Labour Party Conference: Wax-jacketed classes stage massed demonstration in favour of hunting Thousands of foxhunting supporters

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THOUSANDS OF fox-hunting supporters laid siege to the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth yesterday, claiming that a ban on hunting would destroy rural life.

The protesters, shouting: "Listen to us", took nearly an hour to march past the conference centre, shortly before the Prime Minister was due to deliver his keynote address.

Mr Blair's response from the platform was terse: "There has been no safer day for foxes in years." He gave little credence to the claims of widespread damage to the rural economy: "I don't believe that the future of rural Britain depends on fox-hunting."

Mr Blair also dismissed a bitter attack by the Labour peer Baroness Mallalieu, who claimed the Government was motivated by class hatred: "The truth of the matter is that the Prime Minister is playing party politics with people's lives, people's jobs and people's families," she said.

Hundreds of police officers in riot gear lined the route outside the conference centre to keep apart the Countryside Alliance procession and about a hundred anti-fox-hunting protesters, who hurled insults and fruit at the pro-hunt lobby from behind the police lines.

There had been warnings of violent clashes after the British National Party and anarchists threatened to infiltrate the proceedings, but the massive demonstration - one of the biggest seen at any Labour conference - passed off with no serious incidents.

A dray drawn by two grey carthorses, carrying a banner saying, "Remember Tolpuddle", led the mile-long procession of hunt supporters, who streamed by in a river of tweed and waxed jackets. There was a carnival atmosphere for most of the march through the town but, as they approached the conference centre, anti-hunt protesters - from middle-aged women to teenage boys in battle dress and dreadlocks - banged drums, blew hunting horns and shouted "Scum" at the marchers.

One man, who had clambered on to a bus stop, yelled: "You're all dinosaurs - your days are numbered," at a group of bemused pensioners who had stopped to see the spectacle.

Among those watching the event was the Labour left-winger Tony Benn. He said that hunting was a "totally uncivilised practice - 70 per cent of the people think we should stop it. These people don't represent anyone. Next thing, they'll be asking for us to bring back bear-baiting."

The Countryside Alliance claimed that the marchers consisted mainly of people who will lose their jobs if fox-hunting is banned. They included Christina Smart, 18, a groom from the Portman Hunt. "The rest of my life depends on it," she said. "This march is going to show people that they cannot say we are just a minority. We have to be listened to."

The demonstrators chanted "Listen to us" as they marched past the delegates hurrying into the hall for the Prime Minister's speech. Most Labour members took no notice, including Lord Bragg, the television presenter and Labour peer, who opposes the ban and had to walk past the baying crowd of protesters.

The Government was still unclear about how it will fulfil Mr Blair's pledge to ban fox-hunting before the general election, and those who support a ban are becoming convinced that it will rely on a backbench MP taking up a Bill in the ballot of MPs next January.

To succeed, the Government will have to guarantee time for the Bill, but senior sources in the House of Lords have confirmed that the Chief Whip in the Lords, Lord Carter, has told Mr Blair he cannot guarantee a majority for the Bill, even after the removal of most of the hereditary peers.