the men and women in our towns and cities. In Scotland particularly, the party has – even considering the 2011 elections with a swing towards the SNP – a significant power base in the central belt and in particular, the urban sprawl of Glasgow.
However, Claire Baker, who is now more than a year in to her role as shadow cabinet secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, is keen to challenge this image.
“If you look at Labour’s history within the Scottish Parliament, there are points when we’ve been very strong in rural areas.
“In this parliament, with a shift from more constituency to more regional MSPs, Labour MSPs represent every community in Scotland for the first time, so rural communities across Scotland have Labour representation.
“There are Labour MSPs who are representing South of Scotland or Highlands and Islands who do take a real connection to their communities very seriously and do make sure those rural voices are heard within party policymaking processes.”
As well as more experienced hands, like David Stewart and Rhoda Grant, she says that some of the newer intake, like Claudia Beamish – who is shadow environment and climate change minister – and Graeme Pearson, are among those MSPs active on rural issues.
“I’m actually quite encouraged when it comes to having debates in parliament,” she says. “You know, it’s easy to fill a health debate, but I’ve actually found people have been quite willing to take part in the debates we’re having in parliament around the rural and environmental issues.”
This demonstration that the party is not just about the big cities like Glasgow is important for the party as it looks towards future elections. “There’s always this assumption with Labour, but the models we see being successful in rural communities – a cooperative model, or more local decision making – those things are really quite key to Labour’s thinking.” She adds: “I think we do have a track record of working for rural interests.
“At the moment, you’ve got the land reform discussions ongoing – it was Labour in the early days of devolution who brought forward the land reform legislation – that was landmark legislation.” Baker says a big part of her speech, at the party’s conference in Inverness, will be about rural communities and the land reform agenda, and says that now is a good time to reflect on the successes of the policy and how it can be improved. Recently, though, the issue of land reform has seen the current government come in for criticism.
First Environment Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, had to reverse a decision made by government officials – who had sold on the sporting rights for the island of Raasay. Only a few weeks later, he announced the Government would be looking again at crofting legislation after challenges over the current rules on decrofting.
“There’s been problems with it,” Baker says. “I’ve been quite critical of the Government on crofting issues. I think there’s been an element of complacency around crofting and the mistakes that were made around Raasay. This year there’s been two areas where the Government has been found to have let down the crofting community.”
The Government has set up the Land Reform Review Group which will be reporting back in a draft report in December this year, chaired by Dr Alison Elliot, and Baker says: “There has been a need to move on with the land reform agenda and I welcome that we have consultations that have started, but the timescales for any kind of outcome are pretty long.
“There are strong interests within land reform, it’s a very emotive subject, but there is a need for politicians to be bold and to do what is the right thing.” Baker is also taking part in a fringe meeting at the Inverness conference on winning in rural communities – something that she is stressing is happening more often.
“If you look at the local government results, we got a seat in Aberdeenshire for the first time and in Fife we got a seat in St Andrews for the first time, you started to see Labour successes in rural areas.
“There’s been a bit of progress and we still have more to do – but we have good activists in rural areas and people who are committed and I know we have commitment from the Labour leadership.” Previously she was her party’s HE spokeswoman and then briefly, shadow education minister, she then made the move to the environment brief in late 2011.
The last few months have seen several exchanges occur between her and SNP ministers – where she was particularly critical of the Scottish Government’s response to the discovery of horsemeat when it was discovered in beef products sold in Scotland – a scandal that had affected countries across Europe.
Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead has previously defended the response, saying that within days of the first discovery of horse DNA in a burger tested in Ireland, he had asked the Food Standards Agency in Scotland to investigate. He had, in turn, criticised opposition politicians for failing to raise the issue in parliament.
But Baker says: “I think the Government were slow to react when this scandal first broke, they were slow to give advice to Scottish consumers and to be clear about the role of the Scottish FSA.” She has criticised cutbacks in environmental health officers and meat inspectors and although the Food Standards Agency Scotland has moved to a more risk-based approach to try, she added: “It is a very complex picture, but I think this is the best time to reflect on, do we have the right system in place.
“I think this is the right time to reflect on do we have the right system in place to ensure that we see quality in Scottish produce – not just quality in terms of producers and farmers, but also quality regardless of what your budget is and what you can afford to buy.”
The debate over food is a far larger one for her, though. She championed the efforts of the campaign group, Fife Diet, in a parliamentary debate last year and wants a wider discussion on food issues. “You have food and drink as being a key area of SNP economic policy and I recognise the importance of our exports but at the same time, we see food banks on the rise throughout Scotland.”
Hers has been one of the voices criticising the Government over its most recent efforts to tackle climate change – the draft Second Report on Policies and Proposals (RPP2) was debated in parliament before Easter with its measures outlined to cut carbon emissions over the next 14 years.
She says: “There is a lack of confidence that what is on the table will deliver” on those targets – which is to cut CO2 by 42 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050, with yearly targets to meet as well.
She, along with other opposition party representatives, wrote to Nicola Sturgeon, urging quicker action on introducing minimum standards of housing, and she also wants more investment in, for example, public transport.
However, a particular source of frustration is that climate change in the Government is not covered by a cabinet post: “The SNP always use that line that every minister is a climate change minister, but I don’t really see the evidence of that,” she says.