Hunting has long been an obsession of the political classes, the late Tony Banks called it “a totemic issue for the Labour Party” no less, but in recent years a whole range of animal rights issues have been the subject of endless digital campaigning.
It is almost impossible to navigate through social media without coming across demands for new bans, protections or laws related to everything from circus animals to shooting grouse. Some of these campaigns have some basis in improving animal welfare, others are motivated almost entirely by prejudice, but whatever the issue the levels of debate are out of all context with any normal person’s priorities.
Ask a candidate who stood at the last election what issues they had most correspondence about and they are almost certain to mention ivory and fox hunting. Are these really the issues that decided the General Election? The short answer is no. Our own research has shown that hunting and badger culling were amongst the least influential on the people’s voting intention in the 2017 and 2015 General Elections. This has been confirmed by polling from companies like YouGov and IpsosMori which puts animal welfare issues at the bottom of the pile in terms of voters’ priorities.
But that does not stop the tide of e-petitions, automatically generated emails or social media posts because just as with the long, sad saga over hunting there is a small proportion of the population which is fixated with animal rights issues. Social media has given them the ideal platform to promote their views and the dozens of animal rights organisations which have latched onto the financial possibilities afforded by animal issues have provided the organisation to target campaigns with increasing sophistication.
It is almost impossible to navigate through social media without coming across demands for new bans, protections or laws related to everything from circus animals to shooting grouse
Nowhere else in politics will you find such a separation between the digital world and the real one. An online campaign against hunting can generate more emails to MPs than any other issue, petitions against badger culling and grouse shooting receive hundreds of thousands of ‘signatures’. Yet when those three issues were brought together for a march on Downing Street led by no lesser figure than BBC presenter Chris Packham on the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ (the first day of the grouse shooting season) just 690 people joined the demonstration. That is 690, not 6,900 or 69,000 and certainly not the 407,000 who descended on London the last time the countryside protested against the hunting ban.
Despite the obvious discrepancy between the unreality of social media and the real world some politicians continue to react as if Twitter really is representative of public attitudes. It does seem that even in Government there is a naivity about the animal rights movement and how it works. The recent, largely concocted, online row about ‘animal sentience’ has encouraged Defra to publish an Animal Welfare Bill containing measures on increased sentences for the worst instances of animal abuse, and to enshrine animal sentience in law. But of course the animal rights lobby will not be satisfied with a Bill that just addresses these issues and you can guarantee that debate around the Bill will generate more of the same online campaigning. Essentially the Government has declared an open season for lobbying on every item on the animal rights agenda.
Influential backbench Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith has said that there are: “14 or 15 things which would absolutely have to be in the Bill to make it comprehensive, and if they are not there, someone is going to try to fill those gaps”.
MPs can now look forward to manufactured online campaigns on every issue from badgers to circus animals and many, many more besides. The Government will come under huge pressure to turn this from a Bill to protect animal welfare, into a Bill which can be used to promote an animal rights agenda. Opening the door to this sort of animal rights campaigning would be questionable at the best of times, but at this stage of the Brexit process when the creation of an agricultural policy to replace CAP should surely be the priority it seems especially strange. It will now take a great deal of care and commitment from the Government to ensure that the proposals in the Bill do not become derailed and that it does not alienate a large section of the rural community.
Tim Bonner is chief executive of the Countryside Alliance