In 2007 I returned to live in the UK from 20 years of working in the USA. Since then, there have been two British general elections: in 2010 that led to the formation of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition and this month with the election of a Conservative government. In the 1970s and 1980s I played a prominent role in the original ‘Putting Animals into Politics’ campaign which was organised by a coalition of national animal welfare groups called the General Election Coordinating Committee for Animal Protection. The sequel to my first book, Growl, is called The Animal Rights Challenge, which will argue that the greatest challenge the animal rights movement faces is making the moral and legal status of animals a mainstream political issue. It is from this starting point that I briefly evaluate here the effectiveness of the British animal welfare movement in the 2010 and 2015 elections, and how it is responding to the political mainstream challenge. An understanding of the situation in the UK will help to inform animal advocates not only in the UK but throughout the world on how they can improve their advocacy.
First, a note about terminology: While recognising the important ideological differences between animal welfare, animal rights, and animal protection, the tradition in the UK is to use animal welfare and not animal rights, whereas in the USA it is customary to say animal protection and animal rights. For the purposes of this commentary, I will use the terms animal rights and the animal rights movement but use animal welfare and animal welfare movement when I am specifically referring to the situation in the UK. I use animal rights and the animal rights movement as labels to describe an expansive interpretation of the moral and legal status of animals. I recognise this is problematic and will explore this issue further in my next book.
From my personal experience and from talking with many animal advocates over the years, I conclude we tend to believe animal cruelty and exploitation will inevitably stop when everyone goes vegan thereby enabling the animal rights movement to achieve moral and legal rights for animals. This was my view for many years; however, the more I learned about social movements and understood the animal rights movement as a social movement, the more I came to understand that the most effective role the animal rights movement can have is as a catalyst on society. It will be society that will determine if animals deserve rights and not the animal rights movement.
Further, I now see social movements, as with the animal rights movement, as having to be fully engaged in all of the following five stages to fulfil their mission:
- Public education: when people are enlightened about the issue and embrace it in their lives
- Public policy development: when the political parties, businesses, schools, professional associations, and other entities that constitute society adopt sympathetic positions on the issue
- Legislation: when laws are passed on the issue
- Enforcement: when laws are implemented and, if necessary, litigated
- Public acceptance: when the issue is embraced by the majority of society
I see the animal rights movement as mostly in stage one with some activity in stages two, three, and four. I characterise this present situation for the animal rights movement as a moral crusade but we need to be also a social movement. In truth, we need to be both. In other words, animal advocates function presently as moral crusaders when we need to be also political operatives or social justice advocates. This is why I no longer believe in pressing for voluntary behavioural change, that is to say vegan, cruelty-free living, as the principal focus of the animal rights movement; and why our greatest challenge is to make animal rights a mainstream political issue. By saying the animal rights movement will neither achieve animal rights nor persuade everyone to go vegan is not to suggest that all we do is pointless. Our work for animals is vital and valuable. It is having an effect. We must continue. People are changing how they live and what they believe, and how companies use animals. But as a recent study from the Humane Research Council showed, optional personal lifestyle choice of vegan, cruelty-free living is fickle as is public opinion. In short, individual change is good but institutional change is better.
The best role we can hope for the animal rights movement to have is to act as a catalyst on society, particularly in public policy and legislation. Optional personal lifestyle choice of vegan, cruelty-free living is preferred. But institutional change is essential for those who will never care. Public policy and laws mandating legal and enforceable and effective animal protection force people to behave differently. Laws mandate how people behave. They also embody the values we hold in society. A failure to comply with legislation places the non-compliant in a position of breaking the law and the risk of penalty from enforcement. Now, I realise this is a simplistic interpretation. There is much to discuss about how democracies function. Or do not as the case maybe. We live in flawed democracies. Or worse. Nonetheless, this is the context in which we campaign for animal rights.
But is institutional change (e.g., political party positions, public policy, regulations, legislation, law enforcement) the focus and mission of the animal rights movement?
While there is some activity in these areas (stages 2, 3, 4), most of the attention of the animal rights movement is on saving animals from harm and campaigning for optional lifestyle choice (stage 1). While these are urgent actions the animal rights movement should be doing and continue to do, are they important? Well, yes, of course, they are important but their urgency is due to the animal rights movement not making important the strategy of pursuing animal rights as a mainstream political issue. We need laws to stop people and companies from behaving in ways that abuse animals because it will not always be done voluntarily. In the fulness of time, as more effective and enforced animal protection laws are passed onto the statute book, the urgent need for intervention to aid at-risk animals will be reduced. Smoking, for example, was reduced and restricted by public education (e.g., ads on cigarette packets) but it was until not public policy (e.g., legislation on smoking in public places) that the greatest impact was made on people’s behaviour.
