Wildlife campaigner Dominic Dyer received a call last week from former Conservative environment minister Zac Goldsmith with an unexpected request: could Dyer advise on the foxhunting ban, and how might the Tories strengthen it in their manifesto?
The 2019 election may go down in history as another Brexit vote but the apparently marginal issue of animal rights could – once again – prove surprisingly influential.
The Conservative party is spooked by the 2017 election, when Theresa May’s pledge to offer MPs a free vote on foxhunting provoked an unexpected backlash. Some Tories and animal rights campaigners believe the party’s implicit support for foxhunting cost them seats including Canterbury and Stroud – later the birthplace of Extinction Rebellion.
While Extinction Rebellion and the youth climate strikes have turned the climate crisis into a popular priority, the Conservatives hope to harvest this sentiment by championing animals, after former environment secretary Michael Gove demonstrated how animal welfare action such as the ban on all ivory trade were financially painless “easy wins”.
YouGov polling commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports has found that strengthening the 2004 Hunting Act to prevent the killing of foxes via trail hunting has the support of not only 89% of potential Labour voters but also 68% of Conservatives and 71% of Brexit party supporters.
If Boris Johnson needed reminding about the hazard of playing to the Tories’ Countryside Alliance heartland, he saw his leadership rival Jeremy Hunt criticised by fellow Tories for supporting the Hunting Act’s repeal during his failed leadership bid.
But Johnson’s attachment to animal rights may be more personal.
“The Carrie Symonds effect is strong,” said Dyer. “I would not underestimate her influence over these issues.” Johnson’s partner has worked for international charity Oceana, championed anti-whaling causes, and made a surprise appearance at this summer’s Birdfair, dubbed “the conservationists’ Glastonbury”. Dyer joined Symonds there and says she is among an influential new generation of women from within both the animal rights – and Conservative – movement.
“There’s no way the Tories are going to make the same mistake again [as in 2017],” said Dyer, who is chairing a series of environmental and wildlife hustings in close-fought constituencies, beginning in Richmond on Wednesday with Goldsmith and his Lib Dem challenger Sarah Olney. “The Conservatives will still commit themselves to badger culling, but I think you’ll see the Tories move on foxhunting, with more funding for fighting wildlife crime and a ban on live animal exports.”
According to Chris Hopkins, head of political research at Savanta ComRes, animal welfare is unlikely to ever feature on pollsters’ metrics when voters are asked about the issues that matter to them, but it may play a more symbolic role in voter decisions, with the Conservative pledge for a vote on foxhunting in 2017 reminding some voters of their old “nasty party” image.
Hopkins said: “There isn’t hard quantitative evidence to back this up but the Conservatives being pro-foxhunting is a symbol that they might still be the nasty party. Animal welfare issues are about detoxifying the brand. With the Lib Dems doing well in the polls and Labour being more environmentally conscious, these parties could weaponise animal welfare issues more if they come up again as an issue.”
In fact, Dyer believes the Tories are seeking to outbid Labour on animal rights, with the Conservatives’ “animal welfare action plan”, announced in October, promising consultations on banning primates as pets, microchipping cats, introducing “the toughest trophy hunting rules in the world” and banning live exports.
The latter is an issue that the latest environment secretary, Theresa Villiers, has supported for years. Such measures are remarkably similar to Labour’s 50-point plan for animal welfare, which shadow environment secretary, Sue Hayman, published earlier this year.
Labour’s animal welfare manifesto pledges announced this week include £4.5m for a crackdown on wildlife crimes including hare coursing and badger baiting. The party also promised to strengthen the Hunting Act with a “recklessness” clause to prevent trail hunts being used as cover for the illegal hunting of foxes. Labour also wants to close loopholes on stag hunting and consult on jail terms for breaches of the Hunting Act.
Labour has previously proposed a review of further restrictions on whips in horse racing, as well as rights for “decapod crustaceans” to stop lobsters being boiled alive.
If that sounds niche, Conservative MP Victoria Borwick lost apparently impregnable Kensington by 20 votes in 2017 in part because of her controversial defence of the ivory trade. One of the Kensington voters who booted her out was Queen guitarist Brian May, whose apolitical Common Decency group helped galvanise local opposition.
The chief executive of May’s Save Me Trust, Anne Brummer, said she previously despaired of the Cameron government but Michael Gove as environment secretary won respect from them and other wildlife NGOs.
“Michael Gove was probably one of the best environment secretaries we’ve ever seen,” said Brummer. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the Conservative government and they seem to have a better track record than Labour on actually doing things on animal issues.”
But critics argue that the Conservatives’ animal rights embrace is window-dressing from the Cameron brand-detoxification playbook, masking inaction on the climate crisis, air pollution and a green new deal.
Caroline Lucas of the Green party said: “They can see which way the wind blows and if they think they can get some more votes they’ll do it. Until they completely overhaul industrial agriculture there is a danger their actions will be tokenistic. In their desperation to conclude free trade deals in the aftermath of a hard Brexit it is inconceivable that they will uphold strong environmental and animal welfare standards.”
Lucas warns that environmental standards were moved from the binding section of Theresa May’s Brexit deal agreement to non-binding in Boris Johnson’s version.
“People should not be taken in by animal window-dressing,” she said.
The Green party’s manifesto goes furthest on animal rights, with a ban on trail hunting and a live exports ban strengthened with an eight-hour limit on animals in transit within the UK.
Animal campaigners are hopeful that an increasingly environmentally-conscious public will not accept animal rights as a substitute for tackling bigger climate and biodiversity challenges.
Emma Judd, deputy campaigns director for the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “Animal welfare is wrapped up in these other issues. Political parties would be ill-advised not to have climate change and other ecological issues including farming at the heart of their manifestos.”
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