Monday, 29 March 2010

Cameron in a fix over fox hunting

The majority of the population are opposed to a repeal of the fox hunting ban, with about 75% stating that they wish to keep it banned in a poll conducted by Ipsos-MORI [http://bit.ly/banpoll], and even more stated they were opposed to stag hunting and hare coursing. With the majority of the public apparently against his stance on this issue, why is Cameron pursuing a policy of having a  free vote repealing the ban with a view to having it repealed, and is it benefiting or hurting his chances at the next election?



[caption id="attachment_194" align="alignleft" width="231" caption="Will Cameron's courting of the Countryside Alliance pay off at polls?"][/caption]

I can come up with two overriding reasons for Cameron’s support of repealing the ban, the first of which being that he wants the support of the Countryside Alliance - one of the largest pressure groups in the UK.  This issue of hunting wouldn’t normally be regarded as particularly important, but Cameron’s support for fox hunting, and the admission that he has taken part in it himself in the past so stereotypically with the posh, out-of-touch old Etonian image which has plagued him throughout his leadership of the Conservative party that it could help swing floating voters away from him and back into the waiting arms of Gordon. The issue is also very emotive - perhaps the most emotive issue at this election; after years of attempts to get the barbaric ‘sport’ banned, there was finally success, but Cameron now campaigns on a platform of seeking repeal. Whilst this in itself would not seem too shocking - if anything, it would seem quite democratic, but if the Conservatives are in government, it is likely that the outcome of the vote would be to repeal the ban, as many Tories have shown their support for hunting in the past, perhaps particularly since a large proportion of them represent rural constituencies.

The second key reason I came up with is that he's looking to retain the traditional Tory vote. The party has undoubtedly, at least publicly, moved away from its traditional stance on issues - the leadership is largely less Eurosceptic, and such issues as climate change have been placed at the top of the agenda. The changing party has lost voters to UKIP, which houses many of the more traditional former Conservatives, as well as a wide variety of anti-EU voters. Farage's decision to stand against Tory-turned Speaker John Bercow in his Buckingham constituency, and his decision to campaign on the platform which fervently proclaims that Bercow is more Labour than Conservative these days, is a testament to the way the party seems to have changed, and the loss of traditional voters this change has caused. Whilst it's arguable whether the party has really changed - the image they portray does sometimes go a bit fuzzy, apparently revealing the ghost of Thatcherism still milling about -  Cameron may be keen to keep what he can of the traditional vote by supporting the old-fashioned practise of hunting. It provides a constant against a very different party.

This also highlights the issue of creating a dividing line with Labour. Gone are the 1980s, where one party wanted to see more nationalisation and state control in the economy, and the other claimed that less government interference and more privatisation was the medicine needed. Nowadays, Labour have moved so much to the right  that there is hardly any noticeable difference between them and the Conservatives. Even as late as 2005 there were clear differences between the parties, as Michael Howard led the party under a more traditional right-wing election manifesto, with such aims as: reducing immigration, lowering taxes, lessening economic regulation, choice public services, and harsher prison sentences. However, nowadays it's difficult to pick out any key areas that the parties are at loggerheads over; if we ignore the political posturing and fake rage at how wrong each other is, there are only really a handful of differences between the two main parties. Cameron may have realised that he can show his party is different to Labour by creating a stark contrast between the two parties  on the issue of hunting.

Many Conservative MPs are elected in safe rural(ish) seats - coming from Hertfordshire, I'm all too well aware that most people here would place their cross next to the Conservative candidate even if it were Myra Hindley. Whilst the survey I linked at beginning of the article concluded that a surprising 72% of people in rural areas were against the ban being repealed, there seems to be a feeling that many rural voters despise what they see as the government pursuing its own agenda, which they see as involving riding roughshod over the interests of country-folk. Whether rightly or wrongly, the view has been, for many years, that the Conservative party looks out for the interests of the middle-class rural folk, whilst the Labour party works mainly for the working class and city dwellers.  Tory candidates will perhaps be keen to hang onto the their rural constituents by ensuring that they speak up for what they believe to be their interests. This is evidenced by the The Countryside Alliance, which informs us that:
The majority of Conservative MPs in the House of Commons strongly support hunting - only 6 voted for a total ban in June - 115 voted against it.

[caption id="attachment_197" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Sights like this could become legal again if the Conservatives win the election"][/caption]

As I’m sure you gathered, I’m fervently against hunting – I’m a vegetarian and strongly support animal rights – but I do recognise that Cameron has a very valid point when he says that the ban isn't working. Hunts still go ahead, and it is incredibly rare for those involved to be punished, even if a case is brought against them. However, rather than removing the law altogether and resigning ourselves to the fact that we cannot stop these people, I feel that the law ought to be tightened and amended to ensure that suitable action is taken against those which break it. We do not usually remove a law simply because the crime is still comitted - theft is still illegal, but it occurs regularly. If any politician suggested repealing the laws against theft because it's not working, they'd be carted off to the nearest hospital after being attacked by an angry mob.

I’m also struggling to see how courting the vote of Countryside Alliance members would be beneficial to Cameron; he may gain or retain the support of many, but what about the support he loses from other groups of society?  He has been trying to win seats from Liberal Democrat and Labour marginal constituencies, many of which are not in rural areas, so the majority of the people there are likely to agree with the ban, and might just find themselves swayed away from the party due to its position on the ban.  The stance the party take is also seen by some, whether rightly or wrongly, as being a case of a posh toff pursuing policies which benefit him and his chums at the expense of the welfare of animals and the view of the majority of the public.

Cameron also claims that the ban costs the taxpayer a great deal that could otherwise be saved. This is a valid point, since it is clear that cutbacks are necessary to reduce the deficit, but the cost of the hunting ban if very minimal compared to expenditure in other areas. However, the worth of the legislation also needs considering – similar to my point above, there is a cost of investigating and trying to catch and bring to justice burglars, does that mean we should try to abolish the law which makes theft illegal? I can't see that being too popular.

A natural assumption would be the Conservatives would win with a landslide – the current Prime Minister hasn’t even got the support of his party, let alone the country, but the Conservatives have been struggling to get ahead in the prediction polls. I would suggest that part of the reason for this is not so much support of Labour, but dislike of the Tories – they’ve been unable to shake the image of not caring about the poorer and average members of society, particularly since Ashcroftgate brought back past images of being funded by hidden aristocrats, and their pursuit of a policy which acts as a means to repeal the hunting ban is not going to help shake this image. I think it may be time for the party to acknowledge that the majority of the population believes that hunting has no place in our society; rather than trying to repeal the ban, they should be creating plans to make it work the way it should have in the first place. If Cameron really does desire a free vote, perhaps the fairest and most democratic way of settling this would be a referendum - the public could not possibly make their collective opinion more clear than having the chance to decide on this important issue. I can't see the issue of hunting alone spelling the failure of the Tories at the 2010 General Election, but when combined with other factors, it could certainly play a key part in a securing a Labour fourth term.

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