When the UK elected a new parliament last week, voters confounded all the pundits (including me) who had trusted the polls. Two of the three vegan MPs lost their seats. Three other other animal advocates lost seats in the collapse of the Liberal Democrats (the former minority government party). The new Conservative majority government is planning a vote to repeal the ban on foxhunting. Meanwhile, the tiny “Animal Welfare Party” expanded their profile and vote share.
The people of Britain seem to have spoken: let us hunt more foxes, deer, pheasants and other animals; let us have our entertainment while non-domesticated animals suffer in circuses; let us continue to prop up industries exploiting farmed animals…
Some background for non-Brits
In the UK, animal issues tend to fall along left/right lines, with exceptions such as ‘Blue Fox’ Conservatives against Foxhunting.
The 2010-5 parliament produced a coalition between the right-of-centre Conservatives and the smaller centrist Liberal Democrats. The agricultural industry tends to be part of the Conservative constituency, so when Kerry McCarthy MP led a debate about veganism, the minister she faced was a Conservative former farming manager. Although hunt supporters didn’t have the votes to reverse a ban on foxhunting, the coalition did reverse individual moves – such as a ban on cages for “game” birds.
The 2015 election had two dramatic outcomes: almost all Scottish constituencies elected Scottish Nationalists (56/59); and almost all Liberal Democrats lost their seats (49/57), mainly to their Conservative former partners in government. Polls had suggested the opposition Labour party would win a score or so seats from the Conservatives, giving no party an overall majority. Polls were wrong.
The major animal issues facing the Westminster parliament are the existing ban of foxhunting, the cull of badgers to protect the dairy and beef industry herds from tuberculosis (leading the moderate welfareist RSPCA to call for a milk boycott), and a proposed ban on wild animals in circuses.
Parliament loses the two vegan MPs elected in 2010
Cathy Jamieson, standing again for the seat of Kilmarnock and Loudon in Scotland, was the first victim of the almost complete wipeout of non-SNP MPs in the country. The swing to the Scottish National Party was an astounding 25.9%. As the night went on, this turned out to be typical.
Constituency polls suggested that Chris Williamson would gain an overwhelming 21% lead over his Conservative rival. Chris dismissed an exit poll suggestion he’d lose the seat. Although his vote had gone up, so had his Conservative challenger’s. After three exhausting recounts, he was 41 votes behind.
Animal Advocates Lost
Vegan-led advocacy group Animal Aid targeted twenty marginal constituencies – ten Conservative pro-hunting pro-culling MPs to vote out, and ten animal advocates to keep. (Marginal seats are where the runner-up is less than 10% behind.)
Two of the ten targeted MPs were ousted – which is the normal turnover of marginal MPs at this election. But four of the animal advocates failed to defend their marginal seats. Why?
Two of them were Liberal Democrats. A party without any truly safe seats, many MPs were highly individualistic and relying on strong personal followings. In three cases, those interests lay with other animals. The Conservatives defeated:
- Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne)
- Adrian Sanders (Torbay)
- Norman Baker (not on the list because his seat wasn’t considered marginal), whom I mentioned in 2010 – a vegetarian whom Animal Aid called a “long-term friend of animals”
Another loss was Naomi Long, the only ever MP for Northern Ireland’s non-sectarian Alliance Party. Her election in 2010 was assisted by a split between unionist parties (who identify as British rather than Irish and support the continuing union with Great Britain), so it is not a surprise that she lost when they united behind a single candidate.
The fourth was a more typical loss – a very tight marginal seat where the swing went against the incumbent by a fraction of a percentage. And that was Chris Williamson.
Animal Advocates Returned
These people held their seats:
- Kerry McCarthy (Lab, Bristol East), the remaining vegan
- Roger Godsiff (Lab, Birmingham Hall Green), another active member of Animal Aid’s “keep” list
- Jim Fitzpatrick (Lab, Poplar and Limehouse) a vegetarian and former farming minister whose rule banning cages for “game” birds was overturned by the coalition
- Henry Smith (Con, Crawley), a vegetarian and the Conservative delegate to VegFestUK’s political conference
- David Amesss (Con, Southend West), another Conservative opponent of hunting and culling
- Caroline Lucas (Green, Brighton Pavilion) was also on Animal Aid’s “keep” list – they say she “tabled and signed many animal-friendly EDMs”. (To correct rumour and expectation, including in my own 2010 post, she is omnivorous.)
