NFU leading the way on milk prices

22 September 2015

While watching a TV report on dairy farmers removing milk from supermarket shelves I experienced a 30-year flash back.  A group of us, all members of Leeds University Anti-Apartheid Society, are in Morrisons in Headingly.  Each of us has filled our trollies with produce from South Africa.  Each of us has arrived at one of the ten checkouts at the same time.  Each of us refuses to pay once the items have been rung through the till.  Each of us hands over a letter explaining our action, and then we leave the store leaving chaos behind us.  A campaign action that sent a clear message to Morrisons, and because we had a reporter with us from Leeds Student we also reached our target audience: students.

I’m not a dairy farmer but I am a campaigner with 30 years experience and it is increasingly clear to me that the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) need to appoint a Head of Campaigns. 

Those of you who have come across the NFU know that they are one of the UK’s most powerful lobbying organisations.  Over the years they have formulated strong policy positions and used them to successfully lobby governments and EU institutions.  

The milk crisis however has cruelly exposed the limitations of this insider model and the NFU have found themselves relatively powerless in a battle where the old ways of working have been found wanting.

The decision (correct in my view) to abolish EU milk quotas has meant that to all intents and purposes the government and the EU are no longer exclusive players on the European dairy market, hence why lobbying ministers, commissioners, MPs and MEPs is an essentially a fruitless exercise. Warm words yes, but no buttered parsnips.

As a former head of campaigns at one of Britain’s largest development agencies that led the campaign to get fairly traded products from the developing world onto supermarket shelves in the 1990s, and as a former member the Board of the Fairtrade Foundation I offer the following points of advice to UK dairy farmers and the NFU.

  • Get your policy team to work out exactly what you want for UK milk farmers, including what success would look like.
  • Identify who has the power to give you what you want, i.e. who are your targets? This is a key question to address in planning any campaign.
  • Carefully plan and implement an effective campaign to engage your targets, keep at it, be persistent and don’t give up, even if it takes years.

On the first point my understanding is that the NFU and dairy farmers have a roughly shared collective idea of what they want, but my experience tells me you need to be absolutely clear: it needs to be written down and you all have to be in agreement, otherwise everyone will go off in different directions, the campaign will lack focus and you will have in reality lost before you have even started.  An additional reason for being very clear is that without this clarity you won’t know if you’ve won!  I’ve seen many campaigns have messy ends as one part of the camp declares victory and the other says not enough has been achieved and we must battle on: all very confusing for supporters and the public.

The second point is equally key, for instance there is no point lobbying the local council to install a zebra crossing outside the school only to discover it’s the Highway Agency that has the power to do this, not the council.

It seems to me the two key targets with regards to milk are the supermarkets and the customers, not the politicians.  Phil Hogan, the EU agriculture commissioner, no longer has the power, the budget or the political mandate of his predecessors to intervene in the market now that we have all agreed milk has to be a free market.  Likewise Liz Truss as the DEFRA cabinet minster can’t intervene in the market, nor MPs or MEPs.  Politicians can be useful allies and advocates but they aren’t the ones who can deliver, so they should not be the campaign targets.  

Having identified the supermarkets and the consumers as the targets of the campaign my third piece of advice comes into play: the need to carefully prepare and then launch a hard hitting campaign, led by professional campaigners and backed up by strong policy, lobbying and media work. 

Here the fair trade experience of working with poor farmers in the developing world is of direct and helpful relevance.  The fair trade campaign of the 1990s had to create the Fair Trade Mark, get it onto products, get those products on sale in the supermarkets, get customers to buy them and, most importantly, go on buying them even if they were more expensive than similar quality teas, coffees, bananas etc. All of which is exactly what we need to do with milk.

Key point: there are lots of people out there; people like me, staff at the Fair Trade Foundation and in the development charities who know how to run a certification scheme and how to campaign to get a fairly priced product with a ‘mark’ onto the shelves of our major supermarkets. We are willing to share that knowledge with the NFU and dairy farmers, so talk to us!  Personally I’m offering to sit on the interview panel to help the NFU appoint a head of campaigns.

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