Question time

This week’s note from Douglas Batchelor, Chief Executive

There is something rather odd about the General Election campaign that is quite hard to put a finger on. Somehow this campaign feels like none of its predecessors. First of all it has been so long coming that its arrival seems almost anti-climatic. Politicians of all parties have been engaged in a sort of phoney election for months, with points argued and scored all over the political piste, as if the election had been called months ago. So what makes the actual campaign period of the next three weeks until polling day any different to the weeks and months that have preceded it?

I suppose one of the big differences is not so much in the rhetoric or the mood music but in the fact that the manifestos have all been published. Party positions on policies are now reasonably clear and the political debate has more substance to it.

As far as the League is concerned, the big issue is the future of the Hunting Act. The Liberal Democrat leader has said that he would vote to keep the Act, but individual MPs will be free to vote according to their consciences. The Conservative Party have made it clear that there will be a government bill in government time which will offer MPs a free vote on repeal of the Hunting Act. The Labour Party have made it clear that they support the Act. The Welsh and Scottish Nationalists have not said where they stand on the hunting issue and in Northern Ireland there isn’t a Hunting Act. UKIP think it should be taken to a referendum and the BNP appear to be against the Act whilst the Green Party supports it. Hunting with dogs for sport is one of the few issues on which almost everyone and most parties have an opinion.

By making it a manifesto commitment to have a free vote on a government bill in government time, the Conservative Party have made their commitment very clear. The Conservative Party leader and a lot of other very senior conservatives have made their personal positions, of being in support of repeal, very clear as well. A somewhat smaller number of senior Conservative politicians have made it equally clear that they will use any free vote to oppose repeal of the Act. The majority of Conservative Party candidates have yet to make clear their personal position on repeal and how they will use their free vote.

It was against this background that two weekends ago the west country edition of the BBC’s Politics Show tried to run a debate between candidates on the hunting issue. Quite amazingly not one Conservative Party candidate from the region was prepared to appear on the programme, and some even told the programme they specifically didn’t want to talk about hunting. They apparently told the BBC that they felt that hunting was not a political issue and they would therefore not appear. To add to the general amazement the Countryside Alliance also refused to put up anyone, also reportedly claiming that hunting was not a political issue.

You couldn’t invent a credible story about the Alliance being media shy, but nonetheless it was true. The show went out with the notable absence of invitees who would not attend the debate. It must not be forgotten that the Countryside Alliance have spent the last five years campaigning for the hunting debate to be brought back to parliament and for the Act to be repealed. Yet there they were refusing to debate the hunting issue on TV in a general election campaign. It was an incredible own goal and one repeated by Simon Hart, chief executive of the Alliance and currently the Conservative candidate in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. When our Fox Tour confronted him this week, he said hunting was “absolutely not” an important issue.

The Conservative Party manifesto says, ”The Hunting Act has proved unworkable. A Conservative Government will give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free cote, with a Government Bill in Government time”. Clearly the claims that hunting was not an election issue have been made nonsense by the manifesto commitment.

As a charity we cannot and will not advise any elector how they should vote. But – and it is a very big but – I think that the League and every elector has the right to ask candidates of all parties how they plan to vote if there is to be a free vote on a bill in government time to repeal the Hunting Act. It is important to open a debate on the issue of the Hunting Act. If the majority of the public are opposed to repeal surely with discussion we can persuade at least some of the pro-repeal candidates to rethink their position. At the very least we must try.

The only way to be sure of where any candidate stands on the hunting issue is to ask them. It is extremely worrying that it would appear that some candidates standing at the General Election are being told to say as little as possible about their stance on hunting and not to engage in public debate on the hunting issue. That does not sound like a free vote or an open and democratic process to me. If candidates can be ordered not to appear and not to speak in a debate on hunting with dogs for sport, the real question must be, how free are the candidates to speak and vote as they wish on the hunting issue?

There is something deeply worrying about those who seek to repeal the Hunting Act that dare not speak about it in public or on the campaign trail. If hunting is a free vote and individual conscience issue, then it should also be a public issue, and not be subject to a campaign of gathering support for repeal by stealth and without knowing and informed public consent to that repeal.

One of the blessings of a democracy is that people are free to speak their minds and to vote as they see fit. If there is to be a free vote on the future of the Hunting Act, amongst those elected to parliament, then every elector has the right to know where their candidate stands on issues of concern to them. Voters may or may not agree with candidates responses, they may or may not vote for those candidates for a whole host of reasons, but they do have a right to an answer to the questions: will you vote to repeal the Hunting Act? Will you vote to bring back fox hunting, hare hunting, hare coursing and stag hunting?

We will do our best to keep you informed of what we know of candidates views via the www.keepcrueltyhistory.com website but there is no substitute for you asking the question yourself of as many candidates as you can. If there is a deliberate plan afoot to say as little as possible about repeal of the Hunting Act, then that is all the more reason why you and we and you should do all we can to air the issue of possible repeal and to point out the consequences of any free vote for repeal, to as many people as possible. Please use your email, letters and word of mouth to ask questions.

Our job is to make sure voters and candidates do know what will happen if the Act is repealed. At the end of the day freedom and democracy depend on freedom of information for the electors. Please do all you can to help.

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