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International Socialism, Summer 2001


John Lister

We’ll fight them in the hedgerows

Socialist answers to the crisis in the countryside


From International Socialism 2:91, Summer 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


There are no peasants left in Britain. The country which first saw the industrial revolution is now one of the most urbanised in the world. As a result the workers’ movement which has emerged from two centuries of industrialisation has few remaining links with the dwindling numbers of agricultural workers, some of whom (like the Tolpuddle Martyrs) led the earliest battles for trade union rights.

The policies of the trade union and labour movement reflect this one-sided development, but so too does the electoral map of Britain – 76 percent of the land area of the country is devoted to agriculture, and therefore ‘rural’. These large areas return predominantly Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs, while Labour’s core vote – and the vast majority of the forces of the far left – remains largely based in the big cities.

A strategy to achieve socialism in Britain clearly has to begin with the organisation and mobilisation of the working class. But the working class does not just live in big towns. Sections of workers have always lived in smaller market towns and in rural areas, some of them working locally and others being forced to travel to and from big cities to find employment. Many mining districts, for all their concentration of proletarian labour, were geographically located in the countryside.

And the working class does not always readily conform to the limited and rigid sociological definitions based on the industrial economy of the past. Some workers are made redundant, and invest their pay-off money in a small shop, or a part share in a small business related to their work. Others aspire to going freelance, becoming self employed. Hotel workers and chefs often work and save with a view to opening a place of their own. Many of these soon discover that it is not just employees who are exploited by big capital – banks, major industries, landowners – but small businesses as well. This conflict can make them potential allies of the working class, but the process is by no means automatic.

In the same way, a policy for rural workers also has to address the issue of the rural economy and challenge the grip of the reactionary bosses’ parties on political life in the countryside. And this in turn, in the current situation, means addressing the issue of farming and – though the very phrase is anathema to many on the left – small businesses.

Britain’s rural crisis

The countryside is under siege and thousands of animals are being slaughtered and burned as the foot and mouth outbreak spreads inexorably further across Britain. This latest blow to the dwindling number of British farmers and to rural communities comes after a succession of food safety scares, and a collapse in the market price of pigs, sheep and cattle.

This had brought a crisis even before the first outbreak of foot and mouth was confirmed. Figures for last year show average farm incomes in Wales have fallen to just over £4,800, and in Scotland to just £3,800. This helps underline the fact that the once rich pickings of EU subsidies are just a fond memory for many small and medium-sized farms.

This dire financial situation, with farm prices hammered ever lower by the monopoly purchasing power of a handful of profiteering supermarkets, has led to an exodus from farming and a frightening rate of suicide among farmers. Against this background the hollow claim of the so called Countryside Alliance to represent the needs and demands of the rural population has been starkly exposed.

The protest march they had threatened to mobilise on London – and which was postponed because of the foot and mouth epidemic – was nothing to do with the plight of small farmers, their low paid workforce, the closure of village shops and post offices, or the absence of public transport or other key services in rural areas. It was purely and simply against the abolition of foxhunting, a pursuit cherished by the rural rich.

The countryside has become a reservoir of low pay, under-employment and deprivation for working families. The closures of coal mining and many other traditional industries have also left large pockets of working class communities living in ‘rural’ areas, facing long journeys if they are to find work in local towns.

But for the wealthy, with their large houses, holiday homes, leisure pursuits and four-wheel drives, the countryside remains a playground. The polarisation between rural rich and rural poor has widened with the privatisation of bus services and the collapse of much of the rural economy.

And as the squeeze tightens on agriculture, it is only the biggest farms which have the reserves and the margins to ride out the rough times and wait for a future return to profitability. Yet the domination of agriculture by these big farms, linked in with the development of agribusiness at a national and international level, has been a factor in the eruption and spread of foot and mouth disease. The new pattern of farming and food production involves the routine transport of 1.3 million live animals a month from one end of Britain to the other. Many are now taken huge distances for slaughter in the reduced number of larger abattoirs, following the closure of much of the network of smaller, more local abattoirs in order to cut costs.

