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Hunting activists out to unseat MPs

WITH THE General Election due to be announced next week, pro-hunting activists have joined forces to try to unseat anti-hunt MPs in key marginal constituencies, writes Nick Mays.

Activists have delivered 250,000 leaflets, stuffed 86,500 envelopes and hand-addressed 75,000 envelopes in 30 constituencies. Around 26 of the country’s 250 hunts have become involved so far and each hunt is providing an average of 122 volunteers. By the start of the election campaign, which is expected next week, the number should rise to 225.

The aim is to get pro-hunt candidates into Parliament where the legislation outlawing hunting can then be reversed. Tory leader Michael Howard has already pledged a vote to repeal the hunting ban if the Conservatives form the next Government, but the activists’ plans are an added insurance.

The military-style operation, named ‘VoteOK’ is run by Charles Mann, 54, a former officer with The 14th/20th King’s Hussars, now a farmer. From the attic of a Gloucestershire cattle shed, he is deploying hunt supporters to target prominent anti-hunt MPs. Inevitably in most cases this means they are helping Tory candidates because the Conservatives have pledged to offer government time for a new vote to repeal the hunt ban. However, tactical voting is the key to success, so the campaign is also supporting a number of pro-hunting Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru candidates.

VoteOK is currently extending its campaign to Scotland and Mr Mann will inform the Electoral Commission that he intends to register VoteOK as a third party at the election.

In less than eight weeks Mr Mann and his wife, Chipps, have enlisted 120 VoteOK directors in the target seats who are marshalling campaigners.

Most of their efforts so far have concentrated on Labour seats such as Falmouth & Camborne, which is held by Candy Atherton; The Wrekin, held by Peter Bradley, the parliamentary private secretary of Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister; and Worcester, held by Michael Foster, whose private member’s Bill in 1997 first started the onslaught against hunting.

Sally Merison, chairwoman of the National Coursing Club, has organised a team in Romsey to campaign against Sandra Gidley, the anti-hunt Liberal Democrat MP. The team were out and about last weekend supporting Caroline Nokes, the Tory candidate.

A coach load of Avon Vale hunt supporters have delivered 30,000 leaflets in Hammersmith and Fulham in an attempt to unseat Iain Coleman, the Labour MP.

Members of the Barlow hunt and Ecclesford Beagles in Derbyshire have addressed 9,000 envelopes in High Peak and are in the middle of addressing 15,000 in Sheffield Hallam to support the sitting MP, Richard Allan, a Liberal Democrat.

Last weekend 40 members of the Quorn, Oakley Foot and Belvoir hunts in Leicestershire delivered 10,000 leaflets in Loughborough on behalf of Nicky Morgan, the Tory candidate.

Several London constituencies have been targeted, with plans to topple Labour MPs Tony Colman in Putney, Martin Linton in Battersea, Stephen Twigg, the Education Minister, in Enfield Southgate and Geraint Davies in Croydon Central.

However, campaigners have been instructed not to raise hunting on the doorsteps. Senior hunting figures do not think hunting is a serious election issue and that voters are more concerned about taxation, health and education.

Instead the volunteers are being used as "leg men" to do the electioneering, delivering leaflets, putting up posters and on election day providing transport for voters to polling stations.

Some are also involved in telephone canvassing but are operating from scripts prepared by the parties.

Hunt strategists believe this extra help could swing the vote in key marginals by at least 3 per cent and as much as 10 per cent in some areas. They are now calculating which should be their top 40 seats to target where they might achieve a swing of 7 per cent.

Jeremy Sweeney, a former political lobbyist, who is now advising VoteOK, said: "We are convinced that our campaigners will make a difference at the election. Sitting MPs won’t have noticed the impact yet but you only have to look at the number of volunteers who normally help out in elections and you can see our involvement is quite a striking difference."