Conservative Home

« Martin Parsons: Did we alienate Christian voters at the election? | Main | Andrew Mitchell MP: The impact of the work of Project Umubano volunteers on Rwanda and Sierra Leone is a credit to the Conservative Party »

Martin Parsons: What next in the Conservative Party's relationship with Churchgoers?

6a00d83451b31c69e20133f2f0b85b970b-pi This is the final part 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 the previous four parts of this series (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4) we have looked at how prior to the general election a great many practising Christians were becoming deeply disillusioned with Labour as a result of the government’s sustained attack on historic British liberties such as freedom of belief and the right to express it.

We have also seen how it was Conservative peers who alone of the three main parties had stood up against this assault on Britain’s historic Christian liberties. With between 3 and 4 million practising Christians who were deeply concerned about this issue there was the potential for this to significantly affect the outcome of the general election. This was the equivalent of more than 4,500 voters per constituency. If only 1,000 of those 4,500 voters had switched from voting Labour (or Lib Dem in Lib Dem held seats) to voting Conservative, then we would have gained an overall majority.

However, in the actual election period a number of factors led to much of this potential vote dissipating. In part 4 we examined these, which included a lack of any specific encouragement to Christian voters that on the issues that most concerned them, the Conservatives would treat them fairly, or at least more fairly than Labour had done. There were also instances that more specifically led to a degree of alienation of Christian voters from the Party. Most prominent of these were the party’s reaction to Chris Grayling’s comments that Christians offering bed and breakfast in their own homes should be allowed to set ‘house rules’ as to who shared a double room, while those offerring accommodation outside of their personal homes should be required to make it indiscriminately available to all.

These comments were initially greeted with a huge sigh of relief by many Christians, that at last someone was trying to be fair to both Christians and gay people. But there was predictably a huge sense of disappointment when Chris Grayling was forced to retract them; This sense was heightened by the deselection of a parliamentary candidate by the Scottish Conservative Party because the candidate’s website stated that whilst he would always treat gay people equally, he couldn’t personally endorse homosexual practices. This action by the Scottish Party created a strong impression among many Christians that the Conservative Party was intolerant of Christians and prepared to actively discriminate against anyone holding orthodox Christian beliefs on sexual ethics to the extent that they would prevent any such person from becoming a Conservative MP.

The result was that whilst some practising Christians did vote for us, for many others we failed to secure their votes because we had (quite wrongly) allowed an impression to be created that on the issues that most deeply concerned committed Christians we were ‘just as bad as the other lot’. Yet if only a third of these 4,500 voters who were practising Christians in each constituency had switched from voting Labour (or Lib Dem in Lib Dem seats) to voting Conservative then we would have secured a majority of around 26 seats and if only 1,000 (less than a quarter) had done so we would still have gained an overall majority.

Clearly, this was a corner that we should never have allowed ourselves to get pushed into. 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.

What we should have done as a minimum was to:

a) Emphasise that we were the party of equality that would treat ALL people equally, whether gay or straight, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Humanist etc.

b) Set and publicise clear boundaries in how far we would go along with the agenda of gay rights organisations, boundaries that voters could clearly see did not compromise values such as freedom of speech. If you read David Cameron’s election interview with Gay News he actually did this – refusing to follow Labour’s lead in agreeing to ban all criticism of homosexual acts. However, as a party we clearly failed to set out that boundary line for the wider public to see. As a result we allowed the impression to be created that the Conservatives would show the same degree of intolerance towards Christians as Labour had done.

c) At least steer a middle course. Why did we not as an act of reassurance to Christians put up a gay shadow minister to say that whilst as a gay person they naturally disagreed with Christian views on homosexuality, it was fundamentally wrong in a free society to ban people from expressing such opinions?

The future

Clearly there is a lot of fence mending that needs to be done before the next election. The Conservative Party needs to make very clear that it is in no sense intolerant of Christians or anyone else for that matter who holds to basic Conservative values. In particular, it needs to:

a) Adopt a policy that all who accept basic Conservative principles are welcome in the Conservative Party at all levels regardless of religious belief or non belief specifically including Christians, Muslims, gay and straight etc.

b) Positively adopt a policy that the Conservative Party will not discriminate against anyone becoming a parliamentary candidate on the grounds of their religious beliefs, provided that they accept basic Conservative principles – such as freedom of the individual, freedom of speech, economic liberalism etc.

c) Avoid Lib-Dem coalition partners dragging us into any further erosion of religious liberty in the UK.

d) The coalition government urgently needs to look at ways of addressing the exclusion of Christians from public life, such as registrars and magistrates on adoption panels, that began under the last Labour government. Interestingly, Labour leadership hopeful Andy Burnham has recently felt the need to apologise to Christians for the way they were marginalised under the last Labour government.

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles has recently made a good start – and created a positive impression - by meeting Christian leaders and telling them that:

 “The days of the state trying to suppress Christianity and other faiths are over.”

However, we clearly need to follow up words with actions if we are to reverse some of the damage that has been done. In May 2010 we failed to persuade more than 36% of the electorate to vote for us. As William Hague said in 1998:

‘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.’


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.