Another busy week in the life of the Countryside Alliance started on Sunday in Manchester where the Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers, addressed our joint reception with the Conservative Rural Forum. Then on Monday morning we discussed ‘unpacking environmentalism’ with an excellent panel of speakers including the Minister for Farming and Fisheries, George Eustice and the Chairman of the Efra Committee, Neil Parish.
The basis of that discussion is an increasing amount of polling evidence that, for the first time, environmental issues are having a significant effect on people’s voting intentions. This trend is now undeniable, but what is less certain is which environmental issues are driving it.
The animal rights movement is desperate to promote its agenda, opposition to everything from hunting through to livestock farming, as central to this new electoral force. The data, however, disagrees. As Johnny Heald of ORB, which has carried out research for the Alliance, and Guy Miscampell of think tank Onward pointed out it is issues like climate change, pollution and plastics which are driving the change in electoral attitudes, not politicised animal rights campaigns. One of ORB’s findings was that four times more people are concerned about the bee population than are about badgers. This despite the acres of publicity afforded campaigners against badger culling.
The badger cull, like hunting, is an example of exactly the challenge that politicians face in this new discussion of environmentalism. Using modern communications and networks it is perfectly possible for relatively small numbers of people to manufacture wide reaching campaigns which give the impression of not just committed, but also broad support.
As environmental issues climb the political agenda the successful politicians will be those who can differentiate between such manufactured campaigns and the issues which really do matter to large numbers of voters. They will also need to learn the lessons of the past and how skewed political priorities bring politics into disrepute.
In the face of growing concerns about the environment it is extraordinary to think that some politicians thought, and bizarrely some still do, that spending 700 hours of parliamentary time debating hunting was justified or proportionate. Imagine what could have been achieved with the huge parliamentary majorities from 1997 onwards had politicians been more focused on the environment and the countryside rather than misplaced class war.
Whenever an election comes, and whoever wins it, the Alliance will continue to work to ensure that future Governments address people’s real concerns about the future of the environment rather than petty, prejudiced campaigns.