THE HUNTING Act has become a big political issue in rural communities during the General Election campaign – indeed, Tony Blair has faced a great deal of backlash from hunters in his own Sedgefield constituency.
Just before the final debate on the Hunting Bill last year, demonstrators turned up at the PM’s constituency home in Trimdon, near Sedgefield, County Durham, when Mr Blair was in residence, to show their determination to oppose Government plans to ban hunting.
The demonstrators, some with dogs, blew hunting horns and held up pro-hunting banners asking: "Are foxes more important than people? Get real, MPs."
The scale of the demonstration, which lasted three hours, caught police by surprise and reinforcements were swiftly brought in.
The Prime Minister eventually agreed to see a five-strong delegation from the protesters, who included Otis Ferry, son of singer Bryan Ferry. Sam Butler, who led the delegation, said: “Mr Blair said he was under a lot of political pressure from MPs to ban the sport.”
In the past few weeks, pro-hunting activists have joined forces to try to unseat anti-hunt MPs in key marginal constituencies. Even before the General Election campaign got under way, activists 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 the number had risen to close on 250 volunteers.
The aim of the campaign was 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.
The military-style operation, named ‘VoteOK’ has been run by Charles Mann, 54, a former officer with The 14th/20th King’s Hussars, now a farmer. From his home he deployed hunt supporters to target prominent anti-hunt MPs. Inevitably, in most cases, this meant they helped 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 also supported a number of pro-hunting Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru candidates.
Most of their efforts early on in the campaign concentrated on Labour seats such as Falmouth & Camborne, which was 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.
Several London constituencies were also 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 were 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 were used as ‘leg men’ to do the electioneering, delivering leaflets, putting up posters and on election day providing transport for voters to polling stations.
Hunt strategists believe this extra help could swing the vote in key marginals this week by at least 3 per cent and as much as 10 per cent in some areas. Jeremy Sweeney, a former political lobbyist, who advised VoteOK, said before the election: “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.”
By the time OUR DOGS is published however, the complexion of the next Parliament will be known. Whether hunting will have played a crucial part on determining whether or not the Labour Government was re-elected remains to be seen. However, one thing is clear – the rural vote en bloc will certainly determine whether or not Labour are returned to power with a much reduced majority or whether, perhaps, a new Government will take its place.