Oliver Walston: Stalin would be proud of this democracy

Britain's farmers have long believed that they are a chosen people, a race apart from the rest of the country
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The Independent Online

"We have," said the president of the National Farmers' Union, "a quaint thing called democracy in our union." The recipient of this somewhat snide observation was not a Kirby Muxloe dairy farmer but the Prince of Wales. What should interest Britain's best-known organic farmer - and the other 80,000 farmers in this country - is the use of the word "quaint". The fact is that the National Farmers' Union is precisely as democratic as Stalin's Russia. Whether this can possibly be characterised as being quaint is doubtful.

This is particularly relevant today as the NFU has this week elected a new president. To be accurate, the 82 men and six women who sit on the union's Politburo (aka the Council) have elected the president on behalf of the 53,000 members who are not considered wise enough to have a vote. These mud-bespattered foot soldiers are, however, permitted to traipse along to their regional centre where they may vote for a council member who uniquely can be trusted to have a sensible opinion. This is exactly the mechanism used by Stalin to show that he was indisputably the democratic choice of the Communist Party.

The parallel with the Soviet Union becomes even closer if one looks at the qualifications necessary to become the president of the National Farmers' Union. Only one appears to be required: to be elected president you must first be the deputy president. For more than half a century every single president has benefited from Buggins' Turn.

This week's new incumbent, a Welsh farmer named Tim Bennett, was no exception. He was elected by a Ceausescu-style margin of 82-5. However much one may marvel at this example of democratic centralism, it is hardly the sign of a vigorous and vibrant organisation open to new ideas and keen to attract new people.

When the National Farmers' Union was founded in 1908, no telephone was in a farmhouse and the crystal set had yet to be invented. Ninety-six years, later an arthritic organisation insists that its members still cannot be trusted with the weighty decision of electing a leader.

Recently a small group of highly irresponsible troublemaking farmers came together to campaign for One Man One Vote. This year their motion for OMOV was put to the NFU's annual conference. Here the party faithful gather and are graciously permitted to vote on organisational matters but, of course, not for the president. The OMOV resolution was defeated by 450 votes to four. Poultry farmers among the delegates would also confirm that their turkeys (assuming they were permitted One Turkey One Vote) would probably not vote for Christmas.

The troublemakers were told to go home by the leadership, who reassured them that no less a body than the Electoral Reform Society had carefully inspected the NFU's constitution and reached the conclusion that the existing system of elections was utterly perfect. It now transpires, however, that the NFU's Politburo was just the teeniest bit inaccurate. Far from endorsing the union's democracy, the Electoral Reform Society was never even asked to comment. Their brief was simply to advise on strengthening links with members.

But consistency has never been the hallmark of the NFU. Most of its members are, not surprisingly, conservative. They were among the first to cheer when Margaret Thatcher forced direct elections on the trade unions. Today even the Conservative Party itself has accepted that in the age of the mobile phone and the internet, it is hard to sustain the argument that ordinary members are so ignorant they cannot be trusted with a vote.

But Britain's farmers have long believed that they are a chosen people, a race apart. As coalmining and shipbuilding disappeared from the landscape, farmers were unmoved. That, after all, is what happens to uneconomic industries. As the village shops of Britain close it may be sad, but they deserve no help. Yet throughout this period every farmer in Britain received (and still receives) a brown envelope at Christmas time. In it is a cheque from the taxpayer. This, if the National Farmers' Union is to be believed, is absolutely right and proper.

But then in a strange way the one consistent thread which runs through the NFU is good old-fashioned hypocrisy. To claim that the struggling business on the high street should receive no cheque but that the farmers of Britain should is no less breathtaking than to claim that when 88 people vote on behalf of 53,000, it is democratic.

The writer is a farmer in Cambridgeshire

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