National Farmers' Union: Who does the NFU represent?

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A democratic organisation?

"The National Farmers' Union is the democratic organisation representing farmers and growers in England and Wales" states the NFU's strap line. However, some farmers claim that the NFU is not a democratic or representative union at all. One Council member of the NFU describes it as "totally removed from the reality of grassroots farmers and not working for British farming".15

Another farmer has this to say of the NFU Council,

'Eighty-nine decrepid, unimaginative, superannuated, self-important male ex-farmers and one woman sit round a table playing the game called Buggin's Turn. The rules are as simple as they are stultifying. All office-holders move slowly up the totem pole and - provided they don't say anything which will upset anyone - they take their turn near the top.'16

Such a view was reinforced in a recent 'office holder' election scandal. When a vacancy for vice-president arose in 2000, one of the candidates was Devon farmer, Richard Haddock, whose advocacy of direct action made him popular with NFU grass roots members. When he stood in the regular elections earlier in the year, he polled 81% in a Farmers Weekly leadership poll.17 However, in the election for vice-president, he was defeated by Michael Paske, 'a little known horticulturalist...who cultivates asparagus, sea kale and globe artichokes' - hardly key crops for farmers. However, Michael Paske was chair of the NFU's parliamentary, land use and environment committees, and also served on the policy committee.

The undemocratic nature of the NFU can be partly explained by the self-selecting elitism of its structures. In order to be on the Council, farmers regularly have to spend a couple of days in London, if necessary. This means that only farmers who are doing well enough to employ someone else on their farms are able to take up such positions.

The same goes for office holders. In the words of Marie Skinner, a popular farming activist and grassroots candidate (i.e. non-council member) for the Deputy Presidency in 2002, “The problem is they like to have office bearers who fit the mould of traditional, non-working farmers, who enjoy a two-day jolly in London.”18 This structure inevitably excludes the smallest and poorest farmers. Skinner, who was attempting to become the first female senior office holder in the NFU also accuses the union of an 'anti-women mentality'.19

Skinner also lambasts the secretive, biased and archaic voting system for office-holders. “People wheeler-deal in this Council...They don’t even disclose the voting details, there is no democracy in this system.”20 The ballot is held behind closed doors and only NFU council members are entitled to vote.

Another reason that some farmers consider the NFU to be undemocratic is its historically close relationship with government, often parroting the Government or MAFF line. Indicative of this is the fact that successive presidents have received knighthoods or greater honours. Whether this is a cause or a symptom of the NFU's general complicity with government policy is unclear.

Many farmers also testify to witnessing a 'corporate transformation' as their regional directors make their way up the ranks, abandoning their grassroots origins, and end up towing the party line in Shaftesbury Avenue.21

In 1997/98 the NFU claimed that they wanted to make their agenda more public. Farmers, however, claim that despite this, items passed to Shaftesbury Avenue for discussion at national level still do not appear on the national agenda.

All this gives the impression of an organisation that is remote from its grassroots members, over influenced by its wealthy members and generally unwieldy in decision-making. It is very difficult for an ordinary farmer to have an effective voice within the organisation. In the words of Marie Skinner, whose radical ideas for change did not win over the notoriously conservative NFU council,

"...until it tackles its own internal problems, it will not be able to offer effective leadership to a headless, worried industry and the next generation will continue to walk away from the land".22

The NFU’s response to criticism about the way it operates

In October 2002, the NFU agreed to debate a one-member-one-vote resolution for the election of President at its 2003 AGM. However, on 22nd November the NFU backtracked, blaming a new junior member of staff for mistakenly believing that the resolution would be debated. Dick Lindley, a West Yorkshire farmer who submitted the resolution to let farmers choose their president said,

“We are saddened by this move because we thought we had succeeded after 6 years of campaigning. We thought the NFU had agreed to give us democracy”.23

The proposal for a 'one-member one-vote' debate was again vetoed at a Council meeting in January 2003. Council delegates agreed, however, that it would be better to discuss a more general resolution put forward by the East Anglia branch about the need for a review of the whole organisation, as this could also cover democracy issues. It was hoped that this discussion could feed into a strategic review of the NFU already started by director general, Richard Macdonald.24

NFU 'overhaul'?

In March 2002, the NFU announced that it would reform its Board structure 'to allow the NFU to operate like a modern corporation'.25

On 10th July 2003, 'the most radical changes in the union's 95 year history' were announced as part of this strategic review. These include working more closely with the Country Land and Business Association and moving the Union's headquarters out of London to new premises in Warwickshire, either at the National Agricultural Centre in Stoneleigh or near the NFU Mutual's Stratford office. This will mean leaving behind their newly purchased £20 million property in Shaftebury Avenue, London. The 30 or so sectoral committees will be replaced by 6 commodity boards, and their will be some redundancies as part of internal 'restructuring'. The union has gone out of its way to state that this is not the result of a cash crisis, although these changes will undoubtedly save them millions.

Whilst the union has introduced greater democracy in ensuring that all council members will be elected through their counties by one member one vote, once again they have denied ordinary members the right to vote for top office holders.26


15Personal Interview with Derek Mead, NFU council member, June 2002 16' Oliver Walston. Talking Point. 'NFU democratic? Don't make me laugh'. Farmers Weekly 22nd February 2002. 17Farmers Weekly 4 February 2000. 18“Marie hits out at union” by Adrienne Francis 8th February 2002 19Ibid. 20Ibid. 21Personal interviews with three farmers in South West 22“I’m the woman to lead the farmers” by Marie Skinner. The Guardian, Comment 25 January 2002 23“NFU backtracks on vote offer” Jane Oliver, Farmers Weekly Interactive, 22nd November 2002 24NFU rejects voting pleas by Isabel Davis. Farmer's Weekly 21st January 2003 25“New look for the NFU” by Alistair Driver. Farmers' Guardian, 22 March 2002 26Farmers Weekly July 18th-24th 2003.