Home Society & Culture Why Animals Need a Wide Range of Politicians to Protect Them

Why Animals Need a Wide Range of Politicians to Protect Them

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Many animal advocates will be hoping that the likelihood of a more left-wing government following the next general election will mean support bolder laws to protect animals in Britain. But they shouldn’t ignore Conservatives.

Animal advocates reflect a diverse group. As well cropping up in all demographics of age, gender, class, and nationality, those interested in animal welfare issues (and vegans more generally) also vary by political orientation. This can often be surprising to those who assume animal-loving vegans are always left-wing, perhaps because these concerns are often bundled together with the environmentalist movement. Veganism is more popular among younger generations who tend to favour left-leaning parties (even if they don’t always make it to a polling booth), and this can give rise to a presumption that animal advocacy itself is stereotypically a left-wing concern too. But concern for animals is not exclusively left-wing. Ideological speaking, concepts like animal rights are compatible with positions across the political spectrum: I know a number of libertarians and Christian conservatives who have demanded an end to the maltreatment of animals.

The trouble is the stereotype of animal welfare being a left-leaning pastime has the potential to do prodigious harm to efforts to bring in greater legal protection for animals in this country.

The Overton window 

Developed by political analyst Joseph Overton in the mid-1990s, the Overton window is a concept used in political theory to describe the range of ideas that are considered acceptable and mainstream within a particular society or political context at any given time. The Overton window visualises a spectrum of ideas, policies, and positions on a particular issue, ranging from those that are widely considered “normal” (imagine these in the centre) to those that are considered extreme or unthinkable – either unthinkable to repeal or unthinkable to implement (imagine these as being north and south, respectively). So, at the top of the window lie existing policies in law, and beneath them are policies that could be introduced. Between them lie the policies that are regularly contested between the mainstream political factions; these are the sort of proposals that parties add to their manifestos to win over voters in elections. 

Take universal suffrage, which started out as something ‘radical’ and ‘unthinkable’ for mainstream politicians to introduce (south of the window), before slowly moving upwards over the past two centuries until it has become radical and unthinkable for governments to strip away basic voting rights (north of the window).

Over time, the range of acceptable ideas may shift as political actors (politicians, activists, and the media) redefine the boundaries of political discourse by shaping public opinion through advocacy, persuasion, and social change. Ideas that were once considered radical or fringe may become mainstream and incorporated into policy discussions as the Overton window shifts over time. Conversely, ideas that were previously accepted may become marginalised (fox hunting) or taboo (slavery). Currently, the likes of Universal Basic Income or animal rights would probably be situated in the realm of being too radical or unthinkable a policy for a mainstream party to legislate for any time soon. But who knows what will happen in future years.

Regardless of whether one cares about animal welfare or animal rights in general, or one has a specific cause to champion, the animal advocacy movement has two goals: first, introducing bolder laws that offer better protection for animals; and second, preventing these laws from being revoked. The first step means pushing certain policies north from radical to conceivable to acceptable and into the politically contested window so that they are featured in party election campaigns. The second step is to then push these policies further north out of the politically contested space by cementing them into law, to the point that revoking them is unthinkable for the mainstream parties. As occurred with universal suffrage, bolder animal-protective measures should be ‘depoliticised’ in this sense by functioning as an everyday part of the legal and political system in place. I suggest that Conservative politicians are vital for achieving both goals.

Partisan sorting

The process of partisan sorting has significant implications for political dynamics and governance. As individuals and groups realign themselves politically based on their ideological beliefs, the risk of polarisation increases as individuals and parties become less willing to compromise or collaborate across party lines. Partisan sorting means many policies do not make it to the second stage. Look at the difficulties passing the mildest of gun control legislation in the USA. 

If the stereotype of animal-loving vegans translates into a general portrayal of animal-protective laws as left-wing, then we could witness new partisan sorting. Some left-wing voters might accept animal advocacy into their list of supported causes, whereas right-wing partisans may adopt a political stance of rejecting these laws. Once this happens, laws protecting animals get jostled around the contested political space at the centre of our Overton Window. And should bolder laws be introduced, they risk being revoked following a changeover in government – look at what partisan sorting has done to abortion legislation in the USA, where politicisation has resulted in previously granted abortion rights being revoked in some Republican-led states. The same effect, it should be noted, has generally not occurred in Western European democracies where the topic does not trigger comparable partisan rivalry.

Political scientists have observed that partisan cues tend to mobilise opposition to policies more than support. For example, a socialist’s endorsement of Universal Basic Income tends to diminish support for that policy among conservatives more than it increases support among fellow socialists. This effect is especially strong when two major parties dominate a political system. A partisan framing of animal-protective laws would likely alienate more right-wing voters than it would attract left-wing ones. If partisan sorting like this becomes entrenched, then any UK laws introduced by a Labour government might then be revoked by a later Conservative one.

Issue ownership

Both animal advocacy and veganism continue to grow as political movements in the UK and abroad, and how such movements are portrayed in the media matters a great deal for emerging discussion. If legislative gains for animals are to prove long-lasting, then left-wing parties shouldn’t acquire ownership of animal welfare and rights. Conservative animal advocates are very important, and there is no reason for their support to be muted.

Conservative politicians often prioritise economic prosperity and fiscal responsibility; animal welfare legislation, when framed effectively, can align with these priorities, and many Tory MPs represent rural constituencies where agriculture and animal husbandry play a significant role in the local economy and culture. Improved animal welfare standards can lead to increased productivity in agriculture and enhanced consumer confidence in ethical products. 

Additionally, the health and well-being of both humans and animals are closely intertwined. Politicians and voters of all persuasions are increasingly aware of the public health risks associated with poor animal welfare practices, such as the spread of zoonotic diseases and antibiotic resistance. Supporting initiatives to improve animal welfare is increasingly viewed as a proactive measure to safeguard public health and reduce the incidence of preventable diseases. 

A cross-partisan political movement for animals that harnesses broad support will prove vastly more effective in consolidating animal-protective measures into our legal system precisely because it can avoid the trappings of partisan sorting. Given the British public’s widespread support for addressing the mistreatment of animals, there is good potential to develop a broad coalition for bolder animal-protective laws in Parliament. This means getting Conservative politicians on board whenever and wherever feasible.

Being right (wing) may be right

Conservative MPs can play an essential role introducing new laws that protect British animals, whether those animals are in our homes, in the wild, or on UK farms. In fact, there is an argument to be made that it is actually the right-wing animal advocate who stands a better chance of breaking through political deadlock and persuading their fellow politicians (Conservative or otherwise) to support bolder laws for protecting animals. This might sound odd at first, especially to those who dismiss the need for Conservative animal advocates. However, when staunch partisans break with convention and advocate for causes stereotypically considered outside the customary stance of their party, they can rally supporters to the new cause and reshape standard political discourse. 

If a well-respected Conservative politician came out as being strongly in favour of animal rights, what would happen? My bet is that a great many other British politicians, especially Conservatives, would likely reflect on their own positions and discussions on the topic. In the context of political advocacy, this power to reshape political discourse is an extremely effective tool for galvanising new discussion that turns a previously “unthinkable” policy into an “approvable” one. The role that Conservative animal advocates can play in reshaping how we think about our fellow species should not be ignored.

For those Conservatives who recognise our moral obligations towards animals, now is the time to speak up. Your views will shape upcoming election campaigning and perhaps even the national political debate thereafter.




David Holroyd is an author, animal rights activist and honorary member of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

© Copyright 2014–2034 Psychreg Ltd