“We are the only party that has an industrial strategy, which is important for primary production in agriculture,” said Labour’s Richard Leonard in our Political Field interview with him.

“We want to see better linkage between primary production and secondary manufacturing. All too often there is a disconnect – we need to see increased local sourcing, and public procurement has a role to play in driving that forward.”

MSP Leonard, is leader of the Scottish Labour party, and he said his party was committed to tackling poor supply chains and made it clear, that Labour, would fight against inequality and poverty in rural Scotland. He said that when – not if – Labour re-established itself in government, it will drive up agricultural wages, which he said, was necessary to reflate local rural economies

Criticising the government’s lack of investment in the abattoir infrastructure, Mr Leonard stated that in order to maintain a red meat industry founded on high animal welfare and provenance, state investment must be a priority.

Meeting with The SF in his parliamentary office, he explained how his connection with the rural economy dates from birth, right through his working life.

“I was born in a maternity home in a countryside village called Westow, in Yorkshire. I was raised in a small market town, which had its own cattle market every week and the biggest employer in the area we used to call the bacon factory.

“I have always had a strong connection between work and the land. The first job I had as a young boy was potato picking in the autumn which was backbreaking work. That was my introduction to real graft.

“We worked hard, got paid in cash at the end of the day and then could go and spend it. Later, as a student, I worked a whole summer on a farm in Suffolk in East Anglia, where my job was to pull weeds out of the wheat field in preparation for harvest,” he reflected.

“One of my first jobs was working for a member of the European Parliament, where I was given a crash course in the Common Agricultural Policy. At that time, it was the era of the beef and butter mountains and massive over production.

“Part of my early campaigning work was protesting outside grain and beef warehouses across central Scotland. I then worked at the Scottish Trade Union Congress for five years as an economist and a lot of the work there was about the rural economy.

“I wrote a document called ‘Full Employment for the Highlands and Islands’, as we recognised that the challenges there were quite different from other parts of Scotland,” he explained.

“When I left the STUC, I worked for the GMB and part of my remit was organising workers in food production, places like Nestle, in Girvan, where there was a strong relationship between the factory and dairy farmers locally. When we were fighting to protect jobs and for the factory to stay open, it wasn’t just about protecting those jobs in the factory but the impact the closure would have on the wider rural economy, in that part of the South of Scotland.

“My connections go from birth though a lot of my working life, to now, where I represent Central Scotland in parliament and recently I was at Open Farm Sunday at a farm in Slamannan.

New Scottish Labour Leader

Mr Leonard was elected as the new leader of Scottish Labour, in November 2017, taking over from Kezia Dugdale. But what fresh perspectives can he offer the rural economy?

“We are the party which has the most determined polices for tacking poverty and inequality, and nowhere is poverty greater and inequality wider than in rural Scotland,” he replied.

“I was in Orkney two weeks ago and fuel poverty amongst pensioners in the Orkney isles is 85%, that’s twice the national average. We, as a party, are determined to see a fairer distribution of wealth in society, so I think what we are saying about a living wage, tackling low pay, tackling child poverty; we are the only party in the wake of the growth commission report to be distinctively anti-austerity.

“The experiment of public expenditure cuts which the economy has gone through is probably felt most acutely in rural Scotland where levels of poverty are greater and already the levels of public service are less than they are in urban Scotland. There is an amplification of the impact in rural Scotland of austerity which I don’t think people making decisions in Edinburgh appreciate,” stressed Mr Leonard.

“As well as redistributing wealth and tackling austerity, we want to see a greater decentralisation of power.

“One campaign I’ve been involved in is in opposition to the establishment of a strategic board. This will take responsibility for the whole of Scottish Enterprise, the whole of Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland, sucking power in to the centre.

“Our party set up the Highlands and Islands Development Board and our big fear is some of those fragile rural economies won’t get the time and attention they deserve,” he stated.

Rural vision

What changes would Labour make to its manifesto to ensure a prosperous Scottish rural economy before the next 2021 election?

“Our aim would be to drive up wages which would reflate local economies. We would keep the agricultural wages board, but we would like to see a living wage economy established across Scotland and particularly in the rural economy where pay lags behind. We would establish an investment programme rather than a public expenditure cuts programme which is what both the other two principal parties envisage.

“This investment programme would be targeted at boosting public expenditure and investment right across Scotland including rural Scotland. Instead of people seeing the threat to GP services, which are acute in rural areas and instead of seeing local schools under threat, we would be aiming to invest in those parts of the public realm which are currently being denied the resources they need,” he explained.

