Why Labour is wrong to embrace animal rights

Animal rights pose a direct challenge to the left’s humanist roots.

Neil Davenport


The Labour Party launched its Animal Welfare Manifesto last week. It has promised a comprehensive review of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and, most strikingly, has promised to phase out animal testing entirely. Other proposals include a ban on trophy hunters selling their spoils in the UK, a review on jockeys using whips on racehorses, and bans on electric-pulse fishing, the boiling of lobsters and the use of snares and glue traps to catch animals. The party once firmly associated with workers’ rights is now at the forefront of promoting ‘animal rights’.

This is a remarkable shift from the left’s historic position on animals. For socialists and progressives, issues of animal welfare were long considered a decadent distraction from alleviating human suffering. Even during the radical 1970s and 1980s, animal-rights activism was part of the marginal anarcho-environmental wing of the left. The vast majority of left-wing activism was devoted to tackling unemployment, poverty, racism and women’s oppression. There was once a clear distinction between the humanism of the labour movement and more eco-centric concerns.

Going back further, the Labour Party’s development was heavily influenced by Christian and humanist values. Its turn towards animal rights is indicative of how European society has become estranged from such traditions. A new book by Tom Holland, Dominion: the Making of the Western Mind, argues that Europeans are still ‘children of the Christian revolution’ when it comes to values like tolerance for other groups and compassion for the poor. For Holland, Christianity provided the moral framework for the humanist and Enlightenment beliefs that later dominated European thought. That may have once have been the case, but the growth in support for animal rights poses a direct challenge to human-centred morality and progress.

Early Christian and European values were uncompromisingly human-centric. When early theologians looked at ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’, they concluded that it was a natural law of the universe that animals are preyed on and eaten by others. This was reflected in Christian theology and in the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam. God had created animals for the use of human beings who were entitled to use them as they saw fit. Christian thinking downgraded animals because there were unbridgeable differences between humans and animals: humans have souls (which today we’d call consciousness) while animals do not; humans also possess reason while animals do not.

This important distinction between humans and animals influenced key Enlightenment thinkers, such as René Descartes. As with Christian theologians, Descartes argued that animals are simply ‘machines’ that are unable to think and are therefore fundamentally different to humans. So-called Cartesian dualism also influenced other progressive thinkers, including Marx and Engels, to believe that animals and humans were distinct and opposite entities. For left-wingers that followed, conscious control over human society went alongside man’s conscious control over nature.

Animal welfare, on the other hand, was historically the preserve of upper-class aristocrats and conservatives. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) was established in 1824 and was granted royal status in 1840 by Queen Victoria. This was long before organisations devoted to human welfare were recognised – it was another 50 years before a royal charter was granted to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1895.

The distinction between socialists and naturalists has disappeared in recent decades. In the UK, this became most apparent with New Labour. Under Tony Blair’s government, hunting animals with dogs became illegal in 2005. What was once a minority issue had become a mainstream concern in Westminster. Since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, animal-welfare issues have become an even greater concern – last week’s Animal Welfare Manifesto is only the latest in a long line of proposals since 2015. This reflects how support for animal rights and welfare, the rise of veganism and environmentalism have become part of the socially dominant ‘woke’ outlook.

Compassion for animals is undoubtedly a positive human quality. Campaigning against animal harm is therefore understandable. But the notion of animal rights is fundamentally wrong. Peter Singer and Tom Regan, in Animal Liberation and The Case for Animal Rights respectively, argued that because animals feel pain – or are ‘sentient beings’ – they should be granted similar rights to humans. But Dr Stuart Derbyshire, a leading researcher on pain in humans and animals, has argued that this argument is ‘guilty of exaggerating the capacities of animals’. The notion that animals feel pain is misguided because it ‘is an interpretation based on our own experience that we project on to the animal world’.

The problem with the animal-rights framework is not just that it exaggerates the capacities of animals, but that it diminishes the capacities and agency of humans. The ‘sentient being’ comparison put forward by animal-rights campaigners reduces humanity to pain-avoiding automatons. The proposed ban on animal testing illustrates the dangers of upgrading animals and downgrading humanity. Animals are protected, but this comes at the cost of medical research and the alleviation of future human suffering – important potential gains for humanity are treated with ambivalence.

Progressives need to restate the case for human supremacy over animals and put humans back at the centre of our morality.

Neil Davenport is a writer based in London.

Picture by: Getty.

