General Election 2019: Labour Vs the Tories on Fox Hunting
With the General Election just two days away, I wanted to take a look at how the campaign promises of the two main parties relate to animal welfare and animal rights, and their overall track records in these areas.
However, since Animal Aid have produced an extremely comprehensive overview of proposed policies, covering all parties and even the individual voting records of MPs by constituency, I thought it might be more useful to offer a broader context on a specific issue, and direct you to Animal Aid’s brilliant guide at http://voteforanimals.org.uk/.
The issue I’ve opted to write about is among the most divisive. It has gone beyond just animal welfare, and has come to signify the divide between the left and right, the wealthy and the working class, the urban and the rural voter. The Spectator called it “the single most viral topic of the election” in 2017, and a YouGov poll placed it among the top ten ‘recognisable’ policies during that election season.
It’s fox hunting, of course. Frequently, I encounter people who believe that hunting with hounds is already against the law, and therefore, it has become a moot point. But this is not quite the case.
A quick disclaimer; quite obviously, I am vehemently opposed to hunting in all its forms, and historically, the Conservative Party have been associated with the pro-hunting community.
That doesn’t mean that this is going to be a rant against the Tories. I am inclined to believe that the internet has become such a global-scale screaming match between the left and right, that even the most eloquently made arguments from both sides are simply lost in the cacophony.
So instead, I’ll try to give you an overview of both parties and their history on this issue, and let you draw your own conclusions. I’ll happily accept allegations that this piece has an anti-hunting bias, but whether or not it’s anti-Tory, I hope, will depend on your assessment of the facts, and how much you value the humane treatment of animals.
The Current Hunting Act
When Labour won the General Election in 1997 under Tony Blair, they pledged a free vote in Parliament on whether the hunting of mammals with groups of hounds, most notably foxes, should be banned.
After years of bouncing back and forth between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, repeated public enquiries into hunting, and numerous clashes between pro and anti-hunting protesters, the Hunting Act was born - voted into law by a majority of 356 votes to 166 in September 2004.
Though the Act, which prohibits the hunting of some wild mammals with dogs, was welcomed by animal rights groups, many came to regard it as a deeply flawed piece of legislation, with loopholes that allow hunters to flagrantly flout the law, and little to no policing of continued hunt activity.
For example, the Act does not totally prohibit the use of dogs to ‘flush out’ mammals for shooting above ground, nor does it cover ‘trail hunts’, where hunting dogs follow an artificial, pre-laid scent.
They suggest that it’s almost impossible to prove whether hunts are following an artificial, or real, scent, should any effort be made by authorities to do so. And when animals are killed, hunters are able to claim that it was accidental - that they simply crossed paths with the pack on a trail hunt.
As the current legislation stands, many believe hunting with dogs to be illegal only figuratively - not in practice. This is the reason for the continued existence of organisations like the Hunt Saboteurs, who attempt to record the activity of so-called trail hunts, and prevent them from making kills. Follow them on Facebook for numerous examples, they say, of hunting groups openly breaking the law, and instances of intimidation against them by members of the pro-hunting movement.
Pro-hunting groups deny all of the above allegations, and claim that trail hunts adhere to the law, that hunting in general is a countryside tradition not understood by city dwellers, and that conversely, it’s hunt ‘sabbing’ that equates to harassment and intimidation.
It is also worth noting that polls indicate that the public is against a repeal of the fox hunting ban by a wide majority, with a steady decrease of those in favour over the past twenty years, across both urban and rural regions. Polls in 2017 suggested that public sentiment against the ‘sport’ was at an all time high.
Conservatives on fox hunting
The Conservative Manifesto for the 2019 election contains just one line relating to fox hunting; "we will make no changes to the Hunting Act."
This is a break from tradition.
The 2017 Tory Manifesto under Theresa May promised “a free vote, on a government bill in government time, to give parliament the opportunity to decide the future of the Hunting Act.”
Similarly, David Cameron’s Manifesto in 2015 pledged to “protect hunting and shooting” and “give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act”.
All three Conservative Prime Ministers in the past decade have been open about their support for fox hunting, with David Cameron and Boris Johnson admitting that they have personally participated in hunts. Other Notable Tory MPs who are existing hunt members include Jacob Rees Mogg, current Leader of the Commons.
In 2005, in an article for Spectator magazine, Boris Johnson wrote;
"I loved my day with the hunt, and hope they have the courage and organisation to keep going forever.”
He even appeared to support hunting groups breaking the existing law, stating;
"they are going out with the hounds this Saturday, and if the hounds pick up a fox, so be it."
In February 2013, during his tenure as Mayor of London, Johnson also called for a cull of urban foxes, telling the BBC;
"They may appear cuddly and romantic, but foxes are also a pest and a menace, particularly in our cities" and on Twitter; "I would have no hesitation in supporting urban fox hunts - possibly on bikes.”
Some commentators have suggested that the Conservatives have opted to remove any pro-hunting sentiment from their Manifesto because it proved so unpopular in 2017.
