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Why the Conservatives Became the Animal Friendly Party

Dominic Dyer considers why it matters that the Labour party has lost the initiative on wildlife protection and animal welfare

Boris Johnson clipping a sheep at the Royal Welsh Winter Fair in 2019. Photo: Peter Williams / Alamy Stock Photo

Why the Conservatives Became The Animal Friendly Party

Dominic Dyer considers why it matters that the Labour Party has lost the initiative on wildlife protection and animal welfare

As a wildlife and animal welfare campaigner, it’s best not to be too tribal about your politics. Do that, and you will soon find politicians can delight and disappoint in equal measure when it comes to standing up for animals, regardless of political party.

My first encounter with politics and animal protection came in 1996, when I was recruited by the late MP Mo Mowlam to join a team of young Labour Party activists to help get Tony Blair in front of first-time voters. At our event at Southfields school in Wimbledon, Blair was faced with an avalanche of concerns on issues ranging from fox hunting to fur farming and animal testing to protecting whales and the oceans.

It was clear to him that animal welfare and wildlife protection issues were of real importance to young voters. This resulted in Labour working closely with wildlife protection and animal welfare groups to develop a ground-breaking manifesto for animals, which included commitments for an incoming Labour Government to shut down fur farms, introduce legislation to end fox hunting, and bring an end to the testing of cosmetics on animals.

The manifesto for animals was a key part of the election campaign armoury for successful Labour candidates in 1997.

Conservatives Cotton On

When Boris Johnson made his first speech as Prime Minister in July 2019, he surprised many people by saying: “Let’s promote the welfare of animals that has been so close to the hearts of the British people.”

Many commentators dismissed this as little more than a gesture to appease the concerns of his now wife, Carrie Johnson. However, the Government Animal Welfare Plan made commitments to end live animal exports and the use of primates as pets; to ban the import of wild animal trophies; and end mountain hare shooting and introduce a new Animal Sentience Bill. 

It now appears that the Prime Minister also understands that being good to animals can also be good for the electoral fortunes of his party. This is in stark contrast to Theresa May’s disastrous election campaign in 2017. 

May’s commitment to bring back fox hunting and a failure to keep a promise to ban the UK ivory trade mobilised tens of thousands of first-time voters to remove the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority with the loss of safe seats such as Kensington and Chelsea and Canterbury.

In response, May brought in Sir John Randall as a special advisor on the environment. Formerly MP for Uxbridge, Sir Randall was a former deputy chief whip and a leading environmentalist within the Conservative Party. He brought in wildlife and animal welfare organisations and campaigners to Downing Street to discuss policy issues and started to build valuable bridges into the environment movement.

At the same time, Michael Gove was reshuffled to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to reinvigorate it and to allow it to get to grips with key animal welfare issues.

As Gove set to work in Whitehall, Carrie Symonds took up a new role as head of communications for the Conservative Party and quickly manoeuvred Theresa May into making a commitment to end any plans to repeal the Hunting Act.

A Pro-Environment Lobby

By the time Theresa May departed Downing Street, the foundations had been put in place for Boris Johnson to reposition the Government on the animal welfare agenda.

An important part of this was Zac Goldsmith who, because of his bid to become Mayor of London in 2016, had developed a close political relationship with Johnson. Unlike his predecessors who bowed to pressure from the National Farmers Union and the Countryside Alliance, Johnson was only too happy to bring Goldsmith into his Government as a minister at DEFRA. 

Even after Goldsmith lost his Richmond Park seat in the 2019 General Election, Johnson was quick to appoint him as a peer to retain his ministerial position and influence across Government on the environment and animal welfare agenda.

Goldsmith’s committed environmentalist brother Ben Goldsmith was already on DEFRA’s board of directors and he has played a key role in developing a strong green movement at the grassroots of the Conservative Party through his financial support and chairmanship of the Conservative Environment Network.

Important support for animal welfare in the Conservative grassroots has also come from artist and campaigner Lorraine Platt. Together with her husband Chris, Platt has built the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation into a hugely influential pressure group. Its patrons include Goldsmith, Carrie Symonds and the Prime Minister’s father Stanley Johnson.

This all adds up to a powerful force for change within Downing Street, Whitehall and Westminster. The Conservatives’ hope is to seize ground from Labour on animal welfare and wildlife protection while potentially appealing to the important youth vote at the next election.

Adopting Labour Policy

The Government has had no problem in lifting a significant part of the its animal welfare plan from Labour’s 2019 Animal Welfare Manifesto. 

This impressive set of commitments was pushed forward by the former Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman, who consulted widely on major commitments to protect wild animals, domestic pets, farm animals, and animals used in research to shape Labour’s wildlife commitments. Unfortunately, Labour’s leadership failed to score an advantage on this plan. 

It received little support from Jeremy Corbyn and his key advisors, leading to delays in its publication. By the time of the 2019 General Election, the Animal Welfare Manifesto was not even printed and supplied to Labour Party candidates to put through mail boxes.  

Corbyn chose not to front a launch event for it during the election campaign and he made no speech on his vision for how a Labour Government would remain a driving force for improving the protection of animals.

Many Labour Parliamentary candidates never even mentioned the manifesto in their constituency campaigns. Unlike the glossy Blair manifesto for animals in 1997, it had no significant impact on the doorstep.

Seizing the Agenda

The Labour leadership now has the opportunity to seize ground on this agenda, provided that Keir Starmer is willing to confront the Government on the animal protection issues it would rather avoid.

These include the Government’s failure to end the cruel and costly badger cull, its reluctance to tightening the enforcement of the of the Hunting Act, and its continued support for driven grouse shooting which leads to significant environmental damage and wildlife crime. 

Labour can show voters that, despite its promises, huge inconsistencies remain at the centre of the Conservative Party’s new-found passion for protecting animals.

It is time for Starmer to make a keynote speech on animal welfare and lay out a new vison for how Labour will build on its past achievements and respond to the Government with an even more ambitious agenda for making Britain a better place for both people and animals.

The Labour Party in opposition has found to its cost that it can no longer take the animal vote for granted. For a party which has already lost so much ground from its traditional voting base, it is now in danger of being squeezed on the left by the Greens and on the right by the Conservatives on the environment and animal welfare.

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