Not only are there issues here of animal welfare, arising from the vast increase in avoidable distress and suffering to those animals that are shipped in crowded trailers, but the system appears almost designed to maximise the risk that a health problem in one area can rapidly spread to other areas throughout the country – especially if it is a disease as infectious as foot and mouth. There has also been a massive increase in the export of live animals to Europe and beyond. The number of animals shipped across the Channel has increased more than fourfold since the big protests at the trade in veal calves highlighted the issue a few years ago.

At the same time the global market in foodstuffs and the constant search of the supermarkets and food processors for the cheapest possible supplies have led to a rising tide of imported meat from countries around the world, some of which have been wrestling with declared – or undeclared – outbreaks of foot and mouth. Tony Blair’s New Labour government has become one of the leading proponents of the virtues of the global economy and the free market system. Under Labour the supermarkets have continued to reign supreme, pocketing billions in profits while squeezing food producers at home and abroad to the point of bankruptcy. Now even Blair himself has been forced to question the ‘stranglehold’ of the supermarkets – though New Labour is unlikely to muster the strength of will to do anything about it.

Why should socialists and the workers’ movement care about the plight of the small farmers? Of course many workers see farmers as whingeing, grasping, tax evading, subsidy grabbing spongers, whose lust for profit has given us a succession of food scares including BSE. But last autumn’s fuel tax protests helped point to the disaffection of important sections of the middle classes – the ‘petty bourgeoisie’, small producers, self employed lorry drivers and small farmers.

Some of us on the left argued then that the labour movement should not ignore the problems these people were raising, but take on and fight for progressive policies that could tackle them. We pointed out the lesson of history – that desperate sections of the petty bourgeoisie can easily turn towards the reactionary right if they see no positive response and leadership from the left.

The same is true of the rural poor and the small farmers facing ruin in the current crisis. The Socialist Alliance has for this reason taken up the call for policies that address the underlying problems in the countryside, which in most cases flow from the operation of New Labour’s new-found business friends – banks, agribusiness and supermarkets. This is why the government has been so ineffective in tackling the deep-seated problems of the countryside and so easily manipulated by the main lobby group of British agribusiness, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

To mount a genuine political challenge in the countryside today, socialists have to drive a wedge between the working class and the exploited small farmers and small businesspeople on the one hand, and the wealthy elite on the other. This means devising a programme that can build an alliance between the workers and the most progressive elements of the modern day petty bourgeoisie.

Marxism and the petty bourgeoisie

This problem is not historically new for the Marxist movement. Indeed what is new is the extent to which, in an urbanised society, class conscious workers have been able to forget about the problems of the petty bourgeoisie.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, where the industrial proletariat was the only consistently revolutionary class but was numerically a small minority in a country of peasants, the key strategic question was not whether, but how, an alliance could be built with the peasantry. The Menshevik wing fell back on the notion that the revolution must inevitably go through two distinct ‘stages’: first a bourgeois revolution in which the liberal, so called ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie, backed by the workers and peasants, toppled the Tsarist autocracy and established a bourgeois democracy. Then, at a later point after a period of capitalist expansion, there would be a socialist revolution.

Trotsky rejected this separation and reached back to Marx’s writings on the great European revolutions of 1848–50 in which Marx developed the concept of ‘permanent revolution’. Trotsky concluded as early as 1905 that:

… the profundity of the agrarian crisis could raise the proletariat of Russia to power ... This was precisely the idea that was expressed by the very designation of the revolution as ‘permanent’, that is an uninterrupted one, a revolution passing over directly from the bourgeois stage into the socialist. To express the same idea Lenin later used the excellent expression of the bourgeois revolution growing over into the socialist. [1]

He argued that Russian revolutionaries had to come to grips with the need to devise a programme that could give a lead to the most revolutionary layers of the peasantry, while at the same time developing a proletarian revolutionary party whose programme was far more wide-reaching and systematic.

Trotsky was careful to stress the fact that the class interests of the petty bourgeoisie and the working class were very different and potentially counterposed, which was why he argued against the slogan for a ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. Which class, he asked, would actually exercise control in such a dictatorship? Even basic issues such as the eight-hour day or a wage increase for the agricultural proletariat would divide the wealthier minority of peasants from the most exploited, poorest layers of agricultural workers. Only the working class could be relied upon to take a consistently progressive line, while the apparent unity between rich and poorer peasants would rapidly break down and trigger class struggle in the villages.

