Rural Britons Take Hunt Ban Anger to the Ballot Box
WROXETER, England Rural Britons are in revolt and mounting a determined but almost certainly doomed bid to stop Tony Blair's Labour party winning an unprecedented third term in elections next month.
Never admirers of Labour, the hunting, shooting and fishing brigade have been finally spurred to action by a deeply divisive ban on fox-hunting with dogs that came into force in February.
"The ban typified everything that is wrong with this government. It is an unnecessary and cowardly attack on a minority," said Patrick Webster, chairman of the 170-year-old Albrighton Hunt in the northwestern county of Shropshire.
"It has been a catalyst, turning a reservoir of pent-up anger over the foot and mouth disaster and the loss of public services in rural areas into a pool of energy," he told Reuters in his home, an old farmhouse set amid yellow oilseed rape fields.
That is not to say that this historic rural haven 150 miles northwest of London no longer echoes to the hullabaloo of hunting with blaring horns and baying hounds. It is just that they now have to shoot the foxes if they find them.
Blair, his personal standing in tatters over the Iraq war, goes to the polls on May 5 in the hope of entrenching his Labour party's 161-seat majority but with some pundits predicting that huge margin could be as much as halved.
Galvanised by the hunt ban, a body calling itself Vote-OK is targeting more than 130 marginal Labour constituencies to support opposition pro-rural candidates.
"We assist within the constituency when asked to," said local organiser Clare Sawers. "We are not putting forward any candidates of our own. At the moment it is mostly leaflets."
Although the majority of these opposition candidates are from the right-leaning Conservative party, small regional parties are also being supported -- the aim being to evict the sitting Labour member.
Labour has always been an urban-based party, springing out of the industrial heartlands while the Conservatives -- who ruled Britain for a large part of the 20th century -- have found their support among the landed gentry and middle classes.
It is hard to see tiny Wroxeter as a battleground, but the area is no stranger to strife, sitting on an ancient crossing of the River Severn next to once warlike Wales and below the ruins of Viroconium -- Roman Britain's fourth largest city.
The stench of the funeral pyres of millions of cattle and sheep slaughtered to stop the foot-and-mouth epidemic that briefly delayed the last election in 2001 has gone.
But it has been replaced by smouldering anger over what is seen as a blatant attack on the rural way of life.
Some 400,000 people took to the streets of London in 2002 to protest at the coming hunting ban and the dilapidation of public services in rural areas -- a particularly sore point with pensioners who form a significant part of the electorate there.
The anger is deep in Shropshire's Wrekin constituency -- the model for Middle Earth in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings -- where Labour member of parliament Peter Bradley is a keen supporter of the ban and also seen by many as unashamedly anti-rural.
"We ought at last to own up to it: the struggle over the Bill was not just about animal welfare and personal freedom; it was class war," he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph last November.
And, as with the reasons for going to war with Iraq, trust is also a rural concern.
"They lied to us. They said it was all to do with animal welfare but then Bradley admitted it was part of the class struggle -- them against us," said farm college student James Tyler-Morris.
However, Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University said the hunting ban could play well among urban voters for whom animal welfare was an emotional issue.
"It is an emotive issue that could bring Labour voters out," he said.
But it is not just local issues that are fuelling the fires of resentment in the countryside.
Rural Britons are just as concerned over the election's big issues like schools, hospitals and law and order.
"We are not fooling ourselves. The farming community is just one percent of the electorate. But there is a deeper malaise in the country too," hunt chairman Webster said.
"We can make a difference in the marginal constituencies, and maybe elsewhere."
"I don't think the Conservatives will win this election. But I think there is a real chance that Labour can lose it," he added with a fervent gleam in his eyes.