Labour's celebrity followers rally to the hunting horn

Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto, had no qualms about riding out with the Cheshire Hunt while studying the conditions of the English working class.

His ideological heirs in today's Labour Party see things differently. But while opposition to fox hunting is now common currency among most left-wingers, a celebrity-studded group of Labour supporters is preparing to defend it to the hilt.

These are people who see no reason why a passion for social justice should preclude the pleasure of pursuing small mammals across the countryside. They include John Mortimer, the barrister and novelist, Sir David Puttnam, the film director, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, former director of the Royal Opera House, and Melvyn Bragg, the broadcaster.

Three years ago they founded their own pressure group, Leave Country Sports Alone, of which Mr Mortimer's wife, Penny, is secretary. Over the coming months they plan an intensive lobbying in the House of Commons to dissuade MPs from backing a Private Member's Bill that would outlaw all forms of hunting with hounds.

Some of these prominent figures, such as Baroness Mallalieu, the QC and Labour peer, ride out regularly with local hunts; others, such as Mr Bragg, would not be seen dead in a red coat and white breeches. All are sceptical about the arguments of the abolitionists and believe it would be misguided to legislate country sports out of existence.

In contrast to the British Field Sports Society, which has always been closely associated with the Conservative Party, this group is a forum for Labour sympathisers. Its founders felt that Labour was in thrall to the animal rights lobby and should be reminded that the debate does not necessarily divide along class lines.

The issue has been given new urgency by the Bill tabled by Michael Foster, MP for Worcester, last week. It has already received the private support of the Government, which has indicated that it may assist its passage through parliament.

The pro-hunting campaign, meanwhile, will acquire momentum next month, when up to 100,000 field sports enthusiasts and rural workers from all over the country converge on London for a mass rally in Hyde Park.

Lady Mallalieu, chairman of Leave Country Sports Alone, is to give a keynote speech at the rally. She says support for the group is growing rapidly among grassroots Labour members. "A lot of people who neither hunt, shoot nor fish take the view that in a free society, provided these sports are properly regulated, it should be a matter of individual choice whether you take part or not," she said.

"They believe that if you can't convince people by the strength of your arguments, you shouldn't seek a law to ban them."

The Mortimers and their fellow celebrities are dismissed by opponents as champagne socialists with easy access to circles of influence. Indeed, their campaign was hatched over lunch at The Ivy, the London restaurant beloved of politicians, actors and media types.

Penny Mortimer, who rides regularly with the Exmoor hunt, scoffs at the suggestion that it is an incongruous activity for a Labour Party member. "In areas like the Pennines and South Wales, lorry drivers and ex-miners follow the hunt," she said. "The popular image is of toffs on horseback riding roughshod over the peasants. It's just not like that."

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