Trotsky insisted that only the working class could ensure the demands of the most radical peasants would be achieved:

The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated them. The domination of the proletariat will mean not only democratic equality, free self government, the transference of the whole burden of taxation to the rich classes, the dissolution of the standing army in the armed people and the abolition of compulsory church imposts, but also recognition of all revolutionary changes (expropriations) in land relationships carried out by the peasants. [2]

The reason for this was that the peasantry – and indeed the petty bourgeoisie in general – is ‘absolutely incapable of taking up an independent role’:

The history of capitalism is the history of the subordination of the country to the town. The industrial development of the European towns in due course made the further existence of feudal relations in agriculture impossible. But the countryside itself never produced a class which could undertake the revolutionary task of abolishing feudalism. [3]

Indeed it was on the basis of this approach, and the successful combination of agitation among the soldiers, workers and peasants embodied in the Bolshevik slogan ‘Peace, bread and land’, that in Trotsky’s words ‘the Russian proletariat rose to power on the mighty wave of the peasant insurrection’. [4]

However, history since 1917 is littered with examples of communist and socialist leaderships failing to recognise the need to build a working class led alliance mobilising support from peasant and petty bourgeois layers.

Among the more notable were the catastrophic failures of the Chinese Communists in 1926-1927, the failure of the Spanish republicans to develop a programme for the peasantry (which left the peasants ripe for recruitment to Franco’s fascist army), and, of course, in the post-war period the Chilean experience, when the Chilean far right and the CIA cynically cultivated the alienated lorry drivers and other petty bourgeois forces to destabilise Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government prior to Pinochet’s brutal coup.

The Trotskyist movement continued to stress the importance of demands relating to the petty bourgeoisie and the small farmers. In 1938 Trotsky criticised American Trotskyists for adopting the slogan for a ‘workers’ government’ in place of the call for ‘a workers’ and farmers’ government’:

The farmers play a very important role in the United States. In England this is not a very important question because the workers are the overwhelming majority. Why deprive ourselves of the possibility in the rural districts to say, ‘This government would be yours’? [5]

Trotsky again underlined the fact that the workers in general and the peasants in general do not have the same interests:

The farmers are not a class, but a series of layers, of social strata beginning with semi-proletarian elements and ending with exploiters, big farmers, etc. ... We indicate that by our slogan we will introduce a political delimitation in favour of the poor farmers against the rich farmers ... we add every time that we mean the exploited farmers, not exploiters, not the farmers who have agricultural workers – they are not our allies.

The British context

The continued growth in the last 50 years of capitalist agriculture and agribusiness, wiping out many smaller farms and tied ever more closely into the global marketplace, means that it is even less appropriate to raise the call for a ‘workers’ and farmers’ government’ in Britain in the 21st century. But a key layer of small farmers and highly exploited agricultural workers still remain, their problems largely obscured by the weight and power of the NFU and the big players. And the wider issue of the petty bourgeoisie has far from disappeared.

Last autumn we saw the sudden upsurge in Britain of the fuel blockades, uniting an opportunist alliance of small farmers and truck owners (with tacit support from the oil companies). The speed with which this movement spread, and the enormous popular support it registered across the country, gave a sharp reminder that although the balance of class forces is very different in today’s Britain, the issue of the petty bourgeoisie cannot be safely ignored. Subsequent similar actions rocked governments across Europe and could erupt again.

Trotsky’s warning that the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of taking an independent political role was again borne out by the confused line and demands of the protesters. The leaders of the labour movement did nothing to clarify matters. The TUC line of calling for more intensive police action to smash the blockades reflected their total subservience to New Labour – and their naive failure to recognise that any powers used to smash this dispute would also inevitably be used against union members who dared to disrupt the smooth workings of British capitalism.

But the eagerness of the far right to attach itself to the fuel protests, and the short-lived revival of the fortunes of the Tory party were a reminder that if the left and the labour movement do not offer a dynamic lead to sections of the alienated, oppressed and ruined petty bourgeoisie they will almost inevitably turn in a reactionary direction.