“We have a vision of investment to reinvigorate public services and a strategy for the economy that would be aimed at getting us to a point where we are a high wage, high value, high productivity economy. We want to see better linkages between primary production and secondary manufacturing.”


Turning his attention to Brexit, with nine months to go, I asked Mr Leonard what the biggest challenges facing the rural sector are and asked what Westminster and the Scottish Government should be doing to protect the sector?

“The biggest challenge is the issue of a future farm payment system, we need to get that right because as I look at it, we have around 8% of the population of the UK and we receive around 17% of farm support payments. The first thing we must do is to make sure Scotland isn’t disadvantaged as a result of coming out of the EU CAP. If the distribution of funding were to revert to using the Barnett formula or a population ratio system, there would be a massive contraction of the level of support for Scottish farming,” Mr Leonard explained.

“What we need to do is to establish that beyond 2022 Scottish farmers will not miss out on that funding, as it’s there for good reason, to reflect the challenges which there are in producing food in a landmass which varies so greatly in quality as Scotland’s does. There is also an opportunity to review how the payment system works and whether there are reforms that could be made to incentivise certain types of production,” he continues. “One of my reflections on the CAP is that it’s often fuelled production which has become more and more dependent on chemicals and pesticides and anti-biotics. Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the CAP are not farmers but the big multi-national agricultural businesses that supply in to the industry. I think we should be looking at a rebalancing of the award of payment to farmers, small farmers particularly and less money going in to the big corporations.”

Future trade

One of the concerns facing the rural industry is a lack of clarity over future trading partners and whether future forged relations could put Scottish farmers at a disadvantage competing on the international stage. I asked Mr Leonard how he would envisage trading partners which would benefit our farmers.

“I think the whole question of trade is a profound one. Right now we have barrier free access to the single market and Labour wants to be part of a customs union with the rest of the EU. One of the reasons for that is we want to be able to sell our agricultural produce to the remaining states of the EU,” he replied.

“We are going to be entering an interesting period with Brexit around trade relations with other parts of the world. I know there are people hankering to go back to the days of the Commonwealth and changing tariff arrangements with the likes of New Zealand lamb,” Mr Leonard continued. “I am not entirely sure that is the right road to go down as we need to remember that Scottish farming exports are principally to the rest of the UK and then secondly to the EU, making this vital relationship for future trade so important,” he stated.

Migrant workers

Our soft fruits industry is a rural economy driver relying almost entirely on a migrant workforce, how can Labour attract and maintain this valuable workforce – and will these workers’ rights be protected?

“One of the tremendous benefits of the European Union has been the freedom of movement of people and that is something which we want to see retained.

“I was on the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee when we had an inquiry into Brexit and one of the witnesses we called in was James Porter, a representative of NFU Scotland’s soft fruit committee. James came along and gave evidence and explained the extent to which the industry has grown and in order to keep that growth at the very least at the same rate it is going to require a smooth transition,” Mr Leonard recalled.

“One of the things I am concerned about as leader of the Scottish Labour Party is that we want to see freedom of movement of labour, but not freedom of movement of cheap labour. I am anxious to make sure people are abiding by the rate for the job.

“We cannot expect to attract workers in to Scotland if we cannot guarantee a good wage, one which makes it worth their while to travel here.

“The first prosecution under the Gangmasters Licensing Act 2004, which protects vulnerable workers in agriculture from being exploited, was a soft fruit grower in Perthshire. I’m not saying that’s typical, but we need to make sure people don’t face exploitation when they are working in areas such as the soft fruits sector,” stressed Mr Leonard.

Red meat industry

On the hot topic of the future of the red meat industry, Mr Leonard argued that investment is needed to tackle the issue of closing abattoirs to ensure the survival of the sector.

“I recently visited Orkney which has suffered the closure of its abattoir and I understand this is a growing concern for the red meat sector, Scotland-wide. I believe we should be looking more at a micro abattoir model, where they are constructed at a smaller level which meets a regional economic need,” he replied.

“We can’t on the one hand say we are in favour of higher standards of animal welfare and are wary of the live transportation of animals, but then not provide sufficient investment in the abattoirs infrastructure.

“I don’t think it should be left to private enterprise. There is a role for the state to play in ensuring we have got the right number of abattoirs for the demand that there is. The future is going to be in more niche products and the provenance has to be spot on.

“There has to be investment in the abattoir infrastructure if we are going to see a sustainable red meat industry moving forward and with all the challenges which exist, it seems to me that home abattoirs or mobile abattoirs would be a useful intervention,” he concluded.