Challenging the myth that farmers voted for Brexit (and therefore deserve what’s coming to them…)

Vote Leave campaign leaflet

Let me start by saying that I am not a farmer, and I voted to remain in the EU. Until last year, when I got involved with the Save British Farming campaign, I bought into the general idea that the vast majority of farmers had voted to leave. I wasn’t a big fan of the subsequent ‘so they deserve to suffer’ bit, but I took it as a given that pretty well all farmers were Brexit supporting.

Save British Farming is a non-partisan campaign. Protecting the food our families eat felt like a campaign everyone could get behind, regardless of how they voted. It therefore came as a huge shock to me to see the level of vitriol against the campaign on social media. It came (mainly) from remainers, alongside whom I had campaigned previously. It felt as though many of them laid the Brexit blame squarely at farmers’ doors.

As a remainer who values facts over beliefs, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the views and whether they really did represent the whole picture.

‘All farmers voted for Brexit’

It seems to be a given that ‘farmers voted for Brexit’. It is obviously impossible to determine exactly how many farmers voted for Brexit, as there was no requirement to state your profession on the ballot paper. No one expects that all accountants, office cleaners, or engineers voted as individual homogeneous groups, yet it is widely accepted that all farmers, fishermen and Sunderland car factory workers voted as one. I suspect a large part of that was the broadcasters’ love of the vox pop, finding farmer after farmer to interview about why they wanted to leave the EU.

What can we infer about how many farmers voted to leave?

In early 2016, 577 farmers responded to a Farmers Weekly poll asking how they would vote in the referendum. It was a self-selecting poll from a readership of around 180,000, so represented a fairly small sample. Of those who responded, 58 per cent said they would vote to leave, 31 per cent would vote to remain and 11 per cent were undecided. The poll found that farmers in Scotland, the North West and Wales were less likely to want to leave, with none of those areas having more than 50 per cent supporting Brexit.

However a different poll in early 2016, conducted by the University of Exeter, found that 46 per cent of the farmers they questioned said the interests of British agriculture would be best served by the UK remaining in the EU, while only 36 per cent indicated it would be better to leave.

Another poll was reported in Farmers Weekly, a few days before the referendum vote, involving 2,337 farmers. It found that 38 per cent wanted to remain, 34 per cent to leave and 28 per cent were undecided.

Following the EU referendum, Farmers Weekly reported two more polls, one in December 2016 and one in December 2017 (1,400 respondents), both with near identical results. They found that among the farmers who responded, 53 per cent voted to leave, 45 per cent voted to remain and 2 per cent did not vote. Dairy and sheep farmers were more likely to have voted Remain, while sugar beet, poultry and horticulture sectors were more like to have voted Leave. This poll found that farmers in the South West and Wales were the most likely to have voted to leave, while a majority of farmers in East Anglia, Yorkshire and the North West had voted to remain.

This poll highlighted not only the fact that farming is not a single sector which thinks and votes the same way, but also that polls are simply indicators and do not give definitive answers. The poll in early 2016 showed that Welsh farmers were most likely to vote to remain while the 2017 poll suggested they were most likely to have voted to leave.

In conclusion these polls indicate that somewhere between 34 and 58 per cent of farmers planned to vote for Brexit, with two polls after the referendum putting the figure that did vote to leave at around 53 per cent.

To put that into context:

Given that farmers are predominantly male, rural, Tory voting, and older than 50 (one third are over 65), they appear to have voted to leave in a smaller proportion than others in their demographic.

But even if EVERY farmer in the UK had voted the same way in 2016 it wouldn’t have changed the result. There were around 130,000 farmers in the UK in 2016. The difference between Leave and Remain was 1,269,501 votes – 10 times the number of farmers in the UK!

It is also worth noting that the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) stated that “Farmers’ interests are best served by remaining in the European Union” following an overwhelming vote from its council members in favour of staying in the EU. The NFU in Scotland and the Tenant Farmers’ Association both expressed support for remaining in the EU.

‘Farmers were all displaying Vote Leave signs’

There is no denying that many, many farms did display Vote Leave signs. The Vote Leave campaign was very pro-active with that sort of thing while the Remain Campaign was woefully inadequate. Some farmers say they would have displayed remain signs if they had been given them. The same could be said all over the country; the leave campaign was very active and the remain campaign, as the status-quo, was fairly lacklustre. I don’t think this can all be pinned on farmers!

