Is There Such A Thing As A Religious Vote In The UK?

The voting patterns of religious voters in Britain are more complicated than they first appear. Politicians should stop treating faiths as bloc votes

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Catholicism and nationalism: Mass at St Andrews Cathedral, Fife (photo: Lawrence OP, via Flickr)

During the election campaign we have had politicians doing God and churchmen doing politics, but have heard very little on the most important factor in all of this: the religious voters. As I write, hustings are taking place in churches, chapels and mosques across the country but you will hear little about it. Few focus groups will involve the faithful; few polls will exclusively target believers. The lack of reference to, or analysis of, the religious vote in the UK reflects the overwhelmingly secular mindset of most politicians, pollsters and their associates in think-tanks and across the media. Ethnicity is the preferred distinguishing mark, with “BMEs” (black and minority ethnic) the latest acronym favoured by the number crunchers and policy wonks in Whitehall. But the lumping together of ethnic minorities, and Christians for that matter, is even more problematic at election time. Can we really say that today’s ethnic minorities have a shared experience, let alone shared values, which collectively determine their partisan affiliation? Do Christians who worship under the same cross tick the same box in the polling booth?

The tendency to slice British society along ethnic lines is in fact a hangover from Britain’s outdated model of multiculturalism forged in the 1970s, which was secular in its construction and hinged on what respected sociologist Tariq Modood has called  a “white/black dualism”, one that ignored the fact that most minorities (particularly Muslims, who are an ethnically diverse group united by faith) classify themselves by their religion rather than their race. A connection between faith and party is much more illuminating than any lazy link between race and party. Among Britain’s non-Christian communities for example, there is a clear correlation between Muslim voters who tend to vote Labour, Jewish voters, once Liberal, then Labour, and now overwhelmingly Tory, and Buddhists, who side with the Liberal Democrats. Hindus and Sikhs are much more evenly split between the two main parties.

Data analysis on the religious vote over the last 40 years collated by the Christian think-tank Theos also reveals that despite growing secularisation there is still a clear political demarcation between Christian denominations and political affiliation. Unlike those on the European continent, the post-war period did not see the emergence of a singular Christian party in the UK but the continuation of historic religious-political bonds that had governed politics since the 19th century. Anglicans are still overwhelmingly Tory voters and twice as likely to vote Conservative as Catholics, who remain predominantly Labour supporters regardless of how devout they are. It perhaps does not need saying that there exists a clear political divide between churchgoers and their church leaders: “Guardian readers preaching to Telegraph readers” was how one Anglican vicar put it in the 1980s, a phrase that still rings true today in most parishes. (Incidentally, the Catholic Church often has the opposite tension.) For all their protestations, church leaders have failed to convert their congregations politically.

Britain’s Nonconformists — a shrunken army since their glory days as the spiritual force behind the 19th-century Liberal party — are now more evenly spread across all parties. Statistics for the 2010 general election, for example, revealed that while the majority of Baptists and Methodists voted Conservative, United Reform Church members favoured the Liberal Democrats, and Free Presbyterians voted Labour.

Those with no religion are less likely to vote Conservative and, significantly, are more likely to be swayed by the less established parties. The irreligious, who constitute an ever-increasing proportion of voters, are not bound by old affiliations or allegiances. Could it be that the recent rise of alternative parties in the British electoral system can partly be explained by the growing secularisation of the electorate? If this is true, the days of the two-party system may well be over.

But we must be careful not to get too carried away with such polls. Faith has always been inherently linked to class in Britain while gender, geography and age are equally important factors in determining voter allegiance. Jews in Salford, for example, are more likely to vote Labour than their London counterparts, partly because of their comparatively lower economic status. Anglican and Catholic women are both more likely to be Conservative than their male counterparts, adding substance to the oft-repeated claim that women tend to be more right-wing then men.

If religious-political affiliations are clearly evident, then what impact, if any, will the religious vote have on the 2015 election? While it will certainly not determine the outcome, its influence will be felt in three important ways. First, the alienation of Christians (chiefly Anglicans) from David Cameron’s Conservative party. Second, the switch of Scottish Catholic Labour voters to the SNP. Third, the changing nature of the British Muslim electorate.

When Parliament passed the gay marriage act, it could be said that the battle for sexuality minorities fought since the 1960s was over. In Britain, however, issues of sexuality or morality had never been partisan matters and for this reason tended not to have a prominent place during elections. In the 1960s, when Parliament decriminalised homosexuality, legalised abortion and liberalised divorce laws, it did so through a series of private members’ bills rather than manifesto pledges while MPs voted with their conscience, free from the discipline of the party whip.

