The British public’s mounting food price anxiety

Liv Walsham is an associate director at Public First.

“The cost of the food shopping. That has just gone up by a stupid amount.’’

These are the words of a woman from Bolton who voted Conservative in 2019 and is now thinking about voting Labour. It was also the sentiment of every single voter I spoke to for a report on boosting Britain’s agriculture to make its food system more resilient. And this palpable anxiety about rising prices was echoed in our Public First poll too, with 94 percent of the British public reporting they’re concerned about food prices — similar to the level of concern they have about energy prices and wait times for the National Health Service.

The British public are feeling out of pocket, and they’re highly stressed about the cost of their weekly shopping. So, while many in government might feel comforted by recent inflation figures showing a small drop, it’s worth remembering that for the people we spoke to, prices will still be going up. And that when the prime minister said he would “halve inflation,” what many understood was that he’d reduce prices.

This doesn’t bode well for the Conservatives.

There’s nothing original about the idea that the economy decides elections, but when the cost of essentials like energy and food are a concern for over nine in 10 people — and it doesn’t look like they’re about to come down any time soon — a governing party is in serious trouble. Add to that the fact many homeowners will be dealing with eye-watering increases in their mortgage repayments — more than an extra £500 a month according to the Bank of England — and you have an economic outlook that should be keeping any Conservative politician up at night, as well as  an opportunity for the Labour Party.

Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of those who participated in our poll said they hadn’t seen the United Kingdom government do anything to address increasing food prices. And this is hardly surprising when, well . . . it actually hasn’t. What little government discourse there has been about this issue has focused on short-term plasters, such as holding a meeting in Downing Street with food providers and meekly floating the idea of a voluntary price cap on food. It’s no surprise the public think the government is doing nothing to help them.

What is surprising, however, is that despite such worry about the cost of weekly shopping, the British public still has a deep-seated desire to support British farmers, and they think U.K. agriculture is an important economic industry — above pharma, retail and hospitality. They want to buy British food but see price as a barrier, and when asked why, a majority (81 percent) state it’s because they want to support their country’s farmers.

Yet, despite such public support, U.K. agriculture is creaking. The country’s exposure to global energy and commodity markets has meant farmers are battling high production costs that can’t be easily absorbed. Other factors like trade issues, labor shortages and changing government support schemes are also undermining confidence and making it harder than ever for farmers to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the dark cloud hovering over all of this is a much more existential threat to food production — the impact of climate change on food security, and agriculture’s contribution to its causes.

This where the Labour Party should seize its chance. And a strategy that sets out how an incoming Labour government would bolster British farming to secure the nation against future price hikes and make it more sustainable would speak to the public’s immediate concern, as well as their longer-term priorities.

And such a strategy would be a tangible example of how Labour’s “securonomics” program can deliver on the public’s priorities.

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has described securonomics as ‘’building the industries that guarantee Britain’s economic security, forging resilience at home, while creating new partnerships abroad and bringing together an active state in partnership with a vibrant market.’’ There could hardly be a better candidate for this approach than securing the U.K.’s food system for the future, making it more resilient to global shocks and protecting it against soaring prices. Labour leader Keir Starmer recognizes the importance of this challenge and this industry, pledging that 50 percent of all food purchased by the public sector will be food that’s locally produced and sustainable, should Labour win the next election.

To build on this commitment further, Labour needs to address the structural challenges plaguing the food system head-on as part of its renewed industrial strategy to boost U.K. farming. And in our report, “Home Grown: A sustainable food system that delivers for farmers and consumers,” we, as Public First, set out how exactly an incoming Labour government should go about doing this.

It should support farmers to invest in green technology, which enhances productivity while improving environmental sustainability. It should also invest more R&D in the agricultural sector to foster the creation of new domestic industries and sustainable technologies, which can shield British agriculture from future energy price shocks. Such a strategy also needs to recognize sustainable food production as a “public good” and make it a central goal of support for farmers; future-proof the agricultural workforce with more apprenticeships and Continuing Professional Development for farmers; and establish a dedicated Cabinet Office unit that’s focused on ensuring a sustainable, resilient and prosperous food system.

Doing all this would not only empower British farming and ensure its sustainability in the long term, but it would also insulate the public from rising prices caused by global shocks in the future. What’s not to like?

A decade from now, we don’t want to still be sitting down with desperate people in Bolton — or anywhere else for that matter. We want to feel confident the government has made our food sustainable and affordable.