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Amelia Cantor

4th September 2019 at 10:57 am

Those who do not care for the rights of animals also do not care for the rights of humans. For historical proof of this, I give you the Bolsheviks, those mass-murdering idols of the Revolutionary Community Party / Spiked. The Bolsheviks claimed to be progressive and humanist, and turned the Russian empire into a giant slaughterhouse-and-prison.

Concern for animals does not guarantee concern for humans, as the nazis proved, but Labour’s espousal of animal rights is wholly admirable and should be supported by all decent progressive people.

Jane 70

4th September 2019 at 3:24 am

I agree that Labour is virtue signalling; this is what it does best.
However, the dismal fact that too many British children live in poverty- I saw evidence when volunteering at a local food bank- should not be used to imply that moves to improve animal welfare take precedence.
Both should concern us.
And Animal Free Research is not ‘messing about’; I’ve supported them for 30 years and their research work is diversifying and expanding.

Jane 70

4th September 2019 at 3:25 am

Meant as reply to Jim Matthews.

George Brichieri

4th September 2019 at 1:25 am

Could someone remind me of the scientific evidence that we have souls and that animals do not. Or even that we have “souls” at all. When in evolutionary history did humans develop them, if we are assuming our animal ancestors were soulless and how to we know this occured? Have archaeologists discovered evidence of this? This article makes some ridiculous assumptions about this without citing any references.

We do not devalue human centred morality by considering animal rights, we become more aware of the value of our own humanity and our more highly developed intelligence and morality when we accept that abusing other species cannot be morally justified. Eating meat is entirely unnecessary and given our chosen methods of factory farming we devalue our human morality by inflicting such catastrophic suffering on such oppressive scales. People on all sides of the political spectrum should be able to speak out on this and be congratulated for it. This article is nonsense.

Jane 70

4th September 2019 at 3:26 am

Well said

JPM Culligan

3rd September 2019 at 6:29 pm

“humans have souls (which today we’d call consciousness) while animals do not”

No, we still call them souls, and souls and consciousness are not the same thing. A human in a permanent vegetative coma would still have a soul.

The existence of the soul is the basis of the jurisprudence that underlies human rights, and we do well not to conflate it with consciousness, which could give rise to many atrocities similar to those perpetrated in Nazi Germany and by atheistic political socialism in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia and much of Africa on people undeserving of basic respect and protection by the law.

CTS Taylor

3rd September 2019 at 3:43 pm

Apart from anything else it will be a vote catcher.

CTS Taylor

3rd September 2019 at 12:20 pm

The Abrahamic religions were not good news for the other animals. When God told mankind that he created the world and all that’s in it for humans to do what they liked with they bought it.
It’s a shame that this barbaric drivel still influences otherwise intelligent people.

Toni Pereira

3rd September 2019 at 1:09 pm

Lol! Actually intelligent people follow the view if the “barbaric” Abrahamic religions.Only pseudo intellectuals and closeted misanthropes like yourself think otherwise.

Ven Oods

3rd September 2019 at 3:45 pm

Did you mean ‘some’ intelligent people? If not, then any religions that aren’t Abrahamic consist only of unintelligent people.

Neil McCaughan

3rd September 2019 at 12:20 pm

But no mention of ending the cruelty of halal slaughter.

I wonder why.

Jane 70

3rd September 2019 at 12:46 pm

I mentioned that religious slaughter rituals should be banned in my first comment, which still hasn’t been approved.

Ven Oods

3rd September 2019 at 3:47 pm

Spiked must be asking the Muslim Brotherhood if your comment was okay.

JeanClawed Brexit

3rd September 2019 at 4:30 pm

Yeah .. another site where free speech disappears as soon as a “special group” is criticised.

Not quite as bad as the Guardian, but not really free speech is it.

It makes me laugh that if I post anti-catholic comments on the Guardian they are swiftly deleted, despite their whole editorial leaning being against catholic teachings in divorce, abortion, gays etc. Whereas on Breitbart .. you can say pretty much what you like about the Catholic church, even though many people on the site are catholics.

Amin Readh

3rd September 2019 at 5:18 pm

@ Jane 70

Not only it was approved. I replied to it too. Lying old tit!

Puddy Cat

3rd September 2019 at 12:12 pm

There is a confusion here when the same person suggests animals feel pain and they know fear. While pain has many connotations for the human, including empathy, to suggest animals experience fear seems of a higher order of thought in terms of our knowledge of outcomes. To see a cat respond to something flickering past its vision is to see analogue reaction and not sentience, if it thought it would starve.