It is from this background that we should approach the complexities of what almost all analysts are now describing as the ‘crisis in the countryside’, which has been highlighted by the foot and mouth epidemic.

One ‘union’ Labour listens to

New Labour, like the Tories, is tied hand and foot to big business on the one side, and the biggest of the big farmers (as represented by the NFU) on the other. This has been demonstrated time and again, most conspicuously by the way in which the NFU has been able to dictate government policy on vaccination.

It is under NFU pressure that, in defiance of economic logic, ministers have closed their ears to the protests of many small, specialist and organic farmers and the Soil Association, and ignored the EU policy which would sanction vaccination in the circumstances prevailing in Britain.

Instead, the vast and chaotic slaughter programme has continued to pile up mountains of dead animals, some apparently healthy, some possibly carrying undetected foot and mouth. Occasional governmental wobbles on this policy have triggered immediate hostile interventions from the NFU, which has made a priority of protecting the vague hopes of the large scale meat and livestock farmers that export markets can eventually be revived.

This decision appears even more perverse in the context of the huge and escalating knock-on costs of the foot and mouth outbreak. Newsreels and headlines on the slaughter policy and the vast pyres and burial pits, coupled with the closure – at NFU insistence – of whole tracts of the countryside, have been having a devastating impact on the much bigger and more economically important tourist industry. While farmers have been losing an estimated £60 million a week, the tourist industry has been losing at least four times as much as tourists from home and abroad respond to vivid images of pestilence and opt to spend their holidays elsewhere.

Despite the body blows inflicted on tourism with potentially dramatic long term costs for the economy as a whole, Blair has not distanced himself in any way from the agribusiness lobby. Instead he has already floated the idea of a longer term inquiry into British agriculture, with the suggestion that the outcome would be a further consolidation into fewer, bigger farms better able to compete in the global marketplace. Ministers were reported as expecting the number of farms to fall by 25 percent over the next four years through mergers or closure, with 50,000 more people leaving farming.

Decline of agriculture

Caught in the midst of this are the small farmers, the farm workers and many more working people who make their living or who live in the countryside, some running shops, pubs, restaurants and small businesses. Their problems are quite different from those of the big farmers, big retail and hotel chains, and large scale landowners. Foot and mouth and the resultant decline in the rural economy could be enough to deprive them of the income they need to survive.

Any policy for the countryside must start from a recognition that, although agriculture takes up almost 80 percent of the area of Britain, farming generates only 1.5 percent of gross domestic product – half its share just 25 years ago – compared to 4 percent from tourism. Farms have become larger and more productive. Wheat yields have gone up 60 percent in 25 years. Herds are larger, as smaller farms have been squeezed out of business. But numbers of farm workers have been drastically reduced, from around 600,000 in 1974 to just 350,000 now.

Even within the countryside itself only 4 percent of the population is employed in agriculture, forestry and fisheries combined, compared with 21 percent in leisure and distribution, 28 percent in public services, 17 percent in manufacturing, and 11 percent in banking and finance.

Farm incomes have fluctuated wildly over the last 30 years, with boom times in the early 1970s and mid-1990s, but since 1996 there has been a rapid drop, exacerbated by the comparatively high value of sterling and by the impact of the BSE crisis. The latest figures show that the net farm income from a 200-hectare family farm has fallen from around £80,000 five years ago to just £8,000. Many small farmers are existing on much lower incomes than this, with average incomes of under £4,000 in Scotland.

Around 40 percent of farm income comes from subsidies; indeed the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) argues that farming costs every taxpayer £4 per week. British farmers receive £3 billion a year from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – but the richest 21 percent of farmers receive 80 percent of the subsidies.

The meat export business was worth just £310 million last year, almost 40 percent below the 1999 total and just £60 million more than the estimated weekly loss in income to the tourist industry as a result of foot and mouth. But the industry is still reeling from the BSE crisis. Beef prices in livestock markets are down to 80p per kilo compared with £1 three years ago and £1.34 before the BSE crisis. The pattern of EU subsidies has led to a big increase in numbers of sheep while their market price has fallen.

