Animal Rights group Speak is setting up a political wing - and plans to put forward candidates to contest seats at local and General Elections.

The group, which has led protests against the construction of Oxford University's controversial medical research lab in South Parks Road, Oxford, said Speak Political would target 'incumbent MPs who are outspokenly anti-animal as well as Labour MPs with small majorities.' Spokesman Mel Broughton said the group would put forward candidates to contest seats across the country and would target seats 'where there is an issue of animal welfare'.

A posting on the Speak website read: "All we need to do is lose some of these people their seats in order to gain genuine political influence and move animal rights to the top of the political agenda.

"We believe there has never been a better time to do this. People are tired of traditional party politics. Speak Political want to reinvigorate the electoral system, taking on the politicians in their own constituencies and letting them know: there really is nowhere for them to hide.

"If they promise us something and they don't deliver or if politicians are misusing their positions in order to promote corporate business, then Speak Political will be there to hold them to account.

"We believe we can gain many protest votes because of this, as well as votes from people who believe in animal rights issues."

Mr Broughton said it was too early to say how many seats would be contested, but named Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris's Oxford West and Abingdon seat as one they would definitely target.

Dr Harris said last night that Speak had every right to field a candidate to contest his seat.

He added: "Speak have described me as 'anti-animal, which I am not. I welcome them taking this democratic approach, but it will not change my view that carefully regulated animal research is necessary to help with medical res- earch."

Mr Broughton said he was confident Speak Political could make a difference, adding: "We can create a lot of waves for these people. They will not have such an easy run of of it in the future.

"People are disillusioned at the moment. Evan Harris and others such as Tony Blair have been able to get away with calling all animal rights campaigners extremists for too long."

Laurie Pycroft who established a group called Pro-Test, to campaign for the continuation of animal testing for medical advances, welcomed the news. He said: "They are more than welcome to engage in any means of legitimate protest and it would be good to see any of them in Parliament.

"I don't think putting forward candidates is right for Pro-Test, we are going to continue with our advocacy work."

A Dutch animal rights party - The Party for Animals, founded in October 2002 -became the first animal interest group to enter a European parliament after winning two seats in the country's General Election two weeks ago.

Speak was formed early in 2004 in a bid to prevent Oxford University building the animal research lab.

The campaign switched to Oxford after the animal rights movement claimed a victory in preventing Cambridge University from building Europe's largest primate laboratory. Speak's supporters advocate peaceful protests, although a number of demonstrators have been arrested.