Having full knowledge of the macabre lifestyle of the fox, their seeming indifference to slaughter, the its gratuitous infliction of pain, shows no tendency for reflection only demonstrates the hard wiring of the soulless.

What is really at issue is the human’s response to inflicting cruelty rather than that which is measured process, necessary. We can castigate other humans for misdealing their given inclination to eat meat by taking suggesting a pleasure from mistreatment. We do not regard the animal for its thoughts are unknown to us if they exist at all. We see the creature through the actions of the human, their regard, empathy, thankfulness for the animal’s sacrifice so that real intelligence, intellectual pursuit and increasing understanding are allowed to flourish.

We police the animal world, zoologists are careful not to interfere; as policemen we are not guardians but have a regard for the sanctity of human life above all, it is the gratuitous which is the most criminal and that often gives our usage of animals a bad name.

Another tendency of some humans is to be cruel, off hand, callous. Eating meat does not make you any of these things. In school we used to sing “We plough the fields and scatter”, we were given a relationship with the land and the labours used in its undertakings. That society was in perpetual want and had to have regard for better times and trust in the people provisioning them. A lot of that sentiment has gone missing. As we know food is created in plastic wrappings, we have less and less acquaintance with its actual origins and the daily arduousness of the creation of the edible. Nothing in nature suggests contemplation or future or past or caring or what of tomorrow, we humans do all of that. Sometimes, through our higher order of faculty in a crowded world we are asked to do actions against nature but which ensure it survival, only we have that capacity. When people say Magpies have been eating the songbirds it is only referring to that analogue which has been in train for millennia and gives a reason for the survival of both. seemingly cruel, if you are a human.

Jane 70

3rd September 2019 at 12:24 pm

I’ll take issue here: when my much loved cat had to be put down, he knew what awaited him and cried when I took him to the vet.

You might see this as sentimental anthropomorphising but I know for a fact, having owned him for many years, that he was afraid.

While I do agree with much of what you do say about our disconnect from nature I do not honestly think that you can deprive such creatures as whales and dolphins and elephants of sentience: so much of their still not fully understood behaviour indicates sentience, albeit not directly comparable to ours.

Many creatures form close bonds with us, as we all know, and I don’t think that these can always be reduced to a simple innate deterministic interest in being fed, looked after and protected.

After all, we base many of our relationships on a degree of self interest don’t we?

Amin Readh

3rd September 2019 at 5:20 pm

@ Jane 70

Oh, you “owned” him!?

Ven Oods

3rd September 2019 at 3:51 pm

“We plough the fields and scatter”

But presumably meet up later to discuss harvesting?

JeanClawed Brexit

3rd September 2019 at 11:31 am

“The notion that animals feel pain is misguided”

Hmm .. yes .. my dog doesn’t flinch at the vets when they stick a needle in her does she ? Or are you asking me …NO telling me …to disbelieve my own eyes ?

If anything I would say animals experience pain more acutely, because they cannot understand it or talk about it. Their pain is laced with fear, whereas we can at least take much of the fear away fro ourselves.

JeanClawed Brexit

3rd September 2019 at 11:22 am

Yeah .. vote Tory for more animal torture.

Ven Oods

3rd September 2019 at 3:55 pm

I didn’t see that in the last manifesto.

JeanClawed Brexit

3rd September 2019 at 4:23 pm

And neither was gay marriage.

Patrick McNamee

3rd September 2019 at 9:51 am

Are phoney radicals LM/Spiked back to their more transparent days of siding with the establishment when they (along with the Guardian, the Indy and the BBC) were cheerleaders for vivisection and fake grass roots chic movement Pro Test. Back in the day Brendon O Neill wrote a crawling fawning fan letter/article to them disguised as a dispatch report from one of their demonstrations. Thanks Brian Cohen for giving this creepy article the response it deserves.

Jerry Owen

3rd September 2019 at 8:56 am

It was several years ago or more that I watched a programme about Canada(I believe if memory serve ) and a ‘progressive council’ or part of government ( I forget exactly but it was an authority ) decreed that bears were to be allowed to enter and roam the streets of the towns and suburbs. The belief was that bears had just as much right to go where they liked as humans did. Human fatalities rose as you would expect. This is when I first realized the inhumanity of sections of the left, whereby they believe that humans and animals are equals. In fact i would suggest that for many on the left animals are more preferable than humans.

