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Martin Parsons: Did we alienate Christian voters at the election?

6a00d83451b31c69e20133f2f0b85b970b-pi This is the fourth of a five part series looking at the Conservative Party's relationship with churchgoers after thirteen years of Labour government. Dr Martin Parsons is a regular contributor to CentreRight.

In Part 1 we examined Labour’s sustained attack on Christian liberties in Britain and in part 2 the how the Conservative opposition in the Lords had led the defence of Britain’s historic heritage freedom of belief and the right to express it. We also observed that a very large number of practising Christians who had not recently vote Conservative had become profoundly disillusioned with the Labour government. In part 3 examined how large and how potentially significant this move away from Labour among practising Christians was. Today we consider whether the Conservative Party alienated Christians at the general election.

In 1997 the Conservative Party lost its majority in a landslide to Labour, a situation which, despite the colossal unpopularity of the last Labour government, we have not yet managed to reverse. A year after that defeat William Hague reflected that:

‘Millions of people who share our values and our principles felt they could not support the Conservative Party with their votes. We need to reconnect with those people, to persuade them that we share their hopes and their concerns for the future of our country.’

Among those ‘millions’ who felt disillusioned with us in 1997 were many active Christians, people who were socially conservative. They not only intuitively believed in that thing called ‘society’, but were some of the most active participants in it, not just in nice middle class areas, but in the difficult inner city areas, where they continue to make a major contribution to repairing Britain’s broken society.

During the last decade of the Thatcher/Major governments many Christians felt (wrongly) that Conservatives were uncaring, some even began publicly to question whether it was possible to be a Christian and a Conservative. Tony Blair openly played on this during the 1997 election campaign attempting to identify Labour with moral and Christian values and quite wrongly implied that Labour was the only party that Christians could vote for.

The end result was that millions of people including what was almost certainly at least hundreds of thousands of committed Christians who had previously voted Conservative switched to voting Labour.

Why many Christians started to look to the Conservative Party again - but many didn't vote for us in the end

It was a long uphill struggle after that, but huge amounts of work were put in by countless people to winning back understanding of what the Conservative Party stood for amongst Christians. The listening to Britain’s churches programme was begun, the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF) begun in 1990 by Tim Montogomerie and David Burrowes MP undertook an immense amount of work. The Centre for Social Justice was set up by Iain Duncan Smith. CCF in particular, though by no means alone, has made immense strides in gaining understanding and even support for the Conservative Party among black Christians, people who have more typically traditionally voted Labour, but had become increasingly concerned by Labour’s legislative agenda that was seen as an attack on basic Christian freedoms in Britain.

In part 1 we saw how Labour’s attack on historic British liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion had created a widespread perception among practising Christians that there is increasing intolerance against them and a very real, and not wholly unfounded fear that Christians are being increasingly excluded from public life.

In part 2 we saw how it was Conservative peers who had taken stand against the Labour government’s attack on freedom of belief and the right to express it. The scene should therefore have been set for the Conservatives to win over the votes of many practising Christians. In part 3 we saw that even at a conservative estimate, taking only a fraction of those who regularly attend church, there were between 3 and 4 million plus voters who were deeply concerned about Labour’s attack on freedom of religion. Even 3 million voters is the equivalent of more than 4,500 voters per constituency. Given that we lost 47 seats by less than 3,000 votes, these are potentially very significant figures. Even if we had only managed to secure the votes of only 2,000 of those 4,500 voters (less than 45%) we would still have managed to secure an overall Conservative majority with 327 seats. While if only 1,000 (well under a quarter) of those 4,500 Christians in each marginal constituency had actually switched from voting Labour to voting Conservative, then it is likely that we would have gained an overall majority. 

One group that was particularly acutely concerned about the loss of Christian freedoms under Labour were black Christians a group that had more typically voted Labour in the past, but were increasingly looking with new interest at the Conservative Party. With 48% of black people regularly attending church, the Labour government’s sustained attack on freedom of belief and freedom of speech was clearly going to be an important issue if the Conservative Party was to achieve one of its key electoral aims of winning over large numbers of black voters, an aim that it largely failed to achieve.

So what went wrong?

Firstly, although over the previous two years it was Conservative amendments in the Lords that had protected aspects of religious freedom, during the actual election campaign there was absolutely no encouragement to Christians that on the issues that concerned them – a future Conservative government would treat them fairly, or at the very least with a greater degree of fairness than Labour. What was perhaps surprising about this was that what Christians were asking for – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom for arbitrary arrest etc are actually fundamental Conservative principles.

Secondly, nationally the Conservative Party took Christians for granted. Our electoral strategy was to some extent at least focused on winning over socially liberal voters on the assumption that socially conservative voters would vote for us anyway. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey approximately 36% of voters hold socially conservative views with around a third of voters socially liberal and another third undecided.

The weakness of the strategy was that it ignored the fact that many people with socially conservative views do not automatically vote Conservative. In fact taking 2001 and 2005 election results where the Conservatives gained 31% and 32% of the vote, it is clear that there were in excess of 4-5% of voters who had not voted for us in the previous two elections yet held socially conservative views. Those as we saw in part 3 included many practising Christians.

