The heat is on: Labour Conference 2023
Jen Elford, Head of Policy and External Affairs for the Vegetarian Society, reflects on Labour’s latest party conference in Liverpool.
N.B. As a campaigning charity with a rich programme of policy work, the Vegetarian Society holds no party affiliation, but we are determined in our campaigning for animal welfare, the sustainable food agenda, climate, and provision of vegetarian and vegan choices for the public.
We have active representation at all of this year’s major political party conferences – Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Green – to press these agendas and address these issues head-on.
In Liverpool the Mersey is eerily calm, the evening temperatures are unnervingly balmy, and people are not altogether enjoying the unseasonal warmth as the Labour conference gets under way. As temperatures drift above a key climate threshold just this week, and one in three days are now over +1.5 degrees of average warming, it feels like a metaphor for just how much the heat is on for Labour.
At the annual party conference, the halls are alive with talk of Labour’s potential victory in the next election and more specifically their burgeoning intrays: on climate, on health, and on the need for green economic growth and prosperity. Of course, for the Vegetarian Society here at the conference, just about every angle can be covered in no small part by talking about meat.
As a campaigning organisation we are always ready to talk about the interlocking subjects of health, climate and biodiversity. Most of all though, we are looking out for a change of the political mindset on animal farming and meat production: something that would undoubtedly be needed for a ‘new dawn’ under Keir Starmer and something approaching sustainability in the UK.
It is clear that Labour are going to have to cook up something pretty special in terms of health policy to respond to the growing obesity crisis, and if the economy is going to be truly green, creating sustainable growth is undoubtedly going to be an even bigger challenge.
Following on from the Conservatives’ attempts to convince people that a ‘meat tax’ was Labour policy, it is perhaps unsurprising that nobody is talking about it here in Liverpool, although it is disappointing not to hear any voices raised in support of a broader-based carbon and health tax on food, which we think could gain wider support.
What is most striking about this week’s conference is that nobody is talking about meat at all – except, it seems, the Vegetarian Society. In every health session I attend, there’s talk of calories, of the ‘food environment’ and the junk food cycle, but nothing on meat. On environment, I hear talk of beavers and flooding and animals that are endangered, but not of the animals down on the farm. This is a critical omission given we have just seven years to reach the first suggested milestone of a 30% reduction in meat consumption by 2030.
I have to wonder: has the subject of meat, once the new currency in health and environment policy, suddenly fallen clean off the policy wonk’s radar? If it has, our mission this week is clear: to put it firmly back on the political agenda and making our voice heard at each and every session.
Targeting all fringe events on health and obesity seemed a good place to start, with a golden opportunity for us to get vocal. When Attlee’s government instituted the National Health Service in 1948, Labour could not have anticipated the levels of ill-health the country has to contend with today. Granted, rates of infectious diseases have gone down dramatically, but non-communicable diet related ill-health has soared.
With Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer all linked to both meat and poor diet in the UK, it is clear, at least to us, that politicians need to view diet related ill-health as readily preventable, and in a proportion of cases reversible even, with better diet. Hence, we decided that our strategy for the week was to make the point that a wholesale rethink of healthy eating, especially in the public sector, could be key.
Here, I made a start, arguing that vegetarian and vegan meals should be a really big part of that rethink on food. In particular, that introducing special menus in schools, hospitals and workplaces as a way to roll out plant-based, healthy and climate friendly meals to more and more people who want them, should be a serious policy contender. People listened. It felt like progress.
Of course, my days at conference were not solely focused on health. Splitting each day between environment and health events, I headed to a session run by the Institute for Public Policy Research on how tackling climate risk can fuel economic prosperity, and to hear the speaker Miatta Fahnbulleh, CEO of the New Economics Foundation. One mention of Denmark as a model for energy transition and I’m up on my feet. I put it to the panel that Denmark is ahead of the curve, not just on energy but on plant-based innovation too. Denmark has a $190m fund to boost plant-based farming and to set new healthy and sustainable eating guidelines, in a bid to create a circular and sustainable green economy for the country. Couldn’t the UK learn something from this model, I suggest, and import something from the Danes other than bacon?
After the event I find myself alone with Ms Fahnbulleh in the lift. As she happens to also be the Labour parliamentary candidate for Camberwell and Peckham, I take my opportunity to do a true elevator pitch. We discuss everything from that need for community action on increasing access to vegetarian and vegan food, to the national agri-economic opportunity that lies in farming more plant-protein crops, and all between floors 4 and 1. Clearly, Ms Fahnbulleh truly gets it, and I look forward to talking with her again should she get elected.
At least some people are talking sense about food, and none more so than at the session on free school meals. Owing to the dogged determination of Labour MP Sharon Hodgson, the issue of universal school food has risen up the policy agenda over the last 20 years. Indeed, there’s now a national campaign led by a well-known red-top newspaper who are sponsoring the conference event.
During the panel discussion there’s much talk of how great school food is, and I take the opportunity to put the record straight. It is clear from our current survey ‘School food: good or bad?’ that this is not always the case for vegetarian and vegan children and much needs to be done. Afterwards, I get to speak to Hodgson one-to-one, and she says as we walk and talk between sessions that she’d be keen to follow the issue up with me once conference is closed. Here with a seasoned campaigner and former children’s minister, there’s openness at least on the issue of meat-free food.
It’s a hectic four days, and after numerous panel sessions, there’s plenty to think about; so much to do to ensure that vegetarian and vegan issues remain on the political agenda, and so much for the Vegetarian Society to campaign on moving forward.
As I sit down to write this blog in the Fab Four café on the waterfront, the Beatles’ track ‘Let It Be’ is playing. Later, as I go to leave, the wind has picked up and it’s suddenly distinctly colder. I battle my way against the stiff breeze back towards the conference centre. I think as I go that the last thing we will be doing at the Vegetarian Society is ‘letting it be’.
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