Gareth Edward KING

3rd September 2019 at 7:44 pm

Yes, this move by an authority in Canada reminds me of the free reign of Saltwater crocodiles in Australia’s Northern Territory. At one point, the population was in free fall now they’re overly abundant and human fatalities have exponentially risen. Of course, deaths could be far higher but local people avoid coinciding with where the crocodiles might be (i.e. near water courses) or going out a night. It’s the world turned upside down but can only be seen as relativism taken to an extreme. Animals are not equal to us and only ‘sophisticated’ urbanites take issue with that. Rural folk tend to be much more sensible and more in tune with ‘nature’.
In Madrid, both wild boar and rabbits are excessively common; they need to be controlled. Understandably, shepherds and farmers are highly sceptical of claims that grey wolves coming in from de-populated Segovia to the NW do not auger well for their flocks in the mountains of Madrid. The Finns equally are well aware of the danger that wolves provide for their pet dogs are they cross over the porous border with Russia.

Paula J

21st November 2019 at 2:32 pm

Really, interesting, given the amount of bears that are killed by humans, which outweighs many hundreds, or more, than humans are killed by bears a year. Now one of the arguments of the anti animal rights humanist left, is that humans have more of a moral compass than non-humans. Indeed, that’s one of the arguements of the animal rights movement, then what does it say about us that we kill so many bears, nevermind everything else we do to non-human life.

Michael Stringer

3rd September 2019 at 8:47 am

Animals are objects with instincts, whilst humans are subjects with free-will.

Animals are self-aware but they do not know it. They simply “are”.

Humans are self-aware and we know we are, that difference is where our free-will comes from.

This fundamental difference means we can give animals protections, but they do not have rights.

Brian Cohen

3rd September 2019 at 9:02 am

What’s your take on this article by a neurobiologist?


Jane 70

3rd September 2019 at 9:58 am

I think they have the right not to be treated with gratuitous cruelty and you cannot know with any absolute certainty what the exact nature of animal awareness is.

Jane 70

3rd September 2019 at 10:05 am

Have you read any of the growing body of research which seems to indicate empathy, playfulness, curiosity and intense bonding in cetaceans, intelligent creatures which ,I’m sure we’ll all agree , have been treated with the utmost cruelty and carelessness by us.

Secondly, the growing research which confirms the advanced intelligence displayed in corvids’ problem solving abilities.

I think we are in danger of making far too many assumptions about what exactly constitutes consciousness and awareness in the living world.

Jane 70

3rd September 2019 at 10:59 am

Elephants have been witnessed grieving for dead infants; even small reptiles-like shingle back lizards-have been known to guard the corpse of a former mate.


And here is a brief but detailed history of the use of animals in research.

Jane 70

3rd September 2019 at 11:00 am


Should have appeared in previous comment

Brian Cohen

3rd September 2019 at 8:43 am

The introduction of Labour’s Animal Welfare Manifesto is the single only reason I would consider voting for them. Labour is canny enough to realise that this is a relative “no-brainer” for getting extra votes at a time when voter cynicism is at a high. Why would this make a difference? Because they are all quick wins and they deliver a “feel good factor”. UKIP under Farage have tried something similar in a previous manifesto. The noxious Tony Blair never gave a s**t about foxes, but he saw free votes.
The article is very interesting from a historical perspective but is a poor argument for mistreating animals. Descartes’ opinion is hardly cutting edge. Religion/theology even less so. This article is a thinly veiled championing of fundamentalist values. Much in the same way that fundamentalists “look after their own” within their own species, it’s not surprising that this would extend to non-human sentient beings.
Derbyshire’s field is in psychology – not biology – and his opinion is an outlier amongst an ocean of evidence to the contrary. Google “animal problem solving” and wear a hard hat to avoid the avalanche.
My argument is simple. You demonstrate your superiority over another species by taking care of them, not by utilising them like one would a screwdriver or a raw material. That is true “human supremacy”.
Besides, the wellbeing of humans and the wellbeing of non-human sentients are not mutually exclusive, which even the rather dopey Labour Party has worked out.

Jane 70

3rd September 2019 at 9:04 am

Well said! My comment,which broadly makes the same conclusions as yours, still awaits moderation but I cannot think why.
If Jezza can work out that human and animal interests are not mutually exclusive, then it’s a no brainer.

