Fox hunting was a stealth issue at the 2017 general election: though rarely covered by broadcasters during the campaign, pollsters were later surprised to discover that it was one of just a handful of Tory policies voters remembered.
Jeremy Corbyn’s party paid for 10 different adverts about fox hunting on Facebook in late October – when it was all but clear that an election would take place later in the year.
The opposition used the issue to reach hundreds of thousands of people, who it encouraged to sign a petition on the issue. The petition has gained over a quarter of a million signatures to date, and encourages voters to sign up to receive email updates from the party – a valuable campaigning resource.
The issue is fertile ground for Labour, because polls show around 85-90 per cent of voters want to keep the bloodsport banned – putting them at odds with a lot of Tories.
Most of the adverts feature pictures of cute fox cubs, while a few have images of mounted hunters wearing red coats following a pack of dogs.
“Labour banned fox hunting in 2004 – but the Tories refuse to stamp out this barbaric practice,” one typical variation of the advert reads. “Add your name and back Labour’s call to end fox hunting for good”.
Another says: “Send a clear message to the Tories: it’s time to end this barbaric bloodsport for good.”
The latest tranche of the adverts ran from 24 October this year, though their use goes back further: the petition was started during the summer Tory leadership contest, after Jeremy Hunt said he would bring back a free vote on hunting.
During the 2017 general election online stories by outlets, including The Independent, were widely shared and read by voters.
Research by pollsters YouGov straight after the election found that fox hunting was just behind the so-called “dementia tax”, Brexit, and means-testing winter fuel allowance in terms of policy recognition by voters.
Theresa May’s 2017 Tory manifesto included a pledge for a free vote on fox hunting. The plan was dropped in January 2018, however, partly in response to the backlash during the election.
The post-election reversal on the policy was part of a wider shift by the Conservatives to try and shore up its animal rights and environment credentials, spearheaded by then environment secretary Michael Gove.
Boris Johnson repeatedly voted against Labour’s ban on fox hunting in 2000, in the previous decade when he was MP for Henley. As London mayor in 2013, he suggested introducing hunting in the capital to control its urban fox population, saying: “This will cause massive unpopularity but I don’t care”.
But it is not clear whether the policy will make it into the Conservative manifesto this year. Over the summer, cabinet minister Liz Truss – an ally of Mr Johnson – said that the policy would not make the cut. Other senior Tories like Jeremy Hunt have said they still support a vote.