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Is Labour losing its religion?

Former Labour leader Keir Hardie puts his lay preaching skills to good use as he addresses a crowd at a peace demonstration in Trafalgar Square in 1914 - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

A new book shows how Christians are turning away from the Labour Party. Does it impact their chances?

Labour, Harold Wilson once said, owes more to Methodism than Marx. Its founder, Keir Hardie – after whom its present leader is named – was a lay preacher. Its early leaders were devout men; Ramsay Macdonald, its first prime minister, had once been a unitarian preacher, and George Lansbury, who led the party in the early 1930s, saw Christianity as the bedrock of his socialism.

Until 2010, most Labour leaders were at least nominally Christians, though there were exceptions. Clem Attlee, Labour’s 1945 prime minister, said in his terse way: “Agree with the ethics. Can’t believe in the mumbo jumbo.” And I have seen a painful letter Neil Kinnock wrote to a Scottish minister in which he apologised for not being able to find God.

But after Kinnock, the party found God again. John Smith and Gordon Brown were good sons of the Manse, and Tony Blair was a closet Catholic who “came out” after he left Downing Street.

So how come the party suddenly has a problem with Christians? And how much does it matter? A new book, Religion and Euroscepticism in Brexit Britain, suggests it matters a great deal. Labour, it says, is hemorrhaging Christian votes to the Conservatives.

The Tories are hoovering up Christian working class support in what used to be Labour strongholds, and Labour has become a party for young professionals and university graduates. All the unfocused resentment that made Brexit is now un-making Labour.

This will have Labour’s pollsters and spin doctors working overtime. Along with the so-called ‘red wall’ – the traditionally Labour northern seats that went Conservative in 2019 – it will be seen as proof that the party has lost touch with its roots.

It will be meat and drink to ‘Lexiters’, the left wing Brexiters who thought leaving the EU would bring about socialism in Britain. The apostles of ‘blue Labour’ will be issuing weighty warnings that the party must embrace something called “traditional values”.

All this stuff about gay marriage must go. Blue Labour writer Paul Embery has said: “The left’s obsession with identity politics and wokeness… has provided free kick after free kick to the populist right.”

But is it true? And is it really cataclysmic, when the 2011 census confirmed the continuing decline in the number of people who identify as Christian?

The Church of England has never been fertile ground for Labour. It wasn’t called “the Tory Party at prayer” for nothing. Support among Anglicans for the Conservative Party has remained fairly solid for 60 years. Between 1979 and 2015, Anglican support for the Conservatives was about 10 points higher than in the wider electorate. By 2019 this figure had jumped to 20 points, which is uncomfortable but not catastrophic for Labour.

Methodists matter more, partly because of their importance in Labour’s history. But they are a relative minnow. Methodist membership declined by 3.5% a year between 2006 and 2016 and is now 188,398, according to the Methodist Church’s Statistics for Mission report.

The decline in Labour support among Methodists has not been as steep as in other Christian denominations, perhaps because Methodists are comparatively free of sexual hang-ups: in 2019 the UK Methodist Conference voted by 247 votes to 48 to allow same-sex marriages in their churches. Among Methodists, Tory support was three points higher than in the wider electorate between 1979 and 2001; by 2017 the figure was 13 points.

Catholics matter a lot more, partly because there are a lot more of them than of the Methodists – the church claims four million in England and Wales alone, and according to a British Social Attitudes study, the number of Britons identifying as Catholics was stable between 2002 and 2017, at about 8%, while the proportion of Anglicans went down from 31 to 14%. And the Catholic working class is the bedrock of Labour support in some constituencies.

There is still among English Catholics the feeling of being a persecuted minority, which makes them more likely to vote together. So it is alarming that, in 2019, for the first time, support for the Tories among Catholics was slightly higher than in the wider electorate.