Prices have fallen across the board, affecting arable farmers as well as livestock. Food prices in the shops are 9 percent lower in real terms than they were ten years ago, and this has been achieved by a steady squeeze on the producers. Crops as varied as oilseed rape and savoy cabbage are now regularly being sold at below the cost of production, even with subsidies.

The rise of the supermarkets

The one sector which has consistently managed to profit from the problems on the farms has been the supermarkets. Food prices in Britain are 12 to 16 percent higher than in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Cabbages sold by farmers for 11p are retailed by supermarkets for 47p. Meat prices on the shelves are vastly inflated from the pitiful prices paid at market. This is why in the midst of the foot and mouth crisis Tesco was able to announce profits in excess of £1 billion – that is £3 million a day. Profits are also booming at Asda, Safeway, Sainsbury’s and Somerfield. The top six supermarkets account for 84 percent of grocery sales, forcing the closure of an ever growing number of small local shops which cannot compete with their buying power and distribution networks.

Supermarkets squeeze down the margins for small farmers and even force them to pay for their own brand packaging. Some demand a fee to ensure a farmer’s products are displayed on the shelves. Meanwhile all the main supermarkets import over 20 percent of the food they sell and clog up the roads with their juggernauts transporting supplies up and down the country. Only a tiny minority of lines in any supermarket will be locally produced.

Organic products have been booming in sales, up 40 percent year on year, but still represent only a marginal contribution to the food market, with just 1 percent of sales – much of that imported. Organic farms tend to be small, labour intensive, and often pay poor wages. They can also bring their own problems of pollution and pose their own threat to certain types of wildlife.

Under these conditions it is clear that the subsidies to farmers are effectively bolstering supermarket profits, and that small farmers are being pushed out of the industry as much by global capitalism as by domestic or EU policies. MAFF argues that big farms are best suited to compete with prairie-style farms in the US and Argentina, effectively driving farmers towards even more environmental degradation and intensive methods.

A class line in the countryside

A socialist alternative has to begin by drawing a class line between the super-rich barley barons and agribusiness moguls with their vast land assets on the one hand, and the small farmers and farm workers on the other.

Farm incomes should be guaranteed at the level of the average wage. Small tenant farmers should be given secure rights of tenure at low rents and encouraged to form co-operatives to share and reduce costs. They should be given access to scientific and technical advice, research facilities, administrative assistance, grants for capital improvements and cheap credit to help them switch to organic and more environmentally friendly and sustainable production. Debts arising from high bank interest rates should be cancelled.

The large landowners and the biggest farms, which have been propped up for years by taxpayers through massive subsidies and have done such damage to the fabric of the countryside, should be nationalised along with food processing. All food production must be brought under democratic control of workers, and subject to strict safeguards and inspection.

The costs of the reorganisation of agriculture should be covered by taxation on the wealthy and big business, and a windfall profits tax on all supermarkets and related businesses that have cashed in on the farming crisis. In addition there should be a turnover tax on all multinational biotech and agribusiness corporations operating in Britain.

Subsidies should be redirected to encourage socially responsible and less intensive farming, discourage the excessive use of pesticides, artificial fertilisers and other chemicals, promote local food production for local markets, and halt the barbaric practice of long distance transport of livestock.

The ‘set aside’ scheme should be scrapped. No landowners should be paid for doing nothing on their land. Those who indulge in polluting or environmentally damaging practices should be subject to punitive fines, compulsory purchase or nationalisation.

Abattoirs, including smaller local ones which have been forced to close, should be nationalised and reopened where necessary to minimise the distances animals are transported for slaughter, and the meat inspectorate must be renationalised, with controls to ensure the strictest standards are observed.

Intensive farming methods, with their horrendous implications for animal welfare and high use of polluting chemicals, must be ended. There must be a full exposure of the feed manufacturers at the root of the BSE epidemic, which have never paid a penny towards the massive bill for compensation of farmers or the suffering of those struck down by CJD and their families.