The 1980s saw a new wave of social conservatism as Margaret Thatcher sought to enshrine Judaeo-Christian family values within the fiscal, legal and social fabric of the country. One result of this was Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools. Section 28 pushed some key Thatcherite buttons — the rights of parents and supposed mismanagement of public funds — while it also conveniently discredited Labour-led local councils in the run-up to the 1987 election. 

In March that year, Labour’s press secretary Patricia Hewitt wrote privately to Frank Dobson MP confirming that the “gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst the pensioners”. At that time gay rights was more problematic for the Left than the Right, exposing the differing priorities of old working-class voters and the new liberal Left. It was for this reason that the Labour leadership initially dithered over whether to support or condemn the clause and it was only after mounting internal pressure that Neil Kinnock came out against it. Importantly, the 1987 election would be the last time that homosexuality would be used as a political pawn by the mainstream parties.

There is little doubt that David Cameron’s promotion of legislation permitting gay marriage in 2014 was part of his attempt to “detoxify” the Tory brand and wipe the slate clean of the murky legacy of Section 28. And there are signs that he is already reaping the rewards. A recent poll by Pink News showed that the Conservatives are now on equal ranking with Labour among LGBT voters; for the Conservatives this represents a five per cent poll rise since 2010. But, just as Kinnock struggled to keep his core working-class voters onside over Section 28, so Cameron has found that in supporting gay marriage he has alienated loyal Anglican Tory voters. These are voters who would not classify themselves as homophobic but do not believe that a homosexual union should be given marriage status and resent even more a feeling that they are unable to voice their objections. In a recent ComRes poll commissioned by Premier Christian Radio, more than a third of respondents claimed that gay marriage had put them off voting Conservative.

This disaffection with the moral direction of the Conservative party is something that UKIP’s Nigel Farage has seized upon in a quest to broaden his party’s appeal beyond Euroscepticism. In UKIP, the old Thatcherite cries of moral and national degeneration are finding their voice once more. Ex-Tory voters are attracted to UKIP because of the party’s promotion of a nostalgic view of England, of which social conservatism and faith are a key element. UKIP’s wooing of Christian voters has in truth been half-hearted, not least because its leadership tends to take a libertarian view of personal morality and, like Margaret Thatcher, considers such issues as a diversion from the main cause. There is, however, a small but dedicated band of what are known as “UKIP Christian Soldiers”, although they are said to number only 1,000, and are no match for the Conservative Christian Fellowship, which works hard to ensure that the party keeps in touch with the grass roots in the pews. On gay marriage, Cameron took a political gamble; time will tell whether his decision to trade a band of hitherto loyal Christian Tory voters for socially liberal and secular floating voters will pay off.

On the surface, the politics of Scotland appear to represent a unique case, although the rise of the SNP too reflects the overall UK downward trend in old denominational identities. The recent surge of the SNP is one that can in part be explained by religion. Sectarianism, which for a long time cast a dark shadow over Scottish society and dominated its politics, has declined rapidly over the last 20 years, creating a void which has been replaced with a secular nationalism. Depending on how you see it, the Scots have either embraced national victimhood or national self-determination as their new religion, which in many respects is as unedifying and hysterical as the sectarianism of yesteryear. For a long time, the Tories and Labour in Scotland lazily fed off the sectarian divide within Scottish society while it has been the SNP which has capitalised on its decline.

This is a remarkable turnaround for the SNP, once dubbed the “Tartan Tories”, who were typified by their romantic, parochial and essentially conservative ideology and whose growth had long been stunted because of their inability to win over Catholic voters. The 1970s may have seen a limited surge in the SNP but not among Catholics. In the words of John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, “At that point the concern among Catholics was that an independent Scotland might become a replica of Ulster.”

In the 1990s and 2000s, as social and economic barriers for Scottish Catholics disappeared and the SNP morphed into a left-of-centre party seemingly more in tune with traditional Scottish Labour voters than the Labour party itself, so the SNP started to make serious gains among the Catholic working-class electorate. Catholics began to see Scottish nationalism as something which embraced rather than excluded them. The narrative of the SNP championing the underdog citizen and the underdog nation is one to which all Scots, regardless of religious affiliation, can subscribe.

