Why are Labour and the Tories competing over animal welfare?

Courting the donkey vote.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

Labour has just announced a load of animal welfare proposals: banning foie gras, opposing the badger cull, curbing hunting with dogs, mandatory CCTV in abattoirs, stopping the export of live animals for slaughter, moving away from intensive factory farming, and giving renters the right to own pets.

These policies come after months of the Conservatives championing animal rights and eco-friendly policies on social media. It’s a nakedly coordinated strategy that follows the fateful majority-sapping manifesto’s missing ivory ban, and promise to revisit fox-hunting (two stories that were read and shared on social media ahead of the election more than the main parties and mainstream media appreciated).

For a government that contemplated importing chlorinated chicken post-Brexit, run by a party leadership that wanted to reverse the country’s stance against killing animals for sport, the party’s newly warm words on animal rights sound an awful lot like virtue signalling – particularly with unconvincing eco warrior Michael Gove at the helm of this rebrand as Environment Secretary.

Like Labour, Gove plans to fit compulsory CCTV in slaughterhouses (which was a manifesto pledge), as part of a raft of new animal-friendly measures, including new rules to prevent puppy farming. But despite these efforts, the government has a long way to go if it wants to catch up with Labour on animal rights.

This was proved by last November’s rush to believe that Tory MPs ruled that animals don’t feel pain (it was actually a matter of claiming domestic legislation recognises animal sentience, to avoid incorporating an EU protocol on the subject).

The misleading story went viral at such a speed and scale – BuzzFeed estimates over 7.5 million people would have read it – that it was clear how easily people were confirming their biases about Tory animal welfare attitudes.

The party hastily responded. Gove issued a statement and released a video to clarify what had happened – promising animal sentience would continue to be recognised post-Brexit, and beefing up sentences for animal abusers. Yet such a response also revealed the Tories’ concern that Labour has a better reputation on this subject.

Neither party should be surprised that the British public cares deeply about animals – it’s long been the case that a substantial number direct donations and bequests go to animal charities (last year, animal charities were the second highest recipient of direct donations, and received the highest number of legacies in wills).

But the instant positive or negative feedback of social media makes public attitudes towards animal rights feel more urgent – therefore fuelling this latest policy war.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

Free trial CSS