There may, of course, be campaigners in the new intake that I don’t know about, just as there were in 2010. (David Drew, who lost his seat in 2010, failed in his bid to return).
In 2010, I also reviewed the members of the All Party Group on Animal Welfare. Members are not consistently against foxhunting, badger culling, and wild animals in circuses, so I’m now skeptical the group deserved that focus. Even though its officers included Caroline Lucas, Jim Fitzpatrick, and David Amess.
Animal Welfare Party
After fighting one marginal constituency in 2010 as “Animals Count”, the renamed AWP stood in four safe seats in 2015. The candidates weren’t just all vegan, but all from the same vegan running club. The party had a higher profile than before, including an interview on the BBC’s Daily Politics and a surprising endorsement from the divisive journalist Piers Morgan.
Most candidates improved on the 2010 general election performance, if not the 2014 Euro elections.
|Holborn & St. Pancras
|Hackney North & Stoke Newington
In a Facebook update, AWP leader Vanessa Hudson wrote “we are delighted with the results”, and suggested that in a closer general election, “many voters, once again, felt the need to vote tactically rather than for the party they may have wanted to”. But in theory, AWP were standing in “safe” seats where the winning party was inevitable, and voters had nothing to gain by voting tactically.
Perhaps voters didn’t realise.
More likely, voters take elections to the UK Parliament more seriously, and so are much happier to use their vote for the European Parliament as a protest. For example, right-wing anti-EU insurgents UKIP won 27% of the vote in elections to the EU parliament, halving to 13% for the UK parliament.
The cross on the bottom right hand side of the graph is Vanessa herself in Holborn & St. Pancras. But she had a particularly strong rival – Natalie Bennet, leader of the Green Party. I asked her why she chose to stand there.
We did well in Camden in the EU elections last year… We appreciated that standing against the Green Party leader might cost us votes but, at the same time, we felt there were some advantages to be gained beyond votes.
We thought this constituency might get more media attention than others with Natalie Bennett and Kier Starmer standing as candidates there and we felt it an opportunity to raise awareness of our party and counter what we feel is a misconception that the Greens are the only option for those voting with animal welfare concerns in mind or represent the best policies on animal welfare.
AWP’s 736 national votes puts AWP ahead of a couple of the UK’s better known electoral minnows – Class War and the Natural Law Party.
The new government has a manifesto commitment to use government time to allow a free vote on the repeal of The Hunting Act 2004. This law – although it has been unevenly enforced – banned foxhunting and hare coursing in England and Wales. If the proportions of pro- and anti- votes are the same across parties as they were in the original 2002 vote on the principle of the ban, then the supporters of hunting will win the vote.
Travelled to London with the new Bristol MPs & bumped into 4 new SNP MPs at Paddington. Please to hear that SNP firmly opposes fox hunting.
— Kerry McCarthy (@KerryMP) May 11, 2015
The issue is devolved – the Scottish Parliament decides the issue for Scotland, and banned traditional foxhunting in 2002. But MPs from the pro-independence Scottish National Party refuse, on principle, to vote on laws that don’t affect Scotland – and leader Nicola Sturgeon gave foxhunting as an example.
If the SNP MPs can be convinced that foxes (and perhaps hunts) pay no respect to the unmarked rural border between England and Scotland, that will go a long way to close the gap.
Summing up, this was obviously not as positive for animals as the General Election in 2010. (You can reminisce by listening to the three shows with those vegan MPs – 1: International questions, 2: Your questions, 3: World Vegan Day debate). The political pendulum swings both ways, and until animal issues are at the top of voters’ concerns, advocates will be at its mercy.
Supporters of animal-specific parties will draw comfort from AWP’s slow rise. There may also be previously unknown animal advocates in the new intake. Stephen Lloyd, for example, didn’t get a mention in my 2010 post, but Animal Aid were begging people to keep him in 2015.
Britain is also no longer a unitary state where Westminster decides everything. Hunting will remain banned in Scotland. Jasmijn de Boo (UK Vegan Society) pointed out that many animal issues are decided at EU level.
Finally, Andrew Tyler, the director of Animal Aid, reacted to the result by looking at results gained outside elective politics:
While Animal Aid is determined to gain as much ground for animals as we can through the political process – and that means engaging with the new government, its ministers and back-benchers – we know the best prospects for advancing the cause of animal protection lie not with politicians but where they have always resided: amongst the general public.