She’s tiny, blonde, super-cute and possibly not quite house-trained. Yet her political clout still can’t be underestimated.
Meet Luna, Sadiq Khan’s new puppy, whom the mayor of London proudly introduced to the world at the weekend. And if you think pets don’t matter in politics, then think again. The most viral political story so far this year, according to BuzzFeed, wasn’t about the election or Brexit but about our furry friends – or to be more precise, a wildly inaccurate claim that MPs don’t believe animals have feelings.
It all started with a post on The Independent’s website suggesting, wrongly, that the Tories had just voted into law the idea that animals can’t feel pain or emotion – which would have undermined the whole case for protecting their rights. A misunderstanding became a meme and then a phenomenon, with the story shared half a million times on social media in three days. Suddenly the prime minister was Cruella de Vil and Michael Gove, the environment secretary, her evil henchman. Celebrities piled in. Online petitions sprang up. Conservative MPs even received threats of violence. A subject once regarded as a niche electoral issue had been successfully weaponised and not for the first time, given some Tories now blame May’s manifesto commitment to a vote on repealing the fox-hunting ban – which Labour activists turned into a similarly viral meme during the election, featuring adorable-looking fox cubs – for costing them seats in June. Something has changed since David Cameron, who unlike May has actually stalked deer and hunted foxes in the past, made similar promises on blood sports in his manifesto and got away with it. But what?
Social media has certainly given activists new ways to make arguments beneath the Westminster radar. With mainstream media largely ignoring the row over animal sentience, it was some time before a clear version of events emerged and then it was hampered by being bafflingly complicated. (Briefly: MPs did reject an amendment by the Green MP Caroline Lucas to the EU withdrawal bill, which would have transplanted a clause in EU law on animal sentience into British law after Brexit. But the government had simply argued that while it accepted the sentiment behind Lucas’s amendment, it didn’t consider the amendment itself necessary as the principle is already established in British law. Campaigners may say those protections don’t go far enough but even the RSPCA – the original source of the story – stresses it never suggested MPs believe animals have no feelings while The Independent eventually conceded its original headline was “not right”.) There is no plot to strangle kittens. Yet many of those who indignantly shared the story have probably either never seen the rebuttals or wouldn’t believe them.
In politics, the facts are only ever as strong as people’s willingness to believe them
Because it’s not just social media that makes fake news go viral. It’s people wanting to believe a dodgy story because it chimes with a conviction they already hold; in this case, presumably that Tories are heartless.
Snuggling up to some sort of animal – Larry the Downing Street cat, Barack Obama’s dog Bo or even Ken Livingstone’s beloved newts – has long been political shorthand for “I’m a nice person really.” When rumours started spreading that Cameron didn’t really like Larry, the then prime minister posted a photo of the cat sitting on his knee, because having hugged huskies in the Arctic in an effort to shed his party’s “nasty” tag he knew how much animals matter. Shoo the cat away, and people think you’ve got a heart of stone.
But last week’s debacle suggests the process may work the other way round, too. Voters who already think a party is stone-hearted – too harsh on benefit claimants, too hostile to foreigners or just generally unfeeling – may well be readier to believe it also hates cats, and so seize on even half-baked stories that seemingly support the theory. They stop giving that party the benefit of the doubt.
And that’s what will have really worried thoughtful Conservatives. It’s not the animal sentience story itself, but the implication that they’ve re-toxed the brand; that millions of voters now look at pictures of Gove cuddling his adored Bichon Frise Snowy, or vowing to save turtles from plastic junk washed out to sea, and just don’t buy it any more. They don’t see the Tories in that light now. And in politics, the facts are only ever as strong as people’s willingness to believe them.