When Theresa May announced her intent for a commons vote on hunting ahead of the previous election, she was met with a huge backlash on social media, leading to her relinquishing her promise in January 2018 - after the Tories had made shock losses in seats.
The Manifesto does, however, mention plans to make “intentional trespass a criminal offence”, whereas previously, it has been merely a civil offence. This will effectively criminalise the work of hunt saboteurs and restrict trail hunting entirely from public view. In lieu of repealing the Hunting Act, this may be a means to further protect hunters who break the law from prosecution.
Hunt monitor Penny Little said to the Telegraph;
"They [the Conservatives] are sneaking in a move that could leave illegal hunting completely unscrutinised, and allow it to continue without even the present, very slight, risk of prosecution.”
Historically, the Conservative Party has been the party most opposed to a ban on hunting. At the time of its conception in 2004, just six Tory MPs out of a total 143 voted in favour of the Hunting Act - compared to 318 Labour MPs out of a possible 321. Boris Johnson was among the MPs who repeatedly voted against the ban on hunting and its various amendments in 2002, 2003 and 2004.
There is some evidence that anti-hunting sentiment is growing among the modern Conservative party, however. Around 80 out of a total 298 MPs have publicly stated that they will not support a repeal of the current Hunting Act if given a 'free' vote, according to Conservative Association group, Conservatives Against Fox Hunting. However, the pressure to 'toe the party line' is a factor that must be considered should such a vote take place.
In summary, whilst it is a relief to the majority that the Conservative Manifesto suggests no plans to repeal the Act, since the current legislation is, in the view of many, failing to prevent hunters from breaking the law, foxes will continue to be killed under the current Tory government unless efforts are made to strengthen it.
The Tory party's history on this issue suggests that no such effort will be made in the near future. Their proposed changes to laws relating to civil trespass may actually result in even fewer prosecutions for illegal hunts and therefore weaker deterrents for hunters, whether this is an intended consequence or not.
In 2016, approximately 250,000 people attended the UK's annual Boxing Day Hunt. In the hunting season between November 2017 and April 2018 alone, the League Against Cruel Sports reported 284 instances of illegal hunting and 41 foxes killed.
Labour on Fox Hunting
For the 2019 election, Labour has released an ‘Animal Welfare Manifesto’ which further develops their stance on issues relating to animals, and suggests a growing interest in animal welfare policy within the party.
This Manifesto broadly declares support for the Hunting Act and proposes various amendments to strengthen it, such as;
“Develop a National Wildlife Crime Strategy and make illegal hunting and all wildlife crime a reportable offence.
Enhance and strengthen the Hunting Act, closing loopholes that allow for illegal hunting of foxes, deer and hares. This would include:
Review penalties under the Hunting Act 2004 to ensure it is an effective deterrent, including consulting on the introduction of custodial sentences, bringing it in line with the penalties for other wildlife crimes.
Introduce a new ‘recklessness’ clause to prevent trail hunts being used as cover for the illegal hunting of wild mammals.
Remove the exemption for ‘research and observation’.
Remove the exemption ‘use of dogs below ground to protect birds for shooting."
Whilst previous Manifestos did not devote as much attention to animal welfare, both the 2017 Manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn and 2015 Labour Manifesto under Ed Milliband professed support for the Hunting Act.
The 2019 Manifesto is the first time that loopholes within the existing law have been addressed by the party, however, something that anti-hunting organisations have highlighted as a huge step forward. Martin Sims, Director of Investigations at the League Against Cruel Sports said of the move;
“We welcome the bold plans announced by the Labour Party to tackle wildlife crime and fox hunting by strengthening the Hunting Act, making it the effective deterrent it should always have been, and committing extra funding to allow police to successfully prosecute the perpetrators… We support the moves to close down the loopholes and remove the exemptions that the fox and deer hunts are currently exploiting to kill British wildlife.”
Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, Sue Hayman, also said of the manifesto pledge:
“While the Tories continue with their mass slaughter of badgers and flip flop on bringing back fox hunting, Labour is determined to bring animal welfare policy into the 21st Century, based on the latest science and understanding.
“We are calling time on those who have been allowed to get away with illegally hunting, maiming and killing wild animals such as deer, hen harriers, foxes and hares.
“By increasing the number of wildlife and rural police forces across the country we will help protect both wild animals and property in rural communities, and ensure a crackdown on the types of crimes against animals that this Tory government has turned a blind eye to. Labour is the true party of real change when it comes to animal welfare.”
A forecast in July 2015 by The Telegraph suggested that around 213 Labour MPs of a total 232 had professed some level of support for the hunting ban, with the stance of remaining MPs being unknown.
In his memoirs, Tony Blair has professed some regret for his part in launching the Hunting Act, stating “If I’d proposed solving the pension problem by compulsory euthanasia for every fifth pensioner I’d have got less trouble for it.”
However, it’s clear that the modern Labour party is largely committed to maintaining the existing legislation, and it’s promise of finally transforming it into an effective ban on the blood sport is a move we in the animal rights community have been calling on for years.