Why did it happen? The lobbying group Catholics for Labour, founded by Labour MP Mike Kane at the 2017 Labour Party conference, suggests that the rot may have begun with Alastair Campbell’s famous 2003 remark “we don’t do God”, even though, ironically, Campbell was working for Tony Blair, probably the most overtly Christian PM of the 20th century.

Catholics for Labour believes that the hemorrhage of Catholic voters is worse is Scotland than the rest of the UK. Perhaps this is because of Scottish cardinal Keith O’Brien’s well publicised attacks on the Blair/Brown governments for their policies on such touchstone issues as gay marriage and abortion – he accused them of “a systematic and unrelenting attack on family values”. O’Brien was later forced to step down after admitting inappropriate behaviour with young male seminarians.

Whatever the problem, it seems not to have spilled over to the 2016 EU referendum. Two thirds of Catholics voted Remain, despite the frenzied urging of their high-profile convert Anne Widdecombe, and of distinguished members of the English Catholic neo-aristocracy – the likes of Bill Cash and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

And that is a clue to what is going on. Traditionally there have been two Catholic churches in England (not the rest of the UK).

There’s the church of poor Catholics, immigrants from Ireland and other Catholic nations, who faced discrimination, could get only the hardest and worst paid jobs, and were the butt of racist jokes about laziness and drunkenness. And there’s the church of the great old English Catholic families, rich, patrician, often ennobled, who send their sons to the great Catholic public schools like Ampleforth.

The latter tend, naturally, to vote Conservative (though the scion of one of the most splendid of these families, the Drummond-Murrays, was Jeremy Corbyn’s right hand man Andrew Murray).

As the nation becomes more right wing, and more willing to accept the authority of the upper classes (two of the last three prime ministers were old Etonians), so the old Catholic families become more influential among Catholics.

At the same time, second or third generation immigrants are no longer the reliable Labour voters their parents were. It’s the same phenomenon that Arnold Wesker noted among Jews: he has his east end Jewish matriarch clinging loyally to the Communist Party in 1956, telling her son: “You want me to move to Hendon and forget who I am?”

But Catholic leaders, and other Christian leaders too, feel they have been ignored by successive Labour leaderships, even Blair. After Campbell’s “we don’t do God”, neither Blair’s nor Brown’s avowed Christianity mollified them. Then, after 2010, Labour was led by an avowed atheist in Ed Miliband, and then an apparent agnostic who wouldn’t talk about religion in Jeremy Corbyn. Neither of them seemed to feel in need of episcopal wisdom.

So over the intervening years, deep offence has been taken at small things. Andy Kerr, the chairman of the Labour party’s National Executive Committee, about to call a delegate to speak at the 2018 national conference, said: “Did you cross yourself, there? In that case, I might not.” He later apologised “unreservedly” for the “ill-judged and wrong” attempted joke, but Catholic politicians were nonetheless livid about it, and still are.

A classic storm in a teacup was stirred up over Catholic contender for the Labour leadership Rebecca Long-Bailey’s ambivalent attitude to abortion. Much offence was caused by commentator Paul Mason tweeting that Labour’s policy should not be decided “by the Vatican” – though Mason, of course, does not speak for the Labour Party.

Studies have shown that religion is a good predictor of how people will vote. Dr Siobhan McAndrew of the data resource British Religion in Numbers writes: “Associations between religious identity and party preference persist because parents encourage children into having particular loyalties and perspectives with regard to both politics and faith.”

In 2014, research by James Tilley at the London School of Economic concluded: “Religious divisions remain because religion is a marker of parents’ and grandparents’ party affiliation from an era when religion did matter for policy choices and for voters.”

Christian leaders have felt ignored by Labour; and they say now that Starmer – who says that he does not, personally, believe in God but “can see the power of faith” – is meeting them, listening to them, taking their views into account. If the problem is deep and systemic, he will not succeed. But if, as I believe, it’s mainly a matter of mood music, this is one problem Starmer can fix.

Religion and Euroscepticism in Brexit Britain, by Ekaterina Kolpinskaya and Stuart Fox, is published by Routledge

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