Tories underestimate strength of feeling on badgers at their peril
The badger cull is political poison which is seeping through the veins of the British electorate at a rapid pace. No other wildlife management policy in the past 40 years has united so many people from all backgrounds and walks of life in a wave of anger and revulsion.
This is why the Labour Party came out strongly against a national badger cull policy at its conference in Brighton this week. Ed Milliband knows if he is to have any chance of forming the next Government he must listen to the growing power of the wildlife protection vote.
Since the badger cull pilots started a month ago, we have seen thousands of people come together in a peaceful and dignified way in the form of wounded badger patrols, badger vigils and marches. I have spoken to thousands of people at anti-badger cull events in towns and cities across the country, from Taunton to Bedford, Northampton, Kettering and Manchester.
Many of the people I have met do not fit the stereotypical animal rights campaigner; some are lifelong Tory supporters, others are councillors, teachers, vets, nurses or retired members of the armed forces. A vast majority have never before joined a protest march, but they are united by a wonderful British steel and determination to stand up the Government and the National Farmers' Union to protect badgers from a senseless slaughter.
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They are also using social media like never before to establish local campaign groups, organise events and to lobby their MPs and councillors. This is already having a major political impact in places such as Hampshire, where under huge public pressure the council has voted to ban all badger culling on its land. We have also seen the impact at the National Trust, which will be voting on a motion to ban badger culling on its land at its AGM on October 26 in Cardiff, following a highly effective grassroots campaign by anti-badger cull activists in Gloucestershire.
Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs who voted for the badger cull due to pressure from the party whips are also now having second thoughts, as they are inundated with complaints from their constituents on the killing of badgers. An Early Day Motion calling for a further debate on the cull before it becomes a national policy is gaining growing support across all parties.
With Tory Party membership at an all-time low of 134,000 – a 60% drop since David Cameron became leader – there is also growing concern at central office on the impact of the badger cull. Lifelong Tory members and activists are turning their back on the party in anger at the policy and this is worrying David Cameron's campaign strategy team, headed by Lynton Crossby.
With reports from the cull zones of shooters failing to get anywhere near their kill targets and with costs spiralling, David Cameron was forced to intervene to prop up the collapsing policy ahead of the Tory conference in Manchester this week. But his weak support for Owen Paterson will not go unnoticed ahead of a Cabinet reshuffle. The Prime Minister knows that Paterson is expendable and he will not allow the badger cull policy to become a millstone around the neck of the Tory Party ahead of the 2015 election.
I spent some time last week with Arnie Graff, a leading American civil rights and community organiser who is credited with being a mentor to the young Barack Obama in Chicago in the 1980s. Arnie had been working with Labour leader Ed Milliband on how to increase Labour Party membership, through bringing in new people to the party who wish to bring about positive social and environmental change to their local communities.
He has been travelling across the country talking to people from all backgrounds and can see that the anti-badger cull campaign is a very successful grassroots initiative, which is bringing together thousands of people in a powerful new voice for wildlife protection.
This might help explain why the Labour leader is now waking up to the importance of this new movement and how it could influence the outcome of the next general election. The events in Brighton this week might not only prove the final nail in the coffin for the badger cull policy, but also a new dawn in the power of the wildlife protection vote to decide who governs Britain. Labour has recognised this sea change, it's time David Cameron and the Tories did too.
Dominic Dyer is policy adviser with charity Care for the Wild International (careforthewild.com).