If we accept that not everyone and not every company will go vegan, the only way forward is to make animal rights a mainstream political issue. Because the animal rights movement has not made this a priority is the reason why animal advocates perpetually face elected representatives, with a small number of welcome exceptions, who are indifferent at best and hostile at worst to how animals are treated. It is not a question of public education over public policy or vice versa. Both are needed. But presently our focus is more on voluntary individual lifestyle change than it is on institutional change and public policy and legislation.
General elections are important. Not only for such issues as the economy but also for determining the values we place in our relationship with animals. They are opportunities to advance the agenda for animals and elect individuals as candidates and political parties as governments who embrace animal rights and committed to a legislative agenda to meet this objective. I cannot be the only one who is fed up with living under governments and represented by elected people who do not care about animals!
When I compare the British animal welfare movement and its response to the general elections of 1979 and 1983 with 2010 and 2015, I am disappointed at the lack of overall progress made as a social movement in our sophistication in taking advantage of these opportunities. There should have been in the decades between the 1970s and 2010s more achieved in establishing animal welfare as a mainstream political issue. We failed to persuade the political parties of the importance of animal welfare as an issue that matters to the electorate, which is disturbing given how popular animal welfare is in opinion polls. In short, we are not transforming our moral crusade into a political movement. Instead, we have regressed to relying upon using general elections as opportunities to raise funds and launch websites. Moreover, there is more to political life than a general election every five years!
There is a lack of vision, understanding and long-term strategic thinking in the British animal welfare movement about itself and its role as a social movement. To be sure there is much good work that is done. There are many accomplishments to highlight. But we are not rising to the challenge of making animal protection a mainstream political issue. In Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights authors Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka challenge the status quo of the animal rights movement with insightful analysis and offer an innovative approach on how it is possible to move forward. They do not have all the answers. But this book is required reading if anyone wants to get serious about challenging the institution of animal cruelty and exploitation.
Animal advocates should also read such books as Compassion Is the Bugler by Clive Hollands and Animal Revolution by Richard Ryder to learn about the history of the animal welfare movement and what was accomplished and how it was achieved in the 1979 and 1983 general elections. There is also an informative chapter by Clive Hollands in the first edition of In Defence of Animals edited by Peter Singer.
The ‘Putting Animals into Politics’ campaign comprised of a coalition of organisations which published a manifesto that they took to the country nationally, by lobbying the central offices of the political parties, and locally, by mobilising in the constituencies. The participating organisations motivated their members collectively to question candidates individually and publicly at the hustings. The interests of individual organisations were put to one side as part of a greater coalition with shared objectives. Everyone benefitted, including the animals, who, for the first time, had their interests represented in the manifestos of the political parties. In 2010 and 2015 there was no such coalition. Instead, those groups which participated in the general election (not all did) published their own manifestoes and dedicated websites. There appeared to be very little encouragement in one-to-one contacts between animal advocates and candidates.
So, what is to be done?
In short, we need to make animal rights a mainstream political issue so that when political parties form governments they bring with them an understanding of the issue and a commitment to implementing an agenda of effective public policy. Then, it is our responsibility to ensure that governments fulfil them during their term in office. Then, at subsequent elections, we hold them to account, along with the other political parties to ensure at the very least unsympathetic parties are not elected to form governments. Moreover, the time between elections, which now occur with biannual frequency when local, national and EU elections are considered, provides an ideal opportunity to raise animal rights with candidates who seek our support.
Here are some ideas for what can be done:
- Evaluate, develop and reassess long-term strategies with the Five-Stage Analysis of social movements to position animal rights as Public Education and as Public Policy
- Build alliances with non-animal rights organisations, civic groups, professional associations, businesses, NGOs, etc., where shared interests and common ground exists
- Invest in international coalitions with like-minded groups
- Position animal rights within a larger social and political context
- Establish a permanent movement-wide initiative targeting local, general and European elections
- Stay focused on political parties, elected representatives and government employees to ensure accountability
- Join the political party of your choice and work from within to advance animal rights without allowing oneself to become known as someone who only cares about animals
- Support such groups as the Conservatives Against Fox Hunting who work within political parties in support of animals
- Focus on marginal constituencies where a relatively small number of votes determines who gets elected and candidates are particularly sensitive to constituents’s concerns
- Ensure the election and re-election of candidates who speak out for animals and are vegetarian or vegan
- Encourage national groups to organise lobby groups of their own supporters within each political party
- Target elected representatives who consistently oppose animal interests
- Ensure that every action for animals has a public policy component
At the RSPCA Rights of Animals symposium at Trinity College in Cambridge, Lord Houghton of Sowerby who chaired GECCAP said:
My message is that animal welfare, in the general and in the particular, is largely a matter for the law. This means that to Parliament we must go. Sooner or later that is where we will have to go. That is where laws are made and where the penalties for disobedience and the measures for enforcement are laid down.
Lord Houghton’s words are as relevant today as they were in 1977. It is about time more attention was given to them.