'Westminster ignores the plight of farmers like me – I don't know who I'll vote for'

Clare Wise, 43, says rural communities are feeling the effects of the current government's policies - but isn't sure Labour understands the rural economy either.

As part of its election coverage, Yahoo News is speaking to people around the country on the issues that will sway their vote. Read more from our election 'Your voice' series here as we get closer to polling day on 4 July.

Clare Wise  is a fifth-generation full-time farmer. (image supplied)
Clare Wise is a fifth-generation full-time farmer. (Image supplied)

For a decade after she left college, Clare Wise decided to do her own thing. Instead of taking on responsibility for her family’s farm in County Durham she instead applied for a job in the meat industry. She had something her parents could only dream of: work-life balance.

Now, aged 43 and a mother of three children, that life is a distant memory. About 15 years ago she took the reins from her ailing father and is now a fifth-generation full-time farmer, looking after a site near Stockton-on-Tees that farms beef and sheep alongside arable land.

“It was a massive adjustment,” she says. “You go from having holidays, weekends and sick pay to literally working 365 days of the year. The word relentless is one we use: there isn’t a single morning when we get to have a lie in, you’re always on the clock.”

And like the rest of the rural economy, Wise’s business has been hit particularly hard in recent years by Brexit, rising import costs, the war in Ukraine and changing weather conditions – which she is certain are directly caused by the impact of climate change here at home. “In terms of who is feeling the effects of the economy and the current government the most, well we’re fairly typical,” she says.

Wise knows her vote in this year’s general election really matters: she’s in a red wall constituency that voted Conservative for the first time at the last election. This time, the boundaries have changed and Clare is moving into the hotly-contested Stockton constituency.

And she hasn’t yet decided how she will vote. “Traditionally the rural vote has been a Conservative vote, but I feel very brushed under the carpet by the current government,” she says. “They’re not showing a strong commitment to home-grown food production.

"They say they’re investing all this money in farming but it’s not new money. The world has changed so much since [Vladimir] Putin invaded Ukraine. Interest rates have doubled my mortgage every month and all the farmers I know have their overdrafts maxed out.”

Wise fears the government is too relaxed over the risks to food security – “we’ve had empty spaces on the supermarket shelves and it concerns me that’s seen as okay” – but does not feel confident that the Labour party understands the rural economy either and worries a government led by Sir Keir Starmer might cut the budget for UK farming and agriculture.

Most of all, she fears the plight of farmers like her is simply ignored in Westminster. “I feel almost resigned to not being heard,” she says. “That’s almost a worse feeling than anger. It’s an acceptance that you’re disposable.”

Wise says that at a recent National Farmers Union (NFU) meeting (she acts as a regional representative) men and women in the industry were very emotional and described how their businesses were crumbling due to factors outside their control, such as the weather. “The government just isn’t doing anything to help us,” she adds.

Wise would like to see an election manifesto that has clear policies for the countryside but as yet has not been tempted towards the Liberal Democrats or other fringe parties. “The Liberal Democrats have a very good advisory team for agriculture, but they’re just not a contender in my constituency and I’m not interested in anything that Nigel Farage does or says,” she explains. “But I think the silence currently is deafening. We need a manifesto commitment to look after farming to keep what we’ve got and look after it.”

Climate change is a policy area which could see all three parties pick up rural votes including farmers like Wise, who was concerned about the impact of this winter’s heavy rainfall on her profits. “We should have had 350 acres of corn and we got 64 acres in due to the wet weather. That’s like taking a quarter of your pay cheque next year.”

Although the Conservative government offered extra funding for farmers working land on flood plains, that is only a small percentage of those hit by the changes wrought by a shifting climate. According to the NFU, 82% of farmers in England and Wales say their business has been affected by waterlogged land. In the run up to the election, Wise would like all parties to show that they understand that farming can be part of the solution to climate change, rather than a contributor.

Both Wise’s parents live with dementia, placing the health and sustainability of the NHS at the forefront of her mind as she decides how to vote. The cost of living crisis will also play a big part in Wise’s eventual decision.

“As a woman and a mother we’ve always got family tax credits. Now we’ve transitioned to universal credit and we’ve lost it. That money went every month to pay for childcare because I work long hours, and it’s a health and safety issue having children on farms,” Wise, whose children are aged 12, 10 and eight, says.

The family also bought a new plot of land with a mortgage just before the Ukrainian invasion – a decision that Wise “wouldn’t make now” – but has left the family finances even more pressed. “At one point our monthly energy bills were four times what they had been just because of where the contract fell, with us not being able to get a good price,” she says.

“It’s that bad now that you end up making awful decisions about livestock. You’re thinking ‘I’m going to get rid of that’, because if something happens I can’t treat it.”

Wise won’t disclose how she voted in the EU referendum (though says she believes her husband’s vote “cancelled out” her own), but says politicians need to earn her trust back again after the fallout from Brexit. “I feel we were lied to; the delivery mechanism wasn’t in place,” she says. “Trust isn’t about empty words, it’s about action.”

Whatever her final decision, when election day comes Wise definitely will cast a vote. “As a woman I have a responsibility to vote because people died to give me that vote, so I take that responsibility very seriously,” she says.