Middle England fights on for a moral victory Middle England rises to modern moral challenge

Movement bridged class gap to forge powerful alliance. Louise Jury reports
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The Independent Online
They may not be dominating headlines but they are still there. At Dover, Brightlingsea and the offices of animal transporters, protesters still gather day in, day out, brandishing banners proclaiming determined opposition to the export trade.

"This isn't going to go away," said Clare Baumberg, of East Kent Animal Welfare. "This is just the start. Once we've got live exports stopped, these people will carry on. For at least half of the protesters at Shoreham and Brightlingsea it was the first time they had ever demonstrated.We're educating people as to what's going on and they won't go back to being unconcerned."

The protests appeared to activate middle England. The backbone of the Coventry airport demonstration may have been the young and jobless, but it was solid, sensible professionals who brought fuel and food to sustain them. For many, anger at the abuse of the animals spilled over into anger at a system that permitted it. The police were seen as complicit in the abuse and the Government unwilling to tackle it.

"The first-time demonstrators realised that the old-timers were not completely daft," Mrs Baumberg, 50, said.

As the export trade ceased at Coventry, Shoreham and Plymouth, Dover has become the busiest terminal for the transport of live animals. Every day at least 50 men and women register their objection, a number often boosted to more than 100 by supporters from elsewhere.

After Phoenix Aviation, the transporters, went out of business, the Coventry protesters became weekly visitors at Dover. Up to 300 Coventry regulars take turns to picket Peter Gilder, a transporter at Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire, and Albert Hall Farms in York, which collects the veal calves. At Brightlingsea, Essex, up to 100 people gather daily. There were 400 last Friday.

"We've come to the grinding phase of the battle," said Richard Bates, whose family are all involved in the Coventry campaign. "But we're not losing numbers. People are fed up in this country with the way the Government doesn't listen to what they want and they believe it's really a cause worth fighting for." The campaigners believe action on the streets has brought the issue centre-stage. But there is disagreement among observers and activists about the long-term implications. Mr Bates, a 29-year-old student, said: "I've certainly met a lot of people who have said they will never vote Conservative again. They have written to their MP expecting action and got a reply fobbing them off. Middle-class people rightly expect action and when they don't get it they are very angry."

That calves are so appealing has helped the cause. A spokeswoman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of cruelty to Animals said many more chickens than calves were cruelly treated "but because they don't look furry and cuddly you cannot generate sympathy".

None the less, Lindsay Brook, of Social and Community Planning Research, which conducts attitude surveys, confirmed that animal welfare was an issue that mattered to most of the population. But he believes animal rights are yet to become a decisive election issue.

"On the other hand, there are very few votes to be lost if Labour said it would stop live exports or ban hunting," he said.

Peter Stevenson of Compassion in World Farming saidthere had been a huge shift in public awareness, one that had not been taken seriously by the Government or farmers. "The Government is trying to dismiss its opponents as an unruly rabble so they can shift the debate away from the cruelty inflicted on animals. I think they have been extraordinarily cynical."

And it may not work. Dr Robert Garner, a politics lecturer at Exeter University and author of Animals, Politics and Morality, said the protest would need to translate into relatively few votes to prove crucial in marginal constituencies.

Dr Garner identifies a "moral vacuum at the heart of British politics" as the spur to action. "Ideologically there is very little to choose between Major and Blair and there has been the whole issue of sleaze. Animal rights is an issue which is not concerned with left or right, but primarily concerned with morals."

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