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Martin Parsons: The scale of the Christian voting community

6a00d83451b31c69e20133f2f0b85b970b-pi This is the third 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 we will try to examine how large and how potentially significant this move away from Labour among practising Christians was.

In the 2001 census 71.7% of the British population chose to identify themselves as ‘Christian’ compared to 15.5% who identified themselves as ‘no religion’. . However, nominal adherence does not normally affect voting patterns. However, for those for whom Christianity is an important part of their lives it may well do, and at a time when – as we saw in part 1 – many Christians have been deeply concerned at the Labour government’s attack on freedoms long enjoyed by Christians and others in the Britain – the it is quite likely to affect how they vote. Whilst there have been many surveys by individual denominations of church attendance on a particular Sunday, it is more helpful to look at surveys based on sampling across denominations and across the year.

A recent surveyof this type indicated that there were approximately 7.6 million people who attend church at least monthly – that’s 15% of the UK population. Not all of these will necessarily have their voting patterns directly affected by religious issues. However, the issues I have outlined above were a particularly pressing issue for practising Catholics and Evangelicals – which at a very conservative estimate would be about a million evangelicals (which is the actual membership of the Evangelical Alliance – although they claim to represent a constituency of around two million) and around 2.1 million practising Catholics i.e. between three and four million plus people.

Remember William Hague’s observation in 1998 that:

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

Those included many practising Christians.

By early 2010 for a great many committed Christians, far from Labour being the only party that Christians could vote for as Tony Blair had tried to persuade people in 1997, Labour had by now become the anti Christian party. This was something that potentially could have had at least as big an impact on the 2010 election result as the move of disillusioned Christians towards Tony Blair’s New Labour had in creating the Labour landslide of 1997. Let me illustrate:

A couple of years ago a man who was head of RE in a Catholic school said to me ‘like most Catholics I’ve always voted Labour, but with what the government is doing I’m having to reconsider’. He was one of many that were for the first time considering voting for us, whose votes the Conservative Party should have won – but we didn’t. There are as approximately 2.1 million practising Catholics like this man who attend church at least monthly and many more regularly. It was not just Catholic voters, although as a group that had largely tended to vote Labour in the past they could potentially have made a very significant difference in some of the marginal constituencies we needed to win to gain an overall majority.

It was also Evangelicals, of whom there are estimated to be 2 million regular churchgoers. Even just taking the actual membership figure for the Evangelical Alliance – of one million, that equates to more than 1500 people in each constituency. Unlike Catholics, Evangelicals have in the past largely divided their votes on a similar pattern to the rest of the country. However, something was changing in the two years or so leading up to the May 2010 general election that was causing a large number of practising Christians, both Catholic and Evangelical to seriously consider voting Conservative. It was a widespread perception that Christians were being systematically discriminated against by legislation that the Labour government was pushing through.

Three years ago I attended a meeting convened by the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics in Cambridge. Among those present were around 50 leaders of highly respectable and well known Christian organisations in the UK. The feeling was expressed that Britain was ‘no longer a free country’. It was not simply the Sexual Orientation Regulations that had just been passed. It was the fact that an increasing number of people who had made measured criticism of the gay rights agenda had been subjected to lengthy police investigations as a result of a complaint of ‘homophobia’ even though it was perfectly clear from the outset that no crime whatsoever had been committed. For example, in 2005 family values campaigner Lynette Burrowes who had voiced concerns on a radio talk show over whether two gay men adopting a girl would be in the best interests of the child, was subjected to several hours of what she described as ‘intimidating’ police questioning. The previous year Cambridge University Christian Union had been reported to the police after hosting an apologetic meeting where the Dean of Sydney Cathedral put forward a traditional Biblical view on homosexuality. A number of other prominent Christians were subject to such police investigations. Essentially, the problem was that the Labour government’s police guidelines required the police to investigate not simply ‘crimes’ but any alleged ‘homophobic incident’. However well intentioned this may have been, it had the effect of empowering a small number of activists who did not believe in free speech to bully and intimidate into silence anyone who made statements they disagreed with. It was on this basis that an attempt was made by gay rights activists to have the Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow prosecuted for a sermon that he gave in church on the importance of marriage, because it was critical of the Civil Partnerships Act.

It was these sort of incidents that led Christians, who were by now abandoning any support for Labour in droves, to ask the question ‘Will the Conservatives gives us equal rights with gay people?’

We observed at the start of this article that there were between 3 and 4 million voters for whom the Labour government’s sustained attack on Christian freedom was an issue that they were deeply concerned about. Even if we take the lower of those figures, three million is the equivalent of more than 4,500 voters per constituency, while even two million concerned Christian voters is the equivalent of more than 3,000 voters per constituency. Now consider the fact that we lost 47 seats by less than 3,000 votes. 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.

In practice the potential impact was even greater than this as any Christian voters switching from Labour (or in Lib Dem held seats from the Lib Dems) would have double the impact by both reducing the Labour (or Lib Dem) majority and by increasing the Conservative vote. In other words if only 1,500 of these 4.500 practising Christians i.e. a third, switched from voting Labour (or Lib-Dem where they held the constituency) to voting Conservative – then we would have had a majority of 26 seats. Even if only 1,000 of those 4,500 (less than a quarter) switched to voting Conservative we would still won an overall majority.

One group that was particularly acutely concerned about the loss of Christian freedoms under Labour were black Christians and with 48% of Black people regularly attending church, this 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.

> In part 4 we will look at what went wrong in the Conservative outreach to Christians.


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