The shrinking majority

Britain is still a Christian country but the drift towards secularism continues.

The latest data release from the ONS's integrated household survey shows a continued, slow decline in Christian affiliation, a small but significant increase in the number of people who profess no religion, the sustained growth of Islam and stability or decline in other religious groups.

The headline figures suggest that the United Kingdom remains a predominantly religious and mostly Christian country. Almost seven in ten (68.5 per cent) identify themselves to researchers as Christians -- far more than the 15 per cent who regularly attend church. Less than a quarter (23 per cent) profess no religion at all (although in Wales, the figure is considerable higher, at close to one in three. Of the population as a whole, 4.4% is Muslim -- more than all other minority faiths put together -- but still less than one person in 20. (The full IHS figures can be found here.)

This picture of stability may be something an illusion, however. The last time this survey was conducted, in 2009-2010, the figure for Christian affiliation was 71.4 per cent and for no religion was just 20 per cent. A movement of 3 per cent from a Christian identity to a non-religious one in a single year is potentially a dramatic one. The annual population survey, which has included a religion question since 2004, records what looks like a consistent pattern. In 2004-2005, the figures stood at around 78 per cent Christians and less than 16 per cent having no belief. Then, 3.2 per cent were Muslim. In every subsequent year, the number of self-styled Christians has declined -- and most of that decline can be accounted for by an increase in non-belief. (For a detailed breakdown of the statistics, see this EHRC survey here.

Now, look at the age profile of belief in Britain. According to the latest IHS, Christian affiliation is strongly correlated with age. No fewer than 87.6 per cent of those over 65 define themselves as Christians and almost 80 per cent of those aged over 50 but below retirement age. The 25-34 age group would seem to be the least religious, with just over half calling themselves Christians and about a third having no affiliation. At the same time, growth in Islam is taking place predominantly among the young. Almost 8 per cent of under 16s are now counted as Muslim, compared with a mere 1 per cent of those over 65.

There are various possible explanations for the age differential. One is that people are drifting away from religion in early adulthood but returning to it in old age when, among other things, they are more preoccupied with thoughts of death and a possible afterlife. There may be some truth in this. The new figures suggest that there is more religious attachment among those under 24 (and especially under 16) than among their slightly older peers. But not much. Another possibility is that younger people are simply more honest -- that older respondents grew up at a time when to admit to having no religion was less socially acceptable than it is today and have retained a habit of pretending to believe.

The most likely scenario, however, has to be that Christianity is contracting in the UK at a steady and observable rate, a long-term trend that has not been altered significantly by the increasing profile of religion in the media, politics and public debate over the past ten years.

It's not all bad news for Christian leaders. The UK remains theoretically a Christian majority country and is likely to be so for many years to come. The secularisation of society does not seem yet to have reached a tipping point at which attachment to Christianity -- however notional -- collapses. Lack of affiliation with any religion, moreover, is not the same thing as out-and-out atheism -- it can encompass a wide range of vaguely religious and spiritual beliefs. Membership of many evangelical churches continues to grow. And the churches retain formidable resources in terms of organisation, political influence and social prestige.

The days of most people automatically ticking the box marked "C of E" may well be numbered. And if the Christian majority continues to shrink, the historic privileges of the established church -- and of Christianity generally -- will become ever harder to defend.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Cameron in Nuneaton. Photo: Getty
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Why fewer of us want a long-term relationship ... with a political party

In 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010. So what does the rise of swing voters mean for British politics?

For decades political parties have competed furiously for one of the great prizes of British politics: the affections of the swing voter. It wasn’t that long ago that there were relatively few political swingers: until the 1990s, fewer than a quarter of voters would switch parties from one election to the next.

Yet that once relatively rare breed is becoming increasingly common, which means party campaigners are going to have to come up with new tactical thinking. The British Election Study survey panels, conducted episodically over the last fifty years, are unique in that they are able to track the same voters from one election to the next, unlike more conventional opinion polls that only look at a snapshot of voters at a given time. Using these studies, you can identify the percentage of voters who switch their vote from one party to another between each pair of elections since 1966 when such data was first collected.

In 1966 only around 13 per cent of voters had changed their minds since the previous election in 1964. Since then, the proportion of swingers has been steadily increasing, and by 2015, 38 per cent of voters backed a different party to the one they supported in 2010.

The increase in swing voters is pretty consistent. The only exceptions are between February and October 1974, when (understandably) fewer voters changed their minds in eight months than switched in the preceding four years, and between 1997 and 2001, when the electoral dominance of New Labour under Tony Blair held back the tide for a time. These two exceptions aside, the increase has been constant election-on-election.

A lot of vote shifting can go on even between elections where the overall result remains stable. In 2001, for example, more people switched votes than in