Tom Hunt was parliamentary candidate for Doncaster Central at the last election, and is Media Relations Manager for the Countryside Alliance.
Unsurprisingly, following June 8, many of us Conservatives are trying to make sense of the results and to understand why it was that we failed to secure a Conservative majority. It’s vital that we do this, and draw the right lessons to ensure that we never again come as close as we did last week to surrendering the keys to Downing Street to a bunch of unreconstructed Marxists.
A number of factors have been flagged up to explain last week’s results, from a lack of a positive Conservative vision, through poor handling and communication of the Government’s social care proposals to the robotic and tedious nature of the Conservative campaign.
As someone who spent the past five weeks knocking on doors in South Yorkshire urging people to vote Conservative, I would argue that there is an element of truth in all of these. Unlike the Labour Party, we didn’t have enough of a retail offer to voters, particularly the young. On the whole, our “strong and stable” tag line failed to inspire, and soon became a point of ridicule.
Whilst the Labour Party were able to fire up the young, we simultaneously managed to alienate our core vote by shoehorning radical social care proposals into the manifesto, and then failing to communicate their merits to the public. In a pincer movement, the Labour Party were able to inspire the young to vote in record numbers whilst encouraging many Conservative-inclined pensioners to stay at home or even defect as a result of a “Tory war on pensioners”.
However, bizarrely, it is now claimed that “senior Conservatives” are suggesting that a key reason why the Conservative Party failed to secure a majority was that the manifesto was a commitment to hold a free vote on the future of the Hunting Act.
I find this reasoning extremely questionable. Why would a pledge that was contained within the 2015 Party manifesto (a manifesto that led to us securing a majority) suddenly become a key factor in explaining why we failed to win a majority this time?
Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that the commitment made this time round was actually less strong than the previous one – which proposed a free vote on the full repeal of the Hunting Act. The truth is there is absolutely no logic to lazily lumping hunting together with the social care proposals and other campaign shortcomings as a key reason why the Party did not secure the result it wanted.
The debate about hunting can be an emotional one, and it’s clearly a key issue for an extremely vocal minority within the country. However, rather than being a key issue in the election campaign, the evidence suggests that it’s of little, if any interest to the vast majority of the public.
On May 8, when questioned by a journalist, the Prime Minister stated that there should be a free vote on the future of fox hunting, and that she was personally in favour of loosening present restrictions on the practice. The following day, predictably, the Daily Mirror ran with the headline, “Secret Tory plot to bring back fox hunting”.
Surely, were the issue a significant factor in explaining last week’s result, it would have led to immediate trouble in the polls? It didn’t – and indeed on May 13th YouGov published a poll showing the Conservative lead at 18 per cent (Con 49, Lab 31). It was only after the publication of the Conservative manifesto later in the month that the campaign ran into trouble, and our poll numbers begun to deteriorate.
More evidence has been published this week demonstrating the negligible impact that the hunting issue had on last week’s results. ORB carried out research in the final week of the campaign (31 May – 1 June), in which they asked a representative sample of the population what issues would influence their vote.
In total, 2,038 were interviewed and each one was asked to spontaneously raise three issues that would influence their vote. Only eight mentioned hunting (0.39 per cent). Moreover, of these eight people, seven said they were unlikely, or would never, vote Conservative. The pollsters then asked the same 2,038 people to compare the impact of hunting on their vote with other issues. Hunting ranked below wind farms, green belt development, mobile phone connectivity, animal welfare and HS2 as issues that would influence their vote at the election. Only 28 ranked hunting as the most important issue out of the ones listed. Only 1/28 had voted for a Conservative candidate at the last election.
As someone who stood as a Conservative parliamentary candidate in an urban constituency at this election, I was surprised by claims suggesting that “Conservative candidates” (as well as those “campaign chiefs) were suggesting that hunting was a key issue.
It was only mentioned on the doorstep three times during my own campaign. I was very open regarding my pro-repeal position and my employment with the Countryside Alliance. I even enjoyed a positive swing towards me on a night when the national swing was towards the Labour Party. Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, formerly President of the Countryside Alliance and a prominent pro-hunt supporter, also increased her vote share by 3.5 per cent, despite the Liberal Democrats making her support for hunting a central issue.
The reality is that, to the vast majority, hunting is of virtually no significance to how they vote. It’s a wildlife management issue – and should be treated as such. The Hunting Act remains an unworkable and illogical law that does nothing for animal welfare. It was right and proper that the Conservative Party, as it has done in its previous three manifestos, pledged to hold a debate and free vote on the future of the law.
I will readily admit that animal rights activists do a good job in using social media and left-wing campaign websites such as 38 Degrees to create the impression that public opposition to hunting is far greater and more widespread than it actually is. During my campaign, I must have received something like 60/70 identikit emails from the 38 Degrees website. I responded to each email stating my position, but only once received a response. Other Conservative candidates may be interested to know that ORB polling also shows that 80 per cent of regular 38 Degrees website users will never, or are unlikely to, ever vote Conservative – and that only three per cent of Conservative voters when asked said they were regular users of 38 degrees.
Like many other Conservative candidates, I am disappointed by last week’s results, and agree that it’s vital that we take time to reflect on why it was that we fell short of our expectations. However, we should not allow animal rights extremists to portray the commitment to a free vote on the future of the Hunting Act as somehow being a cause.