A recent YouGov poll on the importance of animal welfare to voters should be a wake-up call for all the political parties, but especially Labour.
Of course it didn’t say that animals are the biggest issue for most voters, but when asked to name issues that will determine how they cast their vote, 14 per cent named animal welfare – more than HS2 or equal marriage. In an election that most expect will be tight, the battle for those votes could be crucial.
But the wake-up call for Labour is revealed in the poll’s question on who is perceived to be most committed to animal welfare. For Labour that is just 4 per cent of voters. Now whilst it is true that this is better than either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats (both rated at 2 per cent) the mass of voters are in the 29 per cent who said none of the parties are committed to animal welfare or the 42 per cent who said they didn’t know.
This may be scant reward for Labour who in their last period in office banned hunting with dogs and fur farming and passed the Animal Welfare Act, which was the most comprehensive piece of legislation to protect animals for 100 years. But you are only as good as your last game and there was precious little to inspire animal lovers in Labour’s manifesto or pledges in 2010.
So what could Labour offer in 2015 that could win that 14 per cent of the electorate who could deliver the keys to Downing Street?
Already Labour has been strong on the futility of the badger cull and the need to follow the science when tackling bovine TB. And they can point to the Welsh Labour government who are already doing this and have introduced measures on issues such as dealing with the welfare issues caused by the fly-grazing of horses. A strong message that Hunting with Dogs will be enforced, not repealed would also play well with those who care about animals.
Add to that a commitment to respect the will of parliament by ending the use of wild animals in circuses and a commitment to have the statutory farm animal welfare codes that the current government says are “red tape” then it’s already beginning to look like a manifesto for animals that would catch the eye.
Other simple issues could be making all wildlife crime a recordable offence, committing to funding the National Wildlife Crime Unit for the long term and tackling wildlife trade. And as many (potential) Labour supporters care about international development, the 1 billion poorest people on the planet rely on animals for transport, work and food. If well looked after, they provide more for those who need it most. So why not commit a proportion of DFID funds to improve animal welfare in the developing world knowing this will help the poorest people live a better life?
And if Ed Balls is reading this, the cost of all this is not actually high at all. But the cost of doing nothing may be to the detriment of Labour’s electoral prospects.
In fact, I think Labour in office may well do most, if not all, of these things. But still only 4 per cent of the electorate think the party is the most committed to animals. So Labour needs to shout about animals, be proud of past achievements and bold about new ideas. The New Life for Animals manifesto in 1997 was brilliant at achieving this. Labour needs to do it again. There is a large block of voters waiting to be wowed! The only thing that Labour has to lose is their title of being Her Majesty’s Opposition!
Ian Cawsey was Labour MP 1997-2010 and former chair of the Associate Parliamentary Group on Animal Welfare. He is currently director of policy and external affairs at the World Society for the Protection of Animals but is writing in a personal capacity.