21/09/2015 12:06 BST | Updated 21/09/2016 06:12 BST

Animals Deserve Even More Than a Vegan Shadow Minister

The appointment last week of a vegan - Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy - as shadow DEFRA Minister has caused something of a stir.

Perhaps predictably, farming groups and representatives are said to be shocked that someone with such views could hold such a role.

But in reality, McCarthy's views on food, farming and animals are perfectly rational. The belief that we urgently need to move to more sustainable and less intensive forms of agriculture is widely held and backed up by endless reports on climate and other forms of environmental change. The recognition that animals have a moral worth of their own, and ought not to be treated as mere commodities to be exploited and dispatched as efficiently as possible, chimes with the views of the majority of the British public. And McCarthy's positions on issues such as the badger-cull and fox-hunting are also perfectly in step with public and scientific opinion.

Unfortunately, however, the opportunity for these sensible mainstream views to affect policy - and hence to improve the lives and welfare of animals themselves - are extremely limited given our existing political structures. And this would be the case even if McCarthy were Secretary of State.

For the fact is that the UK political system has no body or means by which to properly represent the interests of animals. Of course, at present DEFRA is the Department that is explicitly charged with looking after animal welfare. But of course, this is the same Department charged with representing the interests of farming. And hence it is the same Department charged with overseeing the slaughter of animals in their millions!

To have DEFRA in charge of animal welfare, then, is akin to having tobacco companies running the NHS. Just as tobacco companies could not put the health of patients first, so DEFRA could not put the welfare of animals first. Fundamentally, DEFRA has a set of priorities that can only ever downgrade the interests of animals.

This in part explains why animal welfare is so quickly jettisoned in British policymaking when it is confronted by other more powerful interests. It explains why the badger cull continues in the face of widespread public and scientific opposition. It explains why the vast majority of animals raised for food continue to be packed into cramped unsuitable conditions. It explains why the numbers of animal experiments rose over the duration of the last government, even when they were overseen by former Minister Norman Baker, who wanted to end all animal testing in the UK.

While it is often said that we are a nation of animal lovers with animal welfare laws that far outstrip those of any other nation, the truth is rather different. Our political structures allow for the interests of animals to be easily brushed aside. Animals have no entrenched form of institutional representation in British politics, and so their interests can easily be traded away.

Several models of representation are possible, and many exist in other countries. We could adopt a Commission for Animals, or a Minister for Animal Welfare; we could even seek to recognise the worth of animals constitutionally. What is clear is that if the sensible views of McCarthy are to have any traction, she will urgently need to consider the types of structural reforms required to give animal interests meaningful representation within politics.