Veganuary and the caucus of conservative “vegan” MPs: missing the point yet again

On August 22nd 2020 the body of deceased 34yo Ugandan asylum seeker Mercy Baguma was found in her Glasgow flat, after the cries of her malnourished 1yo son were overheard by neighbours. Baguma had lived in extreme poverty having lost her job after her right to work in the UK had expired, and was largely supported by friends and charitable donations of food. In the weeks leading up to her death, Baguma had repeatedly called Positive Action for Housing saying she had no ability to pay for food for herself or her son. Baguma’s extreme poverty has been directly attributed to the UKs restrictive and punitive asylum system, which deprives refugees of the right to work unless they have waited over 12 months for a response to their asylum claim, and grants refugees a paltry £35.75pw in benefits. The policy response to COVID-19 has reportedly exacerbated the plight of asylum seekers in the UK, with the number of migrants applying for destitution funds increasing by 572% during the pandemic. All of this has occurred under the leadership of a Tory government.

Fast forward to January 2021, and the news that ten Conservative MPs from across the UK have signed up for Veganuary and created a caucus called the Vegan Conservatives. This caucus has been praised and promoted by both Veganuary and The Vegan Society. Co-founder and chair of Veganuary Matthew Glover has been quoted by PBN as calling the creation of the caucus inspiring, and claims that their “leadership will hopefully encourage many more people to make a positive change in 2021 and try vegan this January.” According to reports, the primary motivations of the MPs in engaging with Veganuary are climate change, environment and personal health.

Conservative politics are not conducive to the realisation of liberation, whether of humans, other animals or the Earth (for further discussion see my article Focus vs. Scope). However a more in depth investigation of the voting records of the individuals who form the Vegan Conservatives show just how antithetical their political actions and ideologies are to the fundamental ideals of veganism itself. I will focus on a few more notable examples from the caucus to avoid this article becoming repetitive; suffice to say there are common themes throughout all the voting records of the members of the Vegan Conservatives.

Henry Smith MP (Crawley) has generally voted against the introduction of laws to promote equality and human rights, including against marriage equality and in support of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998. In 2013 Smith voted against making it illegal in the UK to discriminate against people based on caste. He has consistently voted for the use of UK military forces in overseas combat, and voted against an investigation into the UKs involvement in the Iraq War. He has consistently voted against social welfare reform including against raising the rate of benefits over longer terms for people unable to work due to illness or disability and in support of a general reduction in welfare spending. He has consistently voted for a stricter asylum seeker system, the same system that killed Mercy Baguma. He has also consistently voted in support of mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities, a direct attack on democratic processes including the ability and right to freely engage in protest without threat of retribution by the state. And he has generally voted against the implementation of measures designed to prevent climate change, despite quoting animal agriculture’s contribution to climate change as a motivator for his involvement with Veganuary. He is against fox hunting and the badger cull; this does not mitigate the harms his support for imperialist, anti-human and anti-environment policies. Rather it throws his hypocrisy into stark relief.

As we read through the voting records of the rest of the caucus we see much of the same. Pro-military interventions, anti-welfare, anti-asylum seeker and anti-climate action votes abound. Support for mass surveillance and the carceral state are also prevalent, the very mechanisms utilised against activists who pursue liberatory goals. This is not exactly surprising from the Tories. What is interesting, however, is that some members of this “vegan” caucus (namely John Baron, Mark Garnier, and Matthew Offord) all voted in favour of the scientifically unfounded and cruel badger slaughter (aka. “culling”) that was implemented to “prevent” the spread of Bovine Tuberculosis throughout UK dairy herds.

This is the group of people that Veganuary and The Vegan Society have chosen to actively promote and ally with to promote a reductionist “apolitical” form of veganism that is in essence anti-liberatory.

It is disappointing that after last year’s criticisms, Veganuary have yet again failed to fully comprehend the fundamental ideals of veganism. In 2019 they promoted Jack Monroe as a Veganuary 2020 Ambassador. In the days leading up to the announcement Monroe was actively promoting the use of animal flesh and secretions on social media, had released a non-vegan cookbook called Vegan(ish), and had also made claims that living vegan was a privilege. Veganuary initially responded to criticisms by turning off comments on the post announcing Monroe as an ambassador and deleting existing comments. Monroe was eventually removed as an ambassador only after ongoing pressure from vegans.

Yet the organisers at Veganuary have again chosen to promote those whose politics and ideologies are fundamentally oppositional to veganism itself, whether it be as a means to liberate other animals from human exploitation, or to mitigate the environmental or human harms caused by a continued reliance upon violence against other animals for human profit, pleasure and tastes.

And imagine how it might feel for the family of Mercy Baguma, or the families of countless other migrant, disabled, unemployed and impoverished people who have died as a direct result of punitive and austerity Tory policies, to see the names and faces of those who contributed to the deaths of their loved ones bandied about as though adopting the label of “vegan” makes them a paragon of virtue. How inclusive does this make veganism appear to the broader community who are already struggling in adverse social, economic and political circumstances?

On the surface Veganuary appears to have great potential in creating public appeal for veganism. In reality, it promotes an apolitical consumerist version of veganism that is neither revolutionary nor liberatory. Corporations whose profit margins rely heavily on the exploitation of other animals are endlessly praised for adding a handful of plant-based options to their repertoires. The posts on social media are dominated by pictures of food and products, making consumption the focus over ethics. Veganuary is little more than a capitalist advertising service.

In light of this latest situation, vegan organisations and individuals alike would do well to consider whether they wish to be associated with Veganuary on its current trajectory.