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Labour's mixed messages and blurry battle lines on rural issues

Labour seems to be drawing very blurry battle lines when it comes to the field sports issues, says Tim Bonner in this article from My Countryside magazine.

The phoney war is over, the battle lines are drawn and at least we now know for certain what the consequences of a Labour government being returned at the general election will be for the countryside.

Whilst Labour has been using the right language and admitting previous failings over its relationship with rural communities, it still has one giant blind spot and at the end of February, Shadow Environment Secretary, Steve Reed, pledged a full ban on drag hunting and trail hunting and said that “this is something we’ll do in the first term of a Labour government”.

We should never be surprised at Labour’s continuing obsession with hunting, but this announcement was bizarre not least because Labour really seems to believe that it can admit in one breath that it has “become too narrowly urban, and people in the countryside felt we did not respect their way of life,” and then in the next commit to eliminate something which is fundamental to that way of life. 

In making hunting its rural priority, Labour is doing exactly what everyone from the Fabians to Lord Mandelson (who responded to Mr Reed’s announcement by saying that hunting was an electorally irrelevant “third or fourth order issue”) has warned them against. Once again Labour is telling people in the countryside that it is far more interested in its internal obsessions than it is in the real concerns of rural communities.

The commitment to ban drag and trail hunting is a significant escalation from previous briefings that Labour might look to ‘strengthen’ the Hunting Act by tightening the definition of the offence and increasing penalties. Banning drag hunting and trail hunting directly contradicts the narrative that Ministers used when the last Labour government introduced the ban on traditional hunting. They, along with organisations like the RSPCA, promoted the hunting of a trail as an alternative to hunting foxes and other mammals. 

If Labour wanted to pick an issue that was both utterly pointless, and which also contradicts all its efforts to detoxify its brand after the Corbyn era, it could not have chosen better. There could be no more obvious counter to Keir Starmer’s claim that the Labour Party has moved on than repeating a battle that has already been fought with a mythical Tory squirearchy that does not even exist.

Buried beneath the wreckage of the announcement on hunting was, however, better on shooting and other rural issues. In a recent interview it was put to Steve Reed that the Countryside Alliance suspects Labour in Wales will “ban game shooting through the back door.” Asked whether we are wrong to worry about Labour’s approach in Westminster. He responded: “We have no plans whatsoever to do anything of the sort. As long as shooting is done responsibly and within the law, then shooting can continue.”

The message that Labour wants to send, as on access to the countryside where it has reversed out of a commitment to a ‘right to roam’, is that shooting is part of the rural way of life and it does not want to interfere. As Mr Reed puts it, people in the countryside “don’t want urban people like me telling them how they should and shouldn’t live”. Leaving aside questions about how that relates to his announcement on hunting it does now look very unlikely that there will be commitments to restrict game farming and consult on banning grouse shooting as there were in the 2019 Labour manifesto. However, Labour’s position is not as straightforward as Mr Reed suggests, not least because of his party’s actions in Wales where it has said that it has an ‘ethical objection’ to game shooting and taken a series of actions against shoots.

There is also the issue of firearms licensing which falls outside Mr Reed’s portfolio and his placatory statements. Significant voices within Labour continue to push for fundamental changes to the licensing system and in particular the requirement for shotguns to be classified as Section 1 firearms. On top of this it seems certain that the cost of a licence will rise significantly as a future government seeks to recover costs from a ridiculously fragmented licensing system.

Nevertheless, we should not look a gift horse in the mouth and Labour’s whole approach to rural issues is far more positive than could have been expected even a couple of years ago on every issue bar hunting, and we must remain confident that the hunting battle is one we can win. 

Labour’s position is logically, morally and even legally (it completely ignores human rights legislation) bankrupt. The elephant in the room, however, is the current political and public perception of hunting, which is Labour’s excuse for legislation. Like a convoy, hunting travels at the speed of the slowest, and the slowest hunts are too often behaving in a way that is compromising the future of hunting as a whole. The message from Labour is clear. Hunting is now staring death in the face and we must all take responsibility for ensuring that standards are upheld.

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