MORI polling in 2005 showed that 14% of respondents said that animal welfare was an issue that would be ‘very important’ in helping to decide which party they would vote for – up 3% from 2001.
The Labour party was clearly identified as the party with the best policies on animal welfare (24% thought so compared to 9% for the Tories and 8% for the Lib Dems).
So why does animal welfare not feature more in Labour thinking, policy or public relations? It is an area where the party has a clear advantage over the other main parties.
Recent policy documents from both the Labour party (The Choice for Britain) and the Labour group of the Local Government Association (Putting Fairness First) contain not a single mention.
Hunting with hounds will be one of the defining issues in the forthcoming election. Labour banned it but, incredibly, the Tories seem determined to try to bring it back, in part, as a sop to their landed backers. Hunts have been active since the ban came into force in the hope of a Tory return and, all the while, providing focal points for anti-Labour venom and activity.
Part of the pro-hunt campaign is focused on the Vote-OK website which claims that during the last election its supporters helped to deliver 3.4 million leaflets, address 2.1 million envelopes and erect 55,000 posters – all aimed at undermining Labour candidates. This year we can expect the same and more.
It is no coincidence that Nick Herbert, the Conservative shadow secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was one of the leading lights behind the formation of the Countryside Alliance.
The Conservative party website is telling. The first two results of a search for ‘animal welfare’ refer to the European parliament. The fourth is an article by Herbert himself arguing there is a ‘compelling case to get the hunting ban off the statute book.’
While in office Labour has had a good track record. As well as the hunting ban, Labour has brought in a new Animal Welfare Act, banned fur factory farming, driftnet fishing (which helps protect dolphins and sea birds) and the testing of cosmetics, toiletries, alcohol and tobacco on animals. Labour has also refused to license any testing on great apes (such as chimpanzees) and established the National Centre for the Replacement, Reduction and Refinement of Animals in Research which provides research into alternatives to animal testing. During 2009 it was the Labour government and Labour MEPs whose work and commitment was crucial in securing a European Union-wide ban on the commercial trade in seal products.
More could and should have been done – it is a disgrace that we still allow wild animal performances in circuses, for instance – but no other government has done as much for animals. Ever.
So why is current policy discussion seemingly devoid of mention of animal welfare – do those involved in drawing up the manifesto just not get it? By contrast, David Cameron has been wooing animal welfare organisations, even appearing at a seminar attended by many of them to discuss policy. But his credibility is zero.
Perhaps the praise for Labour’s achievements so far should be directed at Labour backbenchers. It is they that shaped the legislation on hunting with hounds, shifting it away from a middle way licensing scheme, favoured by the inner circle of government, to an outright ban.
Prior to the 1997 election, a leaflet called ‘New Life for Animals’ was produced and distributed by New Labour. It was a success and could well have helped to produce the public opinion reflected in the later polls. Simply producing a new version is unlikely to be enough this time round with both opposition parties planning to outdo each other in this area.
Further evidence as to the commitment of the parties to animal welfare is provided by current and past early day motions signed by MPs. Last year 143 MPs signed one motion in support of a seal product import ban. Of those 105 were Labour members, only 9 were Conservative and, of those, at least two known animal welfare stalwarts will not be standing again. Before the Commons at the time of writing one motion calling for real fur to be labelled has attracted 159 signatures – once more with only 9 Conservatives adding their names.
The government recently missed an ideal opportunity to contribute to both climate change targets and animal welfare with Defra’s new policy for food (Food 2030) launch.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the livestock industry globally generates 18% of all human-caused greenhouse gases (GHG) – more than the entire transport sector. Even this may be a serious underestimate ignoring, as it does, the respiration of the animals themselves, the full effect of deforestation to provide grassland and the real impact of animals burping (methane). An analysis from Worldwatch shows that livestock and meat-eating may be responsible for as much as 51% of GHGs.
Prior to last year’s Copenhagen climate change conference, Sir Paul McCartney and European parliament president Jerzy Buzek MEP launched a ‘meat free Monday’ initiative in the European parliament. Buzek urged everyone ‘to act globally to face global challenges, but not to ignore what we do at home,’ when opening the ‘less meat – less heat’ hearing on 3 December. The idea of one meat-free day a week was highlighted as a way for an individual to make a difference to global warming. ‘It is very doable,’ said Sir Paul and so it is. Eating less meat has an immediate impact. Unlike energy conservation schemes and investment in clean energy which involve long lead times and rely on others, people can play a part straight away – at no cost to themselves.
So it is disappointing that the government has not joined in and Labour seems to have no plans to.
Perhaps, as a vegetarian himself, minister Hilary Benn was wary of going down this route, fearing the wrath of the meat industry which is already flagging up the need to crank up intensification of livestock production to meet the demands of an increasing human population.
So what should happen next? As a minimum, a future Labour government should pledge to:
• Clearly label real fur products, in line with its own National Policy Forum view – consumers are buying real fur items without even realising it
• Bring in an effective strategy to enforce the ban on hunting with hounds – the current ban is being treated with contempt by some of the toffs that will never vote Labour. Breaching the act should be a notifiable offence
• Bring in a ban on wild animals in circuses – Bolivia has recently done so!
• End the factory farming of game birds for shooting – more than 45 million pheasants and partridges are mass produced each year in the UK in hatcheries and rearing sheds. The young birds are fattened and released as moving targets for shooters
• Bring in a strategy to reduce meat consumption thereby helping animals, contributing to targets for GHGs, and improving health (all in one go!)
• Extend the ban on testing cosmetic products on animals to household products and increase the investment in finding alternatives to animal testing – it’s time for more relevant, effective science
• Work with relevant agencies to provide ‘safe houses’ for pets – many women, in particular, remain in dangerous, abusive situations facing domestic violence as they will not leave the family pet behind. Providing temporary, secure homes for the animals would help victims to escape
• Bring an end to ‘pet fairs.’ Exotic animals are not good pets and the trade in wildlife is a threat to some species. Pet fairs are opposed by the British veterinary association due to their poor welfare
Such a set of measures are simple, defensible and justifiable. They would find favour with the majority of the public, particularly Labour’s core voters and would create a programme that the Tories could not and would not match.
Mahatma Gandhi said ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’ The same thought can be applied to political parties.
No election will ever be won on animal welfare policy – nor should it be – but by extending social justice to animals, the Labour party would distinguish itself from others and would secure the vote of those who associate it with compassion and fairness. It would also be doing something because – quite simply – it is the right thing to do. Not such a bad thing.
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