In some ways, Tom Williams was an unlikely hero of British agricultural workers. After all, as a coal miner, he was associated with heavy industry before entering parliament for the Don Valley seat in 1922. As a cabinet minister, however, he made his name at agriculture, a post he held throughout the period of Clement Attlee’s Labour government from 1945 to 1951.
Williams’ flagship piece of legislation was the 1947 Agriculture Act. The first section was clear in its objectives: ‘The following provisions of this Part of this Act shall have effect for the purpose of promoting and maintaining, by the provision of guaranteed prices and assured markets for the produce mentioned in the First Schedule to this Act, a stable and efficient agricultural industry capable of producing such part of the nation’s food and other agricultural produce as in the national interest it is desirable to produce in the United Kingdom, and of producing it at minimum prices consistently with proper remuneration and living conditions for farmers and workers in agriculture and an adequate return on capital invested in the industry.’
The twin aims are laudable. On the one hand, Williams sought to produce a sustainable business in agriculture, but, on the other, to ensure that those who worked in the industry were able to do so in good conditions. Williams then created the Agricultural Wages Board in 1948, which not only protected wage levels, but also ensured that workers were provided with accommodation. Thus, in the postwar era, it was a Labour government that sought to create a fairer society in rural areas, not the Conservatives.
Indeed, in the modern day, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government wants to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board as part of the enterprise and regulatory reform bill. The Tory environment secretary Owen Paterson dismissed Williams’ creation as: ‘the last throwback to an era where these councils did a worthy job’. But the Agricultural Wages Board is not some sort of historic relic. It still sets wage levels for over 150,000 workers.
Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh accurately summed up the problem: ‘We don’t want to see either a race to the bottom on wages or a great increase in the amount employers charge workers for their tied accommodation …’ She added: ‘It means lower wages for farm workers, and a hit to the countryside’s economy of £260m out of village high streets over 10 years. The Tories and Lib Dems are creating a race to the bottom in rural wages, hitting living standards and increasing social deprivation. We in the Labour party believe that the people who grow and pick our fruit should also be able to afford to buy it in the shops. We a need a One Nation plan for the countryside to tackle the rural cost of living crisis, protect buses and public services, and invest in rural jobs and growth.’
If this bill receives royal assent and is implemented, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will have forfeited any claim to speak for farm workers. Not content with squeezing living standards, the coalition government is allowing wages to be driven down, and in doing so seeking to reverse gains made by working people over 50 years ago.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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