Martin Whybrow meets Vanessa Hudson, leader of the UK’s only political party dedicated to improving the welfare of animals
There is no disguising the fact that the Animal Welfare Party (AWP) has an uphill struggle making a mark on UK politics. The country’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system is an almost insurmountable hurdle for nonmainstream parties. Now, with the UK’s impending exit from the EU, it has become even harder to gain a breakthrough.
However, if the AWP’s leader, Vanessa Hudson, is downhearted, she doesn’t show it. First, this is clearly still early days for a party that was only formed at the end of 2006. Second, the UK party can take considerable consolation and heart from the progress of some of its continental European counterparts.
The flagship Dutch De Partji voor de Dieren (Party for the Animals) started out in 2002 and has made great strides, most recently going from two to five parliamentary seats in the Lower House in March 2017 adding to its two in the Upper House, one in the European Parliament, 18 representatives in ten Provincial States, twelve representatives in twelve city
councils and 15 representatives in Dutch ‘water councils’.
There were Dutch/UK links from the outset as AWP co-founder, Jasmijn de Boo, had previously been a candidate for the Dutch party. As with its Dutch counterpart, the AWP’s remit is to campaign for a better future for people, animals and the environment. Vanessa took over as the party’s leader from de Boo in 2010.
I meet Vanessa at the vegan and vegetarian Gallery Café in Bethnal Green, a suitably eco-friendly location and part of St Margaret’s House, an East London community wellbeing charity. Her most immediate challenge is entertaining her one year-old toddler whilst also conducting our interview.
Vanessa is a vegan of 23 years and had been involved in setting up Vegan Runners. “This was my whole focus at the time,” she explains. “Vegan Runners is intended to show that vegans are just as healthy and as fit as anyone else.” It has been a hugely successful initiative that is now in its 13th year.
She was drawn into the AWP through her day job as a producer and director of films. “I really believed in what the party was doing and it was fascinating to watch a new political party start to happen.” The initial expectation was that she would record the story on film but, with de Boo stepping down, she was the ideal replacement.
Originally called Animals Count!, the party was registered with the UK’s Electoral Commission in January 2007. The name change, in 2010, made it clearer what the organisation was all about. Vanessa feels the Animal Welfare Party complements the “many other groups doing fabulous work” but is unique in that it stands candidates in elections. It has done so in around ten elections to date, at national, European, London Assembly and local levels. In the May 2017 general election, it had four candidates and a fully-fledged manifesto. Vanessa was the candidate for Hackney South and Shoreditch.
All four candidates lost their £500 deposits (a candidate needs to secure 5 per cent of the vote to retain it), which had been crowdfunded. The financial aspect is just one barrier to small parties. “When I tell other parties in Europe about having to pay the deposit in the UK, they are incredulous,” she says.
The slow progress isn’t a surprise, says Vanessa, as it has been the same with any other new party, with the possible exception of UKIP. “It does take a very long while, but every time we stand in an election our share of the vote goes up and more people have heard of us when we talk to them on the street.” Clearly, there is a rush of interest and coverage at election time and, in a way, this was one of the reasons for setting up the party, as it gave a platform for animal welfare.
However, with the Green Party having fairly enlightened and detailed policies on animal welfare, is there really a need for what is effectively a one-issue party? “We can’t afford for animal welfare to be diluted. Until our policies are taken on board, we will stand to give them airtime, to give them exposure. We want the strongest policies with no restraint.”
The AWP campaigns for “improving human health, saving NHS funds, protecting the environment and global food security by promoting healthy plantbased diets” but it isn’t a vegan party per se.
“We have to look at what we can build consensus around. Our current policy is to call for a 50 per cent reduction in meat consumption.”
There is no stipulation that AWP members have to be vegan or vegetarian, and there is a small minority of the 500 or so that are not, but every general election candidate was vegan. The party’s policies will resonate with anyone who cares for animal welfare and are encapsulated within the call to raise the legal status of animals to reflect that they are sentient beings, including protection in national and international law. It has policies across farming; research, testing and education; animals in the wild and as companions; and those used for entertainment, fashion and art.
“We were slightly wounded by the result of the [EU] referendum,” says Vanessa, a sentiment shared by many. For the AWP — which was strongly in favour of Remain — it took away one route to being elected. The European elections, by virtue of being proportional, have seen animal welfare breakthroughs not only in the Netherlands but also in Germany and with positive signs elsewhere. And, as Vanessa points out, many of the laws that are most influential for animal welfare are made at the EU level.
There were some animal rights campaigners who voted to come out of the EU, particularly those who saw it as an opportunity to stop the abhorrent live animal export trade, but Vanessa believes that this could have been addressed by the EU or national governments if they had genuinely had the will to do so. She fears that Brexit might mean a watering down of welfare regulations. “There is this belief that the UK is a great nation of animal lovers but we don’t check that it’s still true.”
The London Assembly elections are also on proportional lines, so offer some hope. The AWP gained 26,000 votes, so around one per cent, last time out and it takes five per cent to gain an Assembly member, “so it is not unachievable”. Another goal is to become less London-centric, perhaps by setting up local groups.
Our interview comes to an end when Vanessa’s toddler decides enough is enough, having got through Gallery Café vegan chocolate cake, colouring, drawing and exploring. They head off to the V&A Museum of Childhood, around the corner, which is far more interesting for a one– year–old.
Having demonstrated over the previous hour or so her ability to multi-task, it is clear that Vanessa is eloquent and passionate about putting animal welfare on the political agenda. It hasn’t happened in the short-term for the AWP, it probably won’t happen in the mediumterm, but as its partners in other countries are showing, progress is possible. The UK isn’t the most fertile environment for this at present because of the political system, but given what has happened in politics across the globe in the last couple of years, anything looks possible.
The International Scene
Internationally there is a growing movement of people and parties working for animal rights, nature and the environment in politics and public administration. As well as the Netherlands, there are now political parties in most other European countries as well as in the US and Canada, Australia, Israel, Taiwan, Brazil and Turkey, with others on the way in other countries.
With the Dutch taking the lead, at the end of 2012 the Animal Politics Foundation was set up to bring the different national parties together. It does this by making connections, sharing knowledge and expanding and reinforcing the networks, including through workshops and conferences.
“We are delighted for anyone in our movement who has a victory,” says Vanessa. “It is encouraging for all of us.”
Find out about the international initiatives at partyfortheanimals.nl