by Countryside Alliance

Writing for The Sunday Telegraph, Alliance President and Labour Peer Ann Mallalieu argues why Labour should drop its anti- hunting policies. 

In a normal year, 250 hunts meet on Boxing Day in town squares, on village greens and at rural pubs from one end of the country to the other, and hundreds of thousands of people gather to support them. This year, given that Boxing Day fell on a Sunday, many will meet instead on Monday. It is part of their Christmas and a long-standing country tradition. However, for reasons that are long forgotten, decades ago hunting became not just an idiosyncratic rural pastime but a totem for the class war that some in the Labour Party still want to fight.

I use the present tense because despite the huge and disproportionate effort required to get the Hunting Act passed into law in 2004, many in my party remain obsessed with the pursuit of hunting at a huge cost to Labour’s standing in the countryside. The party went into the last election with a commitment to legislate on hunting again, as well as restricting game shooting. This week, Labour demanded an outlawing of trail hunting on public land.

When Labour won the 1997 and 2001 general elections, it boasted more than 100 rural MPs. It now holds just 17 of the 199 seats in England and Wales designated as rural. It is one thing being beaten in traditional Tory shires, quite another to see working class rural constituencies such as Penistone and Stocksbridge, Bishop Auckland and Sedgefield fall to the Conservatives, as they did in 2019.

Labour’s rural problem was starkly illustrated in the Cumbrian constituency of Workington, where Sue Hayman, then shadow Defra secretary, was defeated in a seat that Labour had won in every general election since the constituency was created in 1918. All of those constituencies have hunts and, while the South Durham and Cumberland Farmers might not boast the aristocratic pedigree of more famous packs, they have a loyal local following.

This matters for Labour because there is no route to Downing Street that does not involve recapturing rural seats. This matters for rural communities, too, because at the moment they are being taken for granted by the Tories.

Never in my lifetime has the countryside been such a one-party state. Why would any political party seek to woo an electorate where it has no competition and wins almost unchallenged? Yet, as the recent North Shropshire by-election showed, the countryside is not blue by nature. It is quite willing to vote for any party which shares its priorities and aspirations.

To win in the countryside, Labour needs to engage with the rural electorate and focus on what matters to them, and not simply manipulate rural issues in the belief that it will appeal further to its increasingly urban base. Labour will not be taken seriously in the countryside until its priorities match those of people in rural constituencies.

Last month, when the Government’s Animal Welfare Bill was in the House of Commons, the Labour front bench moved a series of amendments which would have removed the exemption which allows packs of dogs, like other working dogs, to be off the lead when livestock are present, and would have required all “hunting dogs” to be licensed. This sort of petty politics is a million miles from addressing real animal welfare priorities, let alone reflecting the needs and concerns of the countryside.

Yet if Labour can get beyond the playground politics of “hunting, shooting and fishing” there is a huge opportunity for the party. There are fundamental issues including rural crime, access to public services, affordable housing, broadband and rural poverty, which desperately need addressing and which match exactly the priorities of the Labour Party. It needs to pursue policies relevant to the countryside and work with stakeholders who represent their interests.

If nothing changes, this continuing obsession will keep Labour out of office. It is impossible not to conclude that it would be of great advantage to both the party and the countryside if hunting were to be removed from the political agenda. Imagine if as much energy had been expended on issues that could really make a difference for rural communities.

This article first appeared in the SundayTelegraph

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