GM experiments

In the midst of the panic closure of the countryside for the foot and mouth crisis the government announced the go-ahead for field trials of five different genetically modified (GM) crops – spring and winter rape, fodder maize, sugar beet and fodder beet. In each case the modification is designed to make the crop resistant to powerful herbicides, enabling the farmer to wipe out other weeds and vegetation. This was yet another reminder of the extent to which New Labour is subservient to the lobbyists from agribusiness.

Protesters point out that, while ministers argue that the foot and mouth virus can be carried by the wind, they are ignoring the danger that pollen from the crops could blow into non-GM or even organic crops in neighbouring fields (the maize crop will be just 80 metres from non-GM crops, the rape varieties 100 metres). The trials will only examine the narrow issue of the impact of the herbicides used on farmland wildlife and biodiversity, leaving a host of other questions unasked and unanswered. [6]

Ministers are forging ahead with these trials at the behest of major agribusiness corporations despite the evidence of widespread public opposition, and despite the fact that there is virtually no market in Britain for GM foodstuffs or feed for livestock.

Bizarrely, ministers have also allowed the biotech companies to refuse any legal liability for damage that may be caused by GM food and crops. And they have handed over the conduct of the GM trials to a company, Scimac (the Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops), made up of representatives from the biotech industry itself – Monsanto, Novartis and Aventis, together the with NFU. The lack of any independent scrutiny from farm workers, environmental experts, the wider labour movement or any elected body speaks volumes on New Labour’s complicity in forcing GM experiments through with a minimum of public scrutiny.

Socialists want to protect the food chain and ensure that no avoidable chances are taken with the crops we grow. The seeds being tested in these field trials have not been subjected to the thorough, controlled checks that are necessary. We have to learn the lessons of previous episodes such as the global spread and persistence of DDT, and the spread of BSE through infected animal feed. We have to investigate all possible knock-on effects before releasing potentially damaging new threats into the wider environment. Already in Canada pollen from GM crops has led to the emergence of new ‘super-weeds’ resistant to normal doses of existing weedkillers. Mistakes like this can cause long term, possibly irreversible problems.

There must be a ban on the commercial use of GM foods, and a moratorium on crop trials pending proper, objective research. The law must be changed to make the biotech companies fully liable for any harm caused by genetically modified crops.


Farmers – again especially the larger farmers and the NFU – like to create the impression that they alone are the custodians of the English landscape and that if sufficient subsidies are not channelled their way they will simply pull out and it will go to rack and ruin.

On one level this is true. The British landscape is the product of centuries of cultivation and grazing. Hedgerows, moors, downs, heaths and meadows have all been shaped by livestock farming, and many rich ecosystems would disappear if the land were no longer worked for agriculture. But large scale and intensive farming has also done massive damage to the rural environment, tearing up hedgerows to create giant fields for massive machines, spraying on vast quantities of weedkillers and fertilisers, polluting rivers with farm waste.

To make matters worse, the big landowners continue to obstruct the right to roam on the vast areas of countryside they control with subsidies from millions of landless workers.

A socialist policy for the countryside has to open up the widest possible access to the countryside, but also ensure that environmentally sound policies are rewarded and activities which undermine local environmental welfare are outlawed. Local planning powers need to be toughened up and funding provided for increased monitoring to ensure that elected local bodies have the powers needed to enforce rigorous environmental checks.

We have to ensure that the land is worked by those who will care for it and respect it, and that a priority is given to low intensity grazing and coppicing which enhance the landscape and make minimal use of chemicals.

But we should also recognise that more farmers will almost inevitably drop out of the industry, drawing the conclusion that they cannot make a living in this way from the land. As routine farming stops, wild plants, trees, bushes, bramble and wildlife will return to areas that have been under the plough. It may be necessary to employ council employees to prune back unruly hedgerows and cut grass verges which were once maintained by farmers. Birds and butterflies can find new spaces to flourish. Ramblers will be able to roam.

Any new industries which move into rural areas must be shown to be environmentally sustainable, energy efficient and acceptable to the local population. They have to create real new jobs for local people, rather than simply transferring small scale IT or other firms from high cost city locations to disused farmhouses or recycling farm buildings into warehouses.

The government has to invest in more intensive waste management, expand recycling wherever this is the energy efficient option, and renationalise the water industry to ensure that proper resources are invested in cleaning up rivers and streams.


