Nature is red in tooth and claw - and so is politics

`Even opinion polls conducted in rural areas show people want to ban hunting with dogs'
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YESTERDAY AT lunch time, the Fabian Society here at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth had organised a debate between Glenda Jackson, Trevor Phillips and myself about the new mayor of London. As expected it was packed out, with virtually every journalist in attendance, but I almost didn't get to it. I had been doing an interview outside the building and as I set off for the meeting I discovered to my mortal horror thousands of noisy Countryside Alliance marchers and several lines of police and security barriers between me and the fringe meeting hotel. Having successfully made a detour around our fox-hunting friends, I then had to make an even longer detour around the competing anti-hunting demonstration, which was almost as big.

The idea that 400 Labour MPs are simply going to be intimidated into retaining the barbaric torture of foxes and deer because of a silly demonstration underestimates Labour MPs' contact with real public opinion. Every opinion poll has shown a huge majority in favour of banning hunting with dogs.

Even opinion polls conducted exclusively in rural areas show big majorities, almost as large as in urban areas, in favour of banning hunting with dogs.

A clear indication of the growing desperation of the hunting lobby is the sheer dishonesty of their propaganda. While they may well argue that it's within legitimate political debating tactics grossly to exaggerate the number of jobs that could be lost if we banned fox-hunting, the deliberate lie that this is just the first stage in banning hunting, shooting and fishing reveals that they know that they can't win the argument on the facts. In my 12 years as a Member of Parliament I have had thousands of letters urging me to vote to ban fox-hunting, deer-hunting and hare-coursing, but I have never had a single letter asking me to ban shooting, and only one complaining about fishing.

The difference between fishing, shooting, and hunting with dogs rests on the question of the degree of pain and terror inflicted on the animals concerned. If you are opposed to killing any animals at all, in any circumstances, and live your life according to those tenets - by not eating meat or wearing leather - that is, of course, a completely logical and coherent set of beliefs. But the vast majority of people take a more pragmatic view. We know that 999 out of 1,000 animals are eaten by other animals. Nature truly is red in tooth and claw, and it is wrong to be sentimental or anthropomorphic about the struggle for survival. That's why most people eat meat, wear leather shoes and are prepared to allow experiments on animals providing that the experiment is essential to save human life.

But the quid pro quo of our behaving in this way is that we must do all we can to ensure that the suffering of the animals we use for our own needs is restricted to a minimum. That is why Labour has pushed for an end to the factory farming of chickens. It's why the Labour GLC banned the use of veal in GLC canteens, and it is why a huge majority want an end to cosmetics testing on animals.

That's why most of the population do not get as passionate about shooting or fishing as they do about a terrorised animal being hunted for miles and eventually torn apart.

It is silly and counterproductive for the Countryside Alliance to muddy the waters in this way. They would be much better employed spending their time in rooting out the right-wing extremists who are intent on infiltrating the Alliance in the hope that they can use it to recruit new members to Fascist and Nazi groups. The sort of propaganda that refers to "the Jew Straw and his monkey Boateng" is, of course, condemned by the Countryside Alliance leadership, but it is there, circulating on the wilder fringes of the hunting lobby, and nobody should be surprised that people whose main pastime is watching wild mammals being torn to bits, might also harbour anti-Semitic and racist views.

The simple fact is, the vast majority of the public and the MPs who represent them are going to ban hunting with dogs, and as soon as Parliament reassembles MPs will be putting their names forward for inclusion in the private members' ballot. There is every possibility that another Private Member's Bill to ban hunting will be brought forward, but if it is not, then the Government will use its own legislative time to pass the new law.

Last year, when a small group of Tory MPs talked out the last Private Member's Bill, Labour's Chief Whip gave a categorical assurance to all of us that as soon as Labour had removed the overwhelming Tory majority in the House of Lords by the removal of hereditary peers' right to vote, the Government would ensure that anti-hunting legislation on was carried into law. The Government will be able to honour that commitment once we complete our reform of the House of Lords.

At the same time as Labour ends the barbarism of hunting, it will continue to press ahead with its measures to rescue the farming industry and look at how a whole range of policies on transport and planning can be used to reverse the decline in our rural communities.

Since the Second World War, many small farms have been driven out of business and swallowed up by huge multinational conglomerates that have ploughed up the hedgerows, swept away most of our remaining ancient woodlands and filled in more than half the ponds that are so essential for the support of wildlife. These same agribusinesses have then saturated our soil with pesticides, polluted our water with nitrates, and contaminated the bodies of our children with the hormones and antibiotics they use in animal feed.

Increasingly, people will be prepared to pay more for food that does not slowly destroy their immune systems. Re-creating a healthy farming industry could create tens of thousands of rural jobs, as we clean up the damage that has been wrought in the countryside in recent decades. These are the sort of policies that the Countryside Alliance should be fighting for. If they did, they would surely win the backing of the British people and this Government.