Labour’s Covenant: For land and nature in a time of floods

Cathy Elliott

After all that rain, the water receded and Noah looked out on the wreckage of the world, knowing he had kept safe just enough biodiversity to survive. A bright colourful bow appeared in the sky to signal that – with work on both sides – there was no reason for this disaster to happen again. This is still a beautiful world.

It was intriguing to read Labour’s Covenant, a new vision for the Labour Party by Labour Together. What is proposed is a new covenant – a new promise and relationship, with an emphasis on partnership, compromise, negotiation and reciprocity.  Among other key themes, it particularly addresses nature and the land. This is important and welcome, particularly given the rising waters we are increasingly encountering each winter.

When humans encounter floods and other events they don’t control, they tell stories about how we got here, conferring meaning on a hostile and frightening world. Accordingly, Labour Together provides a historical analysis of the country’s journey to this point. The point of a story is that you have to put some things in and leave others out; you arrange things to give meaning to an otherwise random set of events. It is therefore always notable what does not get included in a story.

Labour Together’s story of our history doesn’t allude to how our landscape was shaped. It starts from the industrial revolution and the efforts of working people to improve their lives. This is a powerful story, but it leaves out the processes through which people came to be in the cities in the first place: enclosure and land grabs of common land that forced people from agricultural ways of life. The commodification of land and the intensification of agriculture, made possible by technology, upended people’s lives and changed the face of our landscape inexorably in a process that is still continuing. At the same time, colonial land grabs and enslavement not only altered forever the lives and land of colonised places, they also shaped our landscape in the countryside and city in ways that we are only just – and not without struggle – beginning to understand. The hard-won efforts by working people to improve their lives included contesting the ways they had been excluded from landscape, in fights for the right to roam, most thrillingly including the Kinder Scout Trespass, described by Roy Hattersley as ‘the most successful direct action in British History’. Dreams of a better life included municipal housing for working people with gardens and surrounded by trees, green spaces and allotments. As Neil Ward has shown in Renewal, Labour has played an important role in making life better in non-metropolitan Britain, not least by devolving power to creative Labour councils, and this is a story we should celebrate.

However, when telling the story – as Labour Together does – of our mistakes, it is always curious to me that we don’t talk more about the calamity of foot and mouth in 2001. How is it possible that the pyres of burning animal flesh that scarred our landscape, destroyed the dreams of our farmers, and haunt the folk memory of the countryside have become a mere footnote in a story about a slight delay to a planned General Election? This disaster has become emblematic of an agricultural policy that seemed out of touch with the needs of rural communities and prioritised cheap food for cities over a harmonious relationship with the land.

In the stories that we tell about our country, it is important not to imagine that the history of working people is all about smoky, industrial towns and cities, or the story of an alienation from the land and non-human nature. The landscape has always been peopled and attempts to remove people from it have been ferociously and successfully contested. Relationships with non-human nature, in the food we eat, the air we breathe, but also the central importance of feeling part of the wider world of non-human nature, have always been part of Labour history. And the mistakes that have led to broken relationships between Labour and the electorate – a broken covenant, if you like – have included the loss and disregard of these concerns.

Stories give us a moral and a place to proceed from. The story of Noah contains a clear dividing line. Noah’s side of the covenant is to make a break from the mistakes of the past which have broken the central relationships with the fragile world he inhabits. Successful political narratives always contain dividing lines. This does not mean they have to be tales of heroes and villains, tempting though it might be to think of serial polluters, oil barons or litter bugs on Wandsworth Common disappearing screaming beneath the rising tides. (I jest – but stories also show us that these sorts of vengeful human feelings can take us to darker places than we really want to go.) Rather, Noah’s story might prefigure a world in which we say an emphatic no to the ideas, practices and habits that have brought us here.

This is a story that needs, as Labour Together rightly argues, to be attractive to the widest constituency and that can include the conservationist conservative approach – perhaps most beautifully embodied by Rory Stewart’s 2015 ‘hedgehog speech’ – alongside progressive and green activists. However, it is a story that asks us to make hard choices. There is a lot of talk about ‘nature-based solutions’ to climate change as if these were just technocratic settled policies waiting to be put in place. Labour’s Covenant, in its section on land and nature, in places reinforces this depoliticised approach, by listing a series of interesting and attractive policies – such as improving the accessibility of small-scale agriculture to new entrants or planting city gardens – without a sense of what this vision is for, or what it is against.

But we will need to decide. Do we want a country where large swaths of land are closed off to human activity in the name of ‘rewilding’, making money for large landowners and providing a nice environmental story for big corporates? How will our food be produced in this version of the future, if we do not devote our land to farming? Do we want to eat meat grown in labs or in ever intensifying factory farms dependent on prophylactic antibiotics? Do we want our crops to be doused in ever more weedkiller and pesticides so we can grow more food on less land? Do we want to export these problems and import more and more food, so that our own land can act as a carbon sink and nature reserve? This is the direction we could easily go in, with perhaps the best of intentions, if we fail to connect land with people in a political sense. As Kate Swade from Shared Assets has compellingly argued in Renewal, we need to reject the false dichotomy of land either as a scarce resource that must be exploited ever more intensively or as a pristine fenced-off no-go area where nature is left to its own devices. A more useful way forward – a ‘third way’, if you will! – is a story that includes human and non-human inhabitants of the landscape. This might include regenerative small-scale agriculture that both produces food and respects non-human  nature – as recent books by farmers like James Rebanks and Isabella Tree have shown, to great popular interest and acclaim. It might include thinking more carefully about local authorities as owners of agricultural land and the innovation and opportunities they can provide, particularly to new entrants. It could include supporting campaigns to extend the right to roam and open up the 92% of countryside and 97% of rivers in England that are currently closed to the public. There will be losers as well as winners in all these approaches, and what cannot be achieved through negotiation and compromise will have to be won through a clear statement of what we stand for and what we oppose.

Political support for these projects can be garnered through a deeper understanding of nature in the general public and Labour Together’s proposal for a ‘National Nature Service’ that will bring the generations together in conservation and stewardship work is valuable and important. It will matter, though, what those volunteers are actually doing. Planting lots of the wrong trees (with plastic treeguards) in the wrong place doesn’t help anyone – you might be better off letting thorny scrub and brambles grow naturally and see what else emerges. But one obstacle that sometimes comes up is that thorny scrub and ‘weeds’ are not what local communities think that a natural landscape ‘should’ look like. A National Nature Service – and other interventions such as the long mooted GCSE in Natural History – could challenge short-sighted and romanticised ideas about an idealised English landscape that is, in fact, desperately impoverished and has not looked this way for very long. Noah’s journey to rebuilding the world wasn’t the start of the story – the postdiluvian world was desperately denuded of nature, as ours is now – and yet every generation thinks that the ever more barren world it inherits is the ‘normal’ baseline. A deeper understanding of all we have already lost might help us imagine how much richer our shared world might be.

Noah’s story still captivates us. It is a story of redemption and reconciliation in a world that has been brought back from the brink of destruction. A story of how we can only survive if we keep our non-human kin safe. A story of a promise in deeply unpromising times. A story of a rainbow to inspire us, that symbol of difference and togetherness.

This is still a beautiful world – we can rebuild from here. I hope that Labour’s Covenant will be a starting point to proceed from.

Cathy Elliott is an Associate Professor in Political Science at UCL and a Contributing Editor for Renewal