Even if all existing farm jobs were protected, the countryside would remain more dependent upon jobs in tourism and distribution (including pubs, hotels, catering and retail) than on agriculture. It is no part of a socialist programme to seek immediate and compulsory nationalisation of this type of enterprise.

But small is by no means necessarily beautiful. Many of these businesses have traditionally paid pitiful wages to their workers, many of whom in the tourist sector are seasonal or casual staff with few benefits such as pensions, sick pay or paid holidays. Yet the costs of living and getting around the countryside can more than equal the cost of living in urban areas, especially with the lack of public transport.

Socialists do not accept the principle that individual workers should subsidise the profits of local employers in this way. We have to insist that staff working in hotels, catering and retail – and in all rural businesses – receive at least the minimum wage (the Socialist Alliance demand is for £7.40 an hour, to match the EU decency threshold), and at least the statutory rights at work and entitlements they would receive if they did a similar job in any big city.

Small businesses will no doubt bleat that to pay this level of wages would make it impossible to survive, but the answer is to reduce the overhead costs which put these small businesses at a disadvantage compared with their competitors in the big supermarket and hotel chains. As with small farmers, we should be in favour of extending cheap credit to small businesses which offer their staff acceptable pay and conditions, as well as reduced business rates and rents. Even New Labour is proposing to cut rates paid by village shops, pubs and garages ‘which give benefit to the rural community’. Socialists should demand a more generous level of support, with the difference being made up by progressive taxation on big business and the rich at a national level. [7]

Grants and incentives should also be made available for those small businesses which opt to run as co-operatives, and local government should have funds and resources to step in and take over the running of failing businesses which opt for socialisation with a guarantee of jobs and income rather than closure.

The long term aim should be to bridge the economic divide that has left working people in the countryside as the poor relations of their equivalents in the city.

Public services

The public sector is the biggest employer in rural areas, and the expansion of health, education and other basic services can not only improve access for isolated communities but also contribute to the expansion of useful jobs in the countryside.

Rural health services have been hit especially hard by the process of rationalisation and centralisation within the NHS which has brought the closure of dozens of well loved community hospitals. Ambulance services struggle to match national performance targets, and community-based mental health services require a further substantial injection of resources, especially in the light of the psychological problems faced by many cash-strapped farmers and ruined small businesspeople.

Many rural schools have closed and many more school buildings are old, small and poorly maintained. Rural areas tend to be poorly provided with accessible further and higher education facilities, which again tend to be concentrated in the cities. There is also a desperate need for more in the way of youth clubs and leisure facilities for local communities many miles from city centre cinemas, clubs and social activities.

Problems of hard drug and alcohol abuse by rural youth deprived of any other social outlet have reached major proportions in some small towns and isolated areas, and the problems of violence in rural market towns have also been well documented. An injection of resources for local activities and entertainment is needed, but also the improvement of transport to allow rural youth to enjoy some of the facilities used by their opposite number in neighbouring towns.

New Labour’s rural white paper makes reference to all these issues, and proposes to funnel limited extra resources into public services: but the scale and pace of these changes are limited by Labour’s refusal to push up taxation on big business.


One of New Labour’s most glaring failures has been not to make any visible progress towards their promised objective of an integrated transport policy. The most obvious area of failure is the countryside, where rail services were long ago axed and deregulated buses are now a rare sight.

Labour, like the Tories who thought up the scheme, have happily collected the ‘green levy’ from the escalation of taxation on petrol and diesel but invested almost none of it in the expansion of public transport, while train fares continue relentlessly upwards and ever more people resort in desperation to the use of the private car.

The rural white paper admits that ‘for one in three households, private motoring is not an available option’. Many of these will be pensioner households, and problems of access to shops, healthcare and other services needed by older people have increased with the continuing dislocation of the rural economy.

New Labour promises changes which are both inadequate and unachievable under private ownership: the white paper says that there will be ‘an hourly or more frequent bus service within ten minutes walk of a third more rural homes’ in three years time. But the likelihood is that the 45 percent increase in subsidies for bus services will only pump more cash into the pockets of bus company shareholders, while the money for the rural transport partnership scheme will a pathetic £12 million nationally!

