Outfoxed by wily opponents of a ban

March 6, 1998

The adult population of the United Kingdom is, by any accepted democratic criteria, opposed to hunting foxes with hounds.

By "any accepted criteria" I do not mean focus groups. Nor do I mean opinion polls, although these would overwhelmingly back my case.

The Labour Party fought the election with a manifesto commitment to a free vote in the House of Commons on banning fox hunting. I, and many other candidates of all parties, stated that, if elected, I would listen to the debate but was more than predisposed to marching through the Aye lobby for a ban.

Lest you think I am a townie, I have a rural constituency. I surprised many of my friends and, no doubt, enemies, by revealing in my by-election fight three years ago that I had been active in the Young Farmers, having worked as a haymaker for most of the summer years of my childhood. You do not get more rural than Saddleworth.

Banning hunting may not have been at the forefront of people's minds last May, but that vote gave MPs a strong indication as to how the public wanted them to act. That view was represented last November when the Commons voted for Mike Foster's private member's Bill by 411 votes to 151.

Given that we live in a parliamentary democracy you would have thought that hunting would now be illegal. The fact that it is not is a disgrace.

When I try to mollify my patient constituents, who wrote to me in their hundreds in support of Mike Foster, I can come up with nothing but limp excuses.

I do not blame anyone and there is not much that anyone can do about it in the short term. But the procedures of the Commons and Lords are not, in this instance, a refinement of democracy but a block to it. They are so complicated that they make Oxford University's accounts look like a two times' table. And when it comes to private members' business, as distinct from government or opposition business, we enter the world of Franz Kafka. Indeed, I would not be surprised if Mike Foster turned into a beetle!

Fixing votes and arm-twisting colleagues is something I have had a bit of experience of. Through 20 NUS conferences, countless Labour Party composite meetings and having waded through most rule books the trade unions have to offer, I have, in my time, out floor-organised Ajax. Yet organise a private member's bill, I cannot.

I do not blame the government for the delay. If they were to give business time, the opposition would use every tactic available not just to block the Foster bill but every other piece of legislation they oppose as well - the national minimum wage bill to name but one.

Parliament is exposed as incapable of delivering the democratic will of the people.

Many of us elected on the Blairite ticket understand that it was partly disillusionment with politics and parliament that led to the landslide last spring. We have given credence to the idea that people can change things by voting. The problem we have with fox hunting is not the rights and wrongs of the argument, nor the large countryside demonstration in Hyde Park, nor the phenomenal number of letters received from the anti-hunt lobby. The problem is that the people voted for a ban, the Commons voted for a ban and yet the law has not been enacted.

People are not interested in lame excuses and complicated talk about procedures. We must act with this in mind if we are to avoid further disillusionment.

In doing so we should remember that the majority of people who have protested against fox hunting are young people who have known nothing other than Conservative governments. They did not take Swampy's advice but did, instead, write to and lobby their MPs. We cannot let them down.

Phil Woolas is MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

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