A Critique of Labour’s Animal Welfare Plan

Former OULC Membership & Alumni Officer and President of the OU Animal Ethics Society, Isabel Barber, attacks Labour’s recent announcements on animal welfare for being insufficiently radical.

Labour is not and has never been the party for non-human animals. Other species may not be political beings, with the potential to obtain voting eligibility, but they can suffer. This Benthamite argument runs parallel to the ethical foundations of the Labour Party, which has always sought to minimise unnecessary harm to workers, marginalised groups and vulnerable individuals.

Jay Staker has outlined a convincing case for the Left to adopt a firm stance against eating meat, arguing that even if ethical grounds relating to animals are overlooked, then environmental implications alone still merit this conclusion. Despite my agreement with this position, I do not echo commensurate confidence in Labour’s past record or proposed intentions to decrease animal suffering.

Examining the recent history of legislation in animal welfare, brought into force under the Blair government, undeniably certain commendable measures have been taken: the 2000 Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act; the 2004 Hunting Act; and 2006 Animal Welfare Act.

However, these laws only affect certain species and do not predominantly have the best interest of the animal at heart. The Fur Farming Act does not amount to a ban on imports and an efficient system of policing labelling regulations has instead proved nebulous. Humane Society International investigators have exposed a multitude of high street shops selling rabbit, cat and minx under the label of ‘faux’.

As for the Hunting Act, it is as much about class divisions as it is saving foxes. The worry is the rhetoric of animal suffering is being used for political means, whilst the key advantage is removed from the subject whose life is at stake.

Labour’s current Animal Welfare Plan likewise makes proposals which are deficient in their understanding of and commitment to creating tangible change for non-human animals. Other than helping to police the worst cases of animal abuse, supporting mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses does not eliminate the pain and fear of millions of animals each year facing their death. Labour must insist on their plan to grant subsidies away from intensive factory farming and see this as a step in a process that will eventually lead to the abolition of the slaughterhouse and all means of animal agriculture.

Unfortunately, avoiding widespread and meaningful change, recognising animal sentience in law will not, as Labour claim, “prevent practices that expose animals to cruel and degrading treatment”. Sue Hayman, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, appears moronic when pledging “to make sure the UK has equal and better animal rights across the world”. To speak of rights, whilst under EU legislation non-human animals are classified as property, is absurd. Until a breakthrough by the Non-Human Rights Project begins granting animals personhood in common law courts, they will never hold such a capacity. Nevertheless, the recognition of animal sentience is culturally important to acknowledge because it forces us to re-evaluate our duties towards other species.

In terms of policy improvement, each section of the Animal Welfare Plan needs developing further. A wavering ambivalence on issues that may be conceived as controversial in undermining cultural norms fools no one; the subsequent loss of urgency to debate such matters, further induced by a submission to a libertarian approach, which instead uses external regulating bodies, is simply disguising a non-parliamentary human authority with vested interests in the continuation of animal exploitation.

For instance, information on ‘Animals in Sport’ is bereft of detail and there appears an obvious absence of any stance on horse racing. Last weekend, the gun at Aintree sent the field out of the stalls, whilst another was pointed at the head of Lilbitluso, after falling at a fence. In which other ‘sport’ is at least one participating animal all but guaranteed to be destroyed during the course of the event? The punishing endurance test of the steeplechase, partnered with the last century’s selective breeding of light, agile and fragile boned thoroughbreds, means horses are susceptible to fractures and vulnerable to falls. When this occurs, they are extirpated on site.

Since 2007, Animal Aid’s ‘Race Horse Death Watch’ has documented over 1 600 on-course fatalities in Britain. This figure does not account for elective euthanasia, or, as is common with greyhound racing, those sent to their deaths or sold for dog meat upon the expiration of their economic value. Retirement sanctuaries and adoption schemes are overstretched and cannot support the volume of redundant animals produced by the ‘sports’ each year.

Although I believe Labour must join the League Against Cruel Sports in their desire to abolish the Grand National, the references to horse racing in UK politics has been emblazoned with a trivial quality that, as with fox hunting, links back to attacks on class privilege.

Dennis Skinner’s much anticipated quips at the state opening of parliament rarely go amiss. Last year, he reprimanded the Queen, who was later that day set to attend the Royal Ascot: “get your skates on, first race is half past two.” Witty in its delivery and reception, the Queen was reduced to her elite interests, distinct from the common people being represented in parliament. All the same, this illustrates the ease at which the PLP accepts humour relating to an event that we may also argue epitomises our society’s often nonchalant attitudes towards the callous treatment of animals at the expense of human pursuit.

Labour needs to pursue a vastly more expansive Animal Welfare Plan, which is both more intelligent in its interaction with the law and committed to meaningful and radical change to the lives of non-human animals. Debates on meat eating, industrial agriculture, and animals in sport are amongst a vast array of topics which should not be dismissed so lightly. It’s imperative that the Left appropriates the conventional discussions on animals we are accustomed to accept, and is willing to reconsider the necessity and normality of their exploitation and suffering. I hope to see OULC as a collective begin to embrace important questions on ethics, policy and our relationship and treatment of non-human animals. Although unlikely to avoid controversies in diverging opinions, internal opposition to change should be embraced as a challenge; the real injustice is if we leave animals off the debating table altogether.

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