Equally important has been the declining importance of the Church of Scotland in both Scottish religious and political life. As a Calvinist national organisation the Church of Scotland is ecclesiastically unique, but before devolution it too held a specific duty as the seat of Scottish nationalism. The Kirk’s debates were relayed live on BBC Scotland, as moderators and elders were naturally assumed to be articulating the concerns and views of the Scottish nation. Unlike the Church of England, no one questioned whether it should be meddling in politics.

It is partly for this reason that Mrs Thatcher’s speech to the General Assembly in 1988 (in which she proceeded to lecture the Kirk on the true meaning of Christianity) proved so explosive. It was a complete affront to Scottish (religious) national identity. But, paradoxically, while the speech helped further alienate an already anti-Thatcherite Scotland from the Conservatives, it also signalled the last days of the Kirk at the centre of Scottish national life. Within ten years its role would be replaced by the Holyrood parliament while it witnessed a near-collapse in its membership. Part of the reason the SNP are such a confident and pervasive political force is that their support lies not in an ageing, devout population but in a younger, less religious electorate. While its strength can be attributed to secularisation, its rise cannot be understood without reference to the decline of old religious-political bonds.

Politics in Scotland are not complicated by a multi-faith electorate, but south of the border they certainly are. But although Jews, Hindus and Buddhists may form only a tiny fraction of the electorate, but the opposite is true of the British Muslim community, which currently makes up a third of BMEs and 4.8 per cent of the population. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of Muslims in England and Wales rose from 1.55 to 2.77 million. This naturally translates into electoral power: 26 parliamentary constituencies are now 20 per cent Muslim, while YouElect has estimated that Muslim votes have the potential to influence the result in 32 constituencies.

The legacy of the War on Terror, however, has meant that Muslim affiliation to the Labour party is no longer guaranteed. In both 2005 and 2010 a proportion fled to the Liberal Democrats; in 2015, many are undecided voters.

The main issue when speaking of the “Muslim vote” is not who they will vote for, but whether they will vote at all. Muslims in Britain are more disinclined to vote than any other minority group (an apathy which predates the War on Terror). In 2010, just 47 per cent of Muslims voted, compared with 65 per cent of the general population. If the Islamic community feels disenfranchised and victimised, then voting must be encouraged as a way of overcoming this.

More pointedly, the Muslim electorate is changing. It is now inaccurate to depict Muslims as low-skilled, low-paid and marginalised archetypal Labour voters: 43 per cent of Muslims own their own property, 47 per cent are born in the UK and only 6 per cent have English language issues. The number of those Muslims with no qualifications dropped from 39 per cent to 26 per cent between 2001 and 2011. With the emergence of a more sophisticated, heterogeneous Muslim electorate, especially one that is overwhelmingly young in composition, its allegiance to Labour cannot be taken for granted. Like the Hispanic vote in America, the Muslim vote in the UK is numerically significant and will in the long term have an increasing influence on the outcome of elections.

Is there evidence that some are pushing a distinct (and indeed negative) Muslim political agenda? In 2010, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) claimed to have successfully galvanised the Muslim vote to unseat three MPs whom they considered “pro-war Zionists” and hostile to Islam. There was in fact little evidence that the results were genuinely down to MPAC’s actions. In March this year, the Muslim Council of Britain issued a document called Fairness not Favours, spelling out the issues for Muslims at election time. Unlike the pastoral letter from the Church of England’s House of Bishops, the statement received little coverage in the mainstream press. But the tone of the MCB was remarkably similar to the Anglican bishops in advocating policies which furthered the common good, while also highlighting specific Muslim concerns such as rising Islamophobia and Britain’s policy on Palestine, its tone mirrored that of the Anglican pastoral letter in. Statistical evidence regularly points to the fact that Muslim voters are not exceptional in their voting concerns, with education, hospitals, jobs and tax foremost in voters’ minds.

Bracketing Muslims under the umbrella term “ethnic minorities” predetermined to vote Labour is problematic. So too is characterising the Islamic community as a homogenous group who thrive on victimhood and are hostile to the British political system. British Muslims need to find their electoral voice and the British political system needs to wake up and listen.

If politicians make claim to their faith, Christian or other, they do so not out of a wish to appeal to devout voters but because the majority of the British electorate take some comfort in knowing that their leaders have some (but not too much) spiritual guidance.

But unlike many Americans, the British do not vote with their Bible in one hand and their ballot paper in the other. Faith may not determine the election result, yet it is certain that changes in the nation’s religious make-up are having a knock-on effect on the political landscape of Britain. Old allegiances are dying, new allegiances are being forged. The religious vote still matters — but for how much longer?