Tim Bonner: Ahead of Boxing Day hunts, Labour looks out of touch on rural issues

IN the fractured world we live in, the gathering of huntsmen, hounds and local people continues to represent an important and often forgotten element of our political debate.

Traditional Boxing Day hunts will be taking place across Yorkshire.

It often seems that we live in two countries. The one represented in the media, including social media, where everyone apparently obsesses over the twists and turns of the latest political drama, and the one most of us live in where we get on with our lives amongst our families, or friends and our local community.

Even at the best of times, politicians find it difficult to maintain objectivity from within the ‘bubble’, and now is certainly not the best of times.

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The deadlock over Brexit and the passion it arouses at either end of the debate has all but drowned out concerns about nearly any other issue.

There is barely any discussion as projected spending on HS2 increases by tens of billions whilst local train services deteriorate. There is little focus on why many areas in both town and country still have appalling broadband, creating a digital divide in accessing everything from health services to education.

Worse, political parties of all shades are increasingly retreating to their base using dog whistle issues to try and keep their activists and most vocal supporters onside.

And that brings us back to hunting. If anything represents the worst of politics, it has always been the pursuit of hunting. How an irrelevant and fairly harmless pastime, carried out by a few tens of thousands of people, could have become the centre of one of the longest running and most contentious political debates of modern times was always a mystery, but what is really extraordinary is that the Labour Party wants to continue that bizarre debate. Its ‘Animal Welfare Plan’ was published last year not with a picture of an abused dog, or maltreated horse on the front cover but, of course, with a hunt. And when it published The Green Transformation: Labour’s Environment Policy this year, it promised to “strengthen” the Hunting Act and also to set up an inquiry into banning grouse shooting. How either of these policies is going to assist with a ‘Green Transformation’ is anyone’s guess, but the real issue here is bad politics, not just bad policy.

Labour may think that no one who hunts or shoots supports them anyway (they would be wrong about this, but sadly politics is often driven by perception rather than reality), but the issue here is what Labour’s obsessive pursuit of hunting looks like to the rest of the country.

As a Labour MP famously wrote when the hunting ban was being debated in Parliament ‘the only thing that matters about hunting is that it does not matter’, which it does not other than to the tiny number of people who do it, and the tiny number who are obsessed with attacking those who do.

Any politician who prioritises issues that do not matter to the vast majority of the electorate is very likely to be perceived as out of touch and ignorant of people’s real concerns.

Indeed, that was a point made very strongly by the think-tank The Fabians in its report into reconnecting Labour with rural voters. It noted that Labour had given the impression that rural 
issues could be reduced to animal 
welfare issues, and proposed an alternative policy agenda with initiatives on local industry, rural transport, affordable housing and farming. These are the real issues that could engage rural voters in key rural marginals, including several in Yorkshire, which Labour needs to win if it is to form the next Government.

Around 300 hunts will meet on Boxing Day in every corner of the countryside, including at least 25 in Yorkshire where hunting continues to attract strong support.

Meanwhile thousands will be going National Hunt racing at Wetherby and elsewhere in the country, and thousands more will be taking out their dogs 
and guns for a traditional Boxing Day shoot.

You might, or might not, support them but what our politicians need to remember as they escape the political bubble over Christmas is that these are legitimate activities held dear by those who participate in them, and that prioritising their prohibition will continue to make politicians, not the people who take part in them, look distinctly odd.

Tim Bonner is chief executive of the 
Countryside Alliance.