Like many people, I watched from the wings as Labour swept to power in 1997. There was a sense of real urgency, but also of enormously competing policy agendas and, to an extent, everyone wanting delivery of the manifesto – and they wanted it within the magical first one hundred days. Of course, lots of people were still waiting by the time we got to the 2001 election, not least my organisation, the League Against Cruel Sports, which had spent the best part of eighty years campaigning for a ban on hunting.
And five years ago the government did deliver on its manifesto promise, with the passage of the Hunting Act in late 2004. But the passage of that act was far from an easy ride due largely to the hysteria whipped up by the pro-bloodsports lobby who had led many people into believing that the countryside was facing economic armageddon if hunting was banned. The enormous effort that we put into achieving the ban on hunting for ‘sport’ was catalogued in great detail by the press on a day by day basis. The Parliament Square riot, and the invasion of the House of Commons by Otis Ferry and his incorrigible pals, served only to keep the issue at the top of the news agenda.
In recent months it has come back high on that news agenda. We know from repeated polling – the most recent by Ipsos MORI in September 2009 – that 75% of the public support the ban on fox hunting, 85% on hare coursing, and figures remain above 70% in rural communities. But as much as the public care enough to have a view, they think that the passage of the Hunting Act means the issue has been dealt with, and don’t realise that repeal is on the agenda.
Our experience of the last few months of running the ‘Keep Cruelty History’ campaign shows that the public are shocked to discover that some politicians are promising to repeal the Hunting Act. Prospective parliamentary candidates who oppose hunting and who are standing against pro-hunt candidates may be missing a trick if they don’t capitalise on the overwhelming public support for the ban. After all, we know that most pro-hunting candidates aren’t talking about hunting because they recognise how unpopular it is with the majority of voters, although in some key constituencies they are drawing support from the hunting community through the ambiguously named ‘Vote OK’.
We were delighted when, on Boxing Day, environment secretary Hilary Benn launched the ‘Back the Ban’ campaign in the media. We’ve been similarly encouraged by Nick Clegg’s statements that repeal of the Hunting Act “isn’t on the Liberal Democrat agenda”. We’re disappointed to see a free vote on repeal on the Conservative agenda, possibly due to the presence on their frontbench of Nick Herbert, the former head of political affairs at the pro-bloodsports Countryside Alliance.
As we approach the fifth anniversary next month of the Hunting Act coming into force, it’s worth reminding ourselves why this is such a seminal piece of legislation. There have been well in excess of 130 prosecutions under the Hunting Act and, as the RSPCA pointed out in December, it has seen more prosecutions in recent years than other key wildlife legislation, and prosecutions have a 77 per cent success rate. The countryside hasn’t collapsed economically or socially, and in December the European Court of Human Rights dismissed the hunters’ latest attempt to suggest that the ban on hunting breaches human rights.
The public can find out how their prospective parliamentary candidates say they would vote on repeal of the Hunting Act on our Keep Cruelty History website. And whilst 76 per cent of all candidates who’ve responded to us so far say they would vote to keep the Hunting Act, the minority who favour repeal or who have not yet clearly declared their position remain to be persuaded of the strength of public opinion and have yet to promise to Keep Cruelty History.
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