In fact, the figure of 4-5% of socially conservative voters not yet voting for Conservative is almost certainly too low, as it assumes that no one with socially liberal views voted Conservative in 2001 or 2005 which clearly was not the case. If we assume that the minority of Conservative voters who are socially liberal is at least 10% – then only 28 or so of that 31% (2001) or 32%(2005) who voted for us were social conservatives. That means that in the 2001 and 2005 elections there must have been at least 8% of voters who were socially conservative but not actually voting Conservative. (It also follows that if more than 10% of Conservative voters in 2001/2005 were socially liberal then there must be proportionally more than 8% of people holding socially conservative views whose votes the Conservative Party still needed to win). Those 8%+ of votes were extremely important to us, to the extent that if the Conservatives had won only half of those votes, then we would have secured 40% of the national vote, which is the figure widely assumed we needed to gain an overall majority.

So, the question must be asked as to whether we were so intent on winning the socially liberal vote, that we took for granted the socially conservative voters whose support we needed to win an overall majority? Did we assume that socially conservative voters would automatically vote for us, when in reality there were a significant number of such voters that the Conservative Party actively needed to win over?

Thirdly, at a national level the Conservative Party came across as so keen to win the gay rights vote that we appeared to be endorsing some of the very things that Labour had done that had led many Christians to feel that they were not being given equal rights with gay people. Whilst there was a very strong movement away from voting Labour among many Christians, the way a number of issues were handled nationally meant that the Conservatives failed to seal the deal with many Christian voters and many of those voters dissipated to a wide range of parties or none rather than going to the Conservatives. In fact, on the doorstep during the election I several times came across practising Christians deeply concerned about Labour’s sustained attack on Christian liberties who were actually going to vote Lib-Dem rather than Conservative. They were without exception totally unaware that Labour’s so called ‘equality’ laws that they were most concerned about were originally Lib-Dem policies that had been adopted by the Labour government and wholeheartedly supported by the Lib Dems on whipped votes.

Particular issues that led to this failure to secure these votes included:

a) The Party’s reaction to Chris Grayling’s comments that he personally felt whilst hotels should be required to offer rooms to anyone regardless, Christians offering bed and breakfast in their own homes should be allowed to specify house rules about who shares a double room. When these secretly recorded comments were broadcast there was a huge sense of relief among many Christians that at last someone was taking their concerns seriously and suggesting a compromise that at least tried to be fair to both Christians and gay people. However, when Chris Grayling was forced to retract these comments a huge sense of disillusionment set it. It led to a perception among some Christians that ‘the Conservatives are just like the Labour Party then’.

b) The deselection of a Conservative candidate by the Scottish Conservative Party during the actual election because of comments on his website that whilst he would treat gay people completely equally, he couldn’t personally endorse homosexual practices. Whilst it may not have been exactly politically astute to put his views on a website during the election campaign, the action of the Scottish Conservative Party in deselecting him because of it, was widely condemned as overly harsh, including by many on Conservative Home. Amongst Christians it created the impression that the Conservatives were just as intolerant of Christians as the Labour Party. Actually, this wasn’t the case as the Labour manifesto threatened to remove the ‘free speech clause’ introduced by Conservative peers, so that any criticism of homosexual acts would in effect become a criminal act. Nonetheless, the Scottish Party’s action created the impression that the Conservative Party was intolerant of Christians, to the extent that anyone holding orthodox Christian views on sexual ethics would be barred from becoming a Conservative parliamentary candidate. This was an extremely dangerous position for the Conservative Party to allow itself to be in during a general election campaign.

c) During the general election period a Christian street preacher was arbitrarily arrested. The preacher was asked by a PCSO about his views on homosexuality. The PCSO then told him that he was the force’s gay and lesbian liaison officer and found his views ‘offensive’ before arranging for uniformed officers to arrest him  – even though it was perfectly clear that no actual crime had been committed. The YouTube video of his arrest is a profoundly disturbing commentary on politically correct policing under New Labour. At the time one Christian leader e-mailed me to say ‘I said a few months ago that it would only be a matter of time before Christians in Britain were arrested for simply reading aloud from the Bible – now it’s happened’ Many, including even veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell spoke out against it. It was the sort of politically correct abuse of police powers that the British public normally looked to the Conservative Party to speak out on. However, Christians across Britain watched in disbelief as not one single political leader spoke out about the police action.

Frankly, we should never have allowed ourselves to get pushed into such a corner. The Conservative Party needs to be seen as tolerant and open at all levels including being parliamentary candidates to anyone in Britain, whether straight or gay, Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist etc. who holds to basic Conservative principles.

In the final part of this series tomorrow we will look at what the party needs to do to win back the confidence of Christian voters who prior to the election were abandoning Labour in droves but whose trust and support the Conservative Party failed to gain in the general election to the extent that it should have.


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