It is also worth noting that much of the UK farmland is owned by individuals who see it as a good investment due to exemption from inheritance tax. Brexit supporter James Dyson, alone, owns over 35,000 acres of farmland. Like Dyson, many large landowners supported Brexit and so used their land to advertise, regardless of the political beliefs of the farmers working there.

A popular revenue source for landowners adjoining major roads is selling advertising space. Again, these types of ad spaces may have been bought up by the Leave campaign, regardless of the political beliefs of the farmers themselves.

‘Why did farmers vote to Leave? They must have known it would be damaging’

Farming minister George Eustice told farmers in 2016 that “virtually every problem that the NFU complain to me about is a direct consequence of dysfunctional EU law”. He said farmers who “want to see change and a better future” should vote to leave.

Vote Leave leaflet

Former environment secretary Owen Paterson told farmers that “dotty idiocy of EU directives had made flooding on British farmland worse.” And a vote to leave would mean “You could have a much more integrated environment policy directed and tailored to our own environment.” He also claimed, “British agriculture, brimming with potential, is held back by EU prejudice against advanced technology and science.”

Boris Johnson claimed the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was “demented” and in places “corrupt”.

Vote Leave told farmers that “we will be able simultaneously to a) pay farmers at least as much as they get now, b) get rid of the nightmarish EU payment bureaucracy that bankrupts famers, and c) save money for UK taxpayers.”

This kind of statement must have sounded appealing to an industry whose income had been falling for several years in the lead up to the 2016 EU referendum, and to a profession that preferred to be hands-on rather than having to deal with paperwork.

On the other side, Prime Minister David Cameron warned that farmers could “lose as much as £330m on lamb and beef exports if Britain were to leave.” Welsh farmers were told “A decision to leave the EU would be catastrophic for Welsh agriculture,” we’d experience “levels of poverty not seen since the 1930s.”

In short, the Leave campaign was promising freedom from tedious rules and regulations, while promising to continue subsidies, even increasing them – while the Remain campaign was effectively ‘fear-mongering’. As election campaigns go, those promising a better future will always do better than those filling you with threats of doom and gloom if you don’t vote for the status quo.

In addition to the campaign promises many farmers, particularly those with smaller farms, genuinely felt disadvantaged by the EU’s Common Agricultural policy. It greatly favoured large landowners and they saw French, German, Spanish and Italian farmers getting a larger pay-out than British farmers, with Britain paying in more to the CAP fund than it received back. English farmers in particular saw Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all receive more than double the figure for England in per capita terms. So, the idea of leaving the CAP scheme and replacing it with a ‘fairer’ system based on British agricultural needs, while the government maintained subsidies to keep farmers afloat, was really appealing.

So, what now?

We were all lied to by the Leave campaign. They were devious and manipulative and they won. Millions of Brits were taken in by them, not just the farmers. Pro-EU campaigners have welcomed many who changed their minds following the vote through#RemainerNow, yet many seem determined not to support farmers.

Despite the NFU publishing reports on the dangers of a No Deal Brexit, despite Farmers for a People’s Vote campaigning against Brexit in 2019, and despite one farmer campaigning very clearly using his field to spell out the message, there is a belief that farmers should have spoken out sooner and therefore they don’t have the right to speak up now. Remember, very few (if any) ‘professions’ spoke out against Brexit in 2016. Since then, many farmers have campaigned and marched alongside us, but people failed to spot them in the crowd – presumably due to the lack of wellies and a piece of straw jutting from their mouths!

Farmers aren’t the enemy; they didn’t cause Brexit; they aren’t ‘only just waking up too late’. The future of British farming will impact us all and it is vital that we all do what we can to support them. But if remainers continue demonising farmers we’ll never get anywhere.

Remainers pride themselves on being open minded, outward looking, and concerned with facts. Yet where farmers are concerned, they appear stuck in a mythical narrative of blame and anger. If we want to protect our food and farming from extremely damaging imports from countries such as Australia, Brazil, and the US, we need to come together with farmers and make as big a fuss as possible!

So next time you are on social media and see a farmer speaking out against this government, please don’t wade in with “you deserve what’s coming, you Brexit-voting ****”!

Show your support and let’s work to build our base of allies in our quest to hold this government to account and try and prevent any more damage being done.