The last couple of months have seen a huge amount of to-and-froing over the hunting ban from David Cameron. After the Federation of Welsh Farmers Packs published research into the use of dogs to flush out foxes, which seemed to indicate that using several dogs (ie, a pack), was more efficient and, arguably, less cruel than the current legal limit of two, it looked as if he might change his tune on the issue. The PM let it be known that he was ‘sympathetic’ to the idea, and that Defra was ‘considering’ the research. In PMQs in early March, he even said that there might be a vote on the topic…
But that was only a temporary hiccup. Towards the end of March he abandoned his plans to relax the ban and allow farmers to use more than two dogs, and as Isabel Hardman reported yesterday, it has emerged that Cameron has u-turned on his Coalition Agreement promise to hold a free vote on repealing the hunting ban in the Commons.
But what’s more confusing is why Cameron even considers hunting to be an issue. Each of the parties appears to have convinced themselves that hunting is an issue for their voters, and that their attitude towards it will affect the election result. But is this really an issue that most people are bothered about? An ORB poll earlier this year showed that for the majority of people – whether they lived in an urban or a rural environment – the hunting issue wouldn’t affect their likelihood of voting Tory. And a couple of weeks ago, the ‘online campaigning community’ 38 Degrees, which Fraser has previously described as a ‘leftist pressure group’, decided not to campaign against hunting because a ‘large number’ of their members were against the idea. As an electoral issue, hunting is largely irrelevant.
Of course there are people who are passionately opposed to, as well as passionately in favour of, revoking the hunting ban. But on either side of the argument, the number of people who think that it’s an electoral issue appears to be negligible, to say the least. Around 50,000 people actually hunt on a regular basis. Just over 400,000 marched in the Countryside Alliance’s 2002 Liberty and Livelihood demonstration against the hunting ban, and we can assume that most of them would vote in favour of repeal. Those vehemently opposed to hunting are probably best represented by the League Against Cruel Sports, which currently boasts a membership of anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000 members, though they won’t reveal exact numbers.
So why all the fuss? The current shambles over the hunting ban appears to be a mess of the government’s making. By tying itself in knots over whether to hold a vote, either on repeal or on amending the current law, the Tories have succeeded in making both Labour and the Lib Dems think that it is an electorally important issue, when it really isn’t. A class issue, maybe. Cameron’s probably right that, having filled his inner cabinet with Old Etonians, it won’t do his image much good to link himself to a sport that, rightly or wrongly, has become associated with toffs and the landed gentry. But an electoral issue it ain’t.