Hunting lobby 'gagged' as tractors take to streets

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A cavalcade of tractors and carnival-style floats, depicting farmers bound up in red tape and huntsmen as criminals in jail, brought the Brighton seafront to a near standstill yesterday when countryside supporters took to the streets in protest at Labour's rural policy.

A cavalcade of tractors and carnival-style floats, depicting farmers bound up in red tape and huntsmen as criminals in jail, brought the Brighton seafront to a near standstill yesterday when countryside supporters took to the streets in protest at Labour's rural policy.

About 2,000 fox-hunting supporters, one dressed as Tony Blair with a noose around his neck, stood outside the conference centre, blowing hunting horns and whistles, and condemning the Government's backing for a hunting ban.

But far from swaying the debate on country sports in their favour, the demonstrators succeeded in provoking the party leadership to strengthen its resolve to ban hunting. John Prescott launched a furious attack from the conference hall on the Countryside Alliance, which organised yesterday's demonstrations.

The Deputy Prime Minister told conference: "Every time I see the Countryside Alliance, I redouble my determination to vote in the House of Commons to abolish fox-hunting for ever. I ask protesters outside the hall - when Tories were shutting 2,000 post offices, selling off 10,000 council houses, ending bus services and closing village schools - why weren't you outside Tory party conferences protesting?"

The demonstators, a thousand of whom were brought in by bus from around south-east England, reacted angrily to Mr Prescott's rebuke and resolved to continue their protests when the Prime Minister makes his keynote speech today.

A spokesman for the Countryside Alliance said: "John Prescott's comments are a despicable attempt at rabble rousing and it's clearly an attempt to provoke the demonstrators and to drive a wedge between us and the rest of the countryside."

Earlier pro-hunting leaders accused Labour of attempting to gag them by preventing them from holding a press conference inside the conference's security cordon. An advertisement in favour of hunting, which they had hoped to display on the Brighton seafront, had also been banned "for security reasons". But the RSPCA put up posters around Brighton depicting a fox being ripped apart by two hounds.

The chairman of the Countryside Alliance, John Jackson, compared the Government's behaviour to the East German secret police. "The Labour Party with its history and beliefs appears to have been hijacked by dishonourable people prepared to use dishonourable methods to stifle the free expression of opinion and criticism," he said. "That at the most ludicrous end is an appalling example of control freakery but we should all be aware that that is a step on a road which leads eventually to a society which has the Stasi and the thought police."

He said the alliance was planning the "biggest libertarian protest that Europe has ever seen" to coincide with a Bill to ban fox-hunting completing its passage through the House of Commons.

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