Opinion

Why it's time for Conservative animal rights advocates to step up and be counted

Animal welare being branded a solely left-wing concern could be damaging to progress

Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Longstone Moor Farm, Derbyshire Picture by Andrew Parsons / CCHQ

Polarisation of issues is becoming increasingly concerning for those of us who are uncomfortable with picking a side. How less divisive would Brexit have been if it had been OK to see both sides, to debate respectfully, and to compromise?

But instead, we got ‘footballification’ – a term coined by journalist, author and radio host James O’Brien to describe the blind loyalty to a “side” that has plagued us for the last few years. And if animal welfare advocates are to succeed in achieving bolder laws to protects animals in the UK, animal issues must not be allowed to be dragged into a similar polarising dynamic because ideologically speaking, concepts like animal rights are compatible with positions across the political spectrum. Allowing a stereotype of animal welfare being a left-leaning pastime has the potential to do great harm to efforts to bring about greater legal protection for animals in this country. 

The Overton Window

Developed by political analyst Joseph Overton in the mid-1990s, the Overton Window visualises a spectrum of ideas, policies, and positions on a particular issue, ranging from those that are widely considered “normal” (imagine these in the centre) to those that are considered either unthinkable to repeal, or unthinkable to implement (imagine these as being north and south respectively).  So, at the top of the window lie existing policies in law, and beneath it are policies that could be introduced. Between them lies the policies that are regularly contested between the mainstream political factions; these are the sort of proposals that parties add to their manifestos to win over voters in elections.  

Universal suffrage started out as something ‘radical’ and ‘unthinkable’ for mainstream politicians to introduce (south of the window), before slowly moving upwards over the past two centuries until it has become radical and unthinkable for governments to strip away basic voting rights (north of the window). 

Over time, the range of acceptable ideas shifts as politicians, activists, and the media redefine the boundaries of political discourse by shaping public opinion through advocacy, persuasion, and social change. Ideas that were once considered radical or fringe may become mainstream and incorporated into policy discussions as the Overton Window shifts. Conversely, ideas that were previously accepted may become marginalised (fox hunting) or taboo (slavery). Currently, the likes of universal basic income or animal rights would probably be considered too radical or unthinkable policies for a mainstream party to legislate for any time soon. But who knows what the future holds. 

Regardless of whether one cares about animal welfare/rights in general, or one has a specific cause to champion, the goal of the animal advocacy movement is to push animal welfare issues into the politically contested space and then cement policies into law to the point where revoking them is unthinkable for the mainstream parties. And keeping the issues ‘depoliticised’ is vital.  

Partisan sorting

The process of partisan sorting has significant implications for political dynamics and governance. As individuals and groups realign themselves politically based on their ideological beliefs, the risk of polarisation increases as individuals and parties become less willing to compromise or collaborate across party lines. Partisan sorting means many policies fail to win sufficient support.1 Look at the difficulties passing the mildest of gun control legislation in the USA.  

If a portrayal of animal-protective laws as left-wing becomes normalised, then we could witness new partisan sorting: left-wing voters accepting animal advocacy to their supported causes; right-wing partisans adopting the political stance of blanket rejection of the case(s) being made. Once this happens, laws protecting animals get tossed around the contested political space at the centre of our Overton Window. And should bolder laws be introduced, they risk being revoked following a change in government – look at what partisan sorting has done to abortion legislation in the USA, where politicisation has resulted in previously granted abortion rights being revoked in some Republican-led states.  

If partisan sorting creeps into animal rights issues, then any UK laws introduced by Labour might then be revoked later by Conservatives. 

Issue ownership 

If legislative gains for animals are to prove long-lasting, then left-wing parties must not acquire issue ownership of animal welfare and rights. Conservative animal advocates are very important, and there is no reason for their support to be muted. 

Conservative politicians often prioritise economic prosperity and fiscal responsibility – animal welfare legislation, when framed effectively, can align with these priorities – and many Tory MPs represent rural constituencies where agriculture and animal husbandry play a significant role in the local economy and culture. Improved animal welfare standards can lead to increased productivity in agriculture and enhanced consumer confidence in ethical products.  

Additionally, the health and well-being of both humans and animals are closely intertwined. Politicians and voters of all persuasions are increasingly aware of the public health risks associated with poor animal welfare practices, such as the spread of zoonotic diseases and antibiotic resistance. Supporting initiatives to improve animal welfare is increasingly viewed as a proactive measure to safeguard public health and reduce the incidence of preventable diseases.  

A cross-partisan political movement for animals that harnesses broad support will prove vastly more effective in consolidating animal-protective measures into our legal system precisely because it can avoid the trappings of partisan sorting.  

Being right (wing) may be right 

There is an argument to be made that it is actually the right-wing animal advocate who stands a better chance of breaking through political deadlock and persuading their fellow politicians (Conservative or otherwise) to support bolder laws for protecting animals. And with polling and pundits alike predicting a thrashing for the Conservatives in the next general election, and given the British public’s widespread support for addressing the mistreatment of animals, could a Conservative-led move to improve animal welfare be part of a rebuilding strategy? One of those win-wins politicians are so keen on. 

David Holroyd is an author, animal rights activist and honorary member of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

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