Brian Cohen

3rd September 2019 at 9:08 am

Thanks Jane. I’m well up for a mature discussion. This just seems like it was written before the ’80s

Jane 70

3rd September 2019 at 10:00 am

My first comment, which would lead to a broader discussion,still awaits moderation. Very frustrating.
And I completely agree about the rather narrow point of view reflected in the article.

JeanClawed Brexit

3rd September 2019 at 11:25 am

Good post Brian.

I hate this assumption that because I don’t like mass immigration and I don’t like an over mighty state I must also like mice being used to test chemicals.

Jane 70

3rd September 2019 at 11:57 am

My opinion entirely agrees with yours.

Jim Matthews

3rd September 2019 at 7:43 pm

You’re more right than you realise. It was 2015 when UKIP promised to, if elected, introduce the system that’s been in place since 1986. They, like most others, didn’t realise how heavily regulated UK research is already. Even today, Labour is proposing things that have been in place since 2004 and 2013 respectively, would lead to an increase in animals used and would review a law that was last reviewed in… 2012. You can vote for it if you like – it’s a policy you can be so sure will be delivered it’s already in place!

Jane 70

3rd September 2019 at 7:11 am


I wish that Spiked would start to make the case for animal welfare and humane research.

Recent articles are too one sided and dismissive.

Having become a vegetarian back in 1981, and having studied, witnessed, written about and reluctantly participated in animal experimentation, I’m constantly dismayed by the cavalier tone of articles such as this.

Friends and family members acknowledge me as the most ‘un-woke’ person they know: dedicated to Brexit, infuriated by the antics of the SJWs and the affluent progressives who wish to control and police our freedom of thought and speech, by the endless proliferation of victim identifying acronyms and all the shouty nonsensical humourless emoting which now predominates.

However, be that as it may, it is a mark of basic decency that we afford animals the consideration of their interests, our protection and compassion.

It also an indication of our readiness to support innovation and open minded scientific expertise: it does not denigrate humanity, nor set humans against animals.

Do the promoters of the commodification of animals ever consider the barbaric practices which have rightly been banned: bear baiting, cock and dog fighting, badger digging, burning?

Religious methods of slaughter should be banned and replaced by the standards recommended by the the BVA, the RCVS and the RSPCA.

Would they like to study the history of vivisection and the cruelties which led to the first moves to control and regulate such activities?


Yes, upper class folk led the protests, because they were the only ones who had the means, the education and the influence to make a difference.

Humane research and concern for the well being of other creatures is not merely a convenient right on fashion statement for the fashionably woke: fully paid up members of the Brexit supporting awkward squad like me are committed supporters.

Jim Matthews

3rd September 2019 at 7:34 pm

A lot has changed since 1981, including the UK law on animal experiments. It’s now illegal to use an animal if there’s an alternative and a lot of money is spent looking for those alternatives. While Animal Free Research messes around spending £800k a year, the NC3Rs has core funding of £10 million plus a load of project work.

The problem with Labour’s approach is that it doesn’t understand how things work now, so is suggesting a bunch of policies which will be at best a bureaucratic distraction and at worst a detriment to animal welfare, not to mention medical research.

Medicines are often based, for instance, on the differences between animal species, such as using rodent antibodies to make cancer treatments. Meanwhile, in those cases where there are species similarities, human drugs can be used or adapted to treat animals – ask any vet. That’s the reality of modern medicine – not giving a dog a chemical to see if it falls over or something.

Meanwhile, a third of British children live in poverty.

You’re right that an anti-vivisection worldview wasn’t merely the preserve of the upper classes – in the 1870s it was the Brexit of its day, splitting people 50/50 into those who wanted to stop the diseases that killed so many, and those who followed the ‘Catholic doctrine’ of taking whatever God was serving up. Medical students rioted down Whitehall but were prevented from entering Battersea by strongly anti-vivisection proles wielding monkey wrenches.

The author’s right that Labour is just virtue-signalling with this move, particularly since they refuse to consult scientific organisations on the policy, but that ‘virtue’ is misplaced and not at all the easy win they think it is.

If they want to a government and not a pressure group, they should stick to issues they understand and put the 10k-odd women who get breast cancer each year ahead of the hamsters who give their blood to make a treatment. The point of a government is to enhance its citizen’s wellbeing, citizenship being based on the general human capacity for civic reciprocity. it is a nonsense to extend this to animals.

We can still be kind to animals, even in experiments, but some civil entitlements are based on attributes no other species possesses. We shouldn’t pretend they do.

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