The private sector, running for profit, is unlikely to respond. Socialists advocate renationalisation of bus and rail services, and an expansion of buses throughout the countryside, linking in with the reopening and expansion of railways. And a key objective must be to reopen more local shops and facilities closer to where people live, rather than obliging them to make long journeys to buy basic necessities.


The decline of employment in agriculture and related industries has brought with it the sale of larger numbers of farmhouses and buildings once used by farm workers. But soaring property values in the big cities have meant that commuters, weekenders and retired people have been able to move from the cities to buy up these properties. This problem has grown unchecked, accelerating during the period of Tory government, which compounded the situation by the forced sale of council houses and the near standstill on new council house building. This in turn has forced up the prices of rural property, creating a huge shortage of affordable housing for local working people. The influx of car-owning city dwellers has also speeded the decline of rural transport services, shops, schools and markets.

New Labour promises a feeble gesture in the form of building just 3,000 affordable homes each year in rural areas across the whole of England, though it is far from clear how this would be financed. The Housing Corporation will be given funds to double the number of extra subsidised homes for rent – to just 1,600 a year.

Any policy to reverse the decline of the rural areas and address the needs of the rural working class has to aim higher and pump in more resources than New Labour’s plans, which simply scratch the surface of the problem.

The underlying difficulty is the anarchy of the property market nationally, which is soaring out of control and making it impossible for workers on average rates of pay to afford a home in many areas. A starting point has to be to levy hefty taxes on those who choose to own more than one house, rather than the crazy system introduced by the Tories which gives second home owners a 50 percent discount on council tax.

New Labour has proposed to give councils ‘discretion’ to end this scam, but socialists will demand higher taxes are paid on all second and additional homes, and that long term unoccupied properties are compulsorily purchased by local councils and converted for affordable rented housing.

The key to reducing house prices to a more rational level is an end to the forced sale of council housing and a major programme of council house building, using the cash balances raised when much of the housing stock was sold off and additional investment from central government. Until there is a sufficient level of affordable rented accommodation, the prices for those obliged to buy a home will remain artificially high.

In this context New Labour’s commitment to restrict housing development in rural areas merely helps force prices up. Each planning authority should instead be given a target for the expansion of affordable housing units to meet local needs, and the task of designating suitable areas for development, with the appropriate environmental safeguards and provision of local services.

A bold approach

While the Countryside Alliance seeks to tie rural workers in with their landlords, bosses and the right wing establishment, the Socialist Alliance should offer a programme that can win rural workers to the side of the labour movement.

As with any socialist programme, a radical policy for the countryside would carry more immediate credibility and win far wider acceptance if it was promoted actively by the organised trade union and labour movement. But New Labour has hitched its wagon to big business, and the bulk of the union bureaucracy seems determined to cling on to its remaining links with New Labour, leaving them without any radical policies at all for the rural working class.

The only solution for socialists is to find other ways to raise and popularise our programme, linking up with any forces we can find in rural areas who are prepared to take a stand against big capital, big farmers and big landlords. If a suitably radical and attractive package of policies can be offered for the struggling rural petty bourgeoisie, then at very least it should reduce the weight which such forces could add to the reactionary forces of the right. We may not instantly win large numbers of new friends, but we might forestall the strengthening of a potential enemy.


John Lister is joint editor of Socialist Outlook, a monthly Marxist review. He was the Socialist Alliance parliamentary candidate for Oxford East.

1. L.D. Trotsky, Introduction to the First (Russian) Edition of the Permanent Revolution, in L.D. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (New Park Publications 1971), p. 12.

2. L.D. Trotsky, Results and Prospects, in ibid., p. 203.

3. L.D. Trotsky, ibid., pp. 204–205.

4. L.D. Trotsky, Introduction to Permanent Revolution, in ibid., p. 5.

5. L.D. Trotsky, For a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government in Preconference Discussions, The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution (Pathfinder Press 1977), p. 195.

6. GM Maize Farmscale Trial in Oxfordshire, Oxygene, 7 April 2001,

7. DETR, Our Countryside: the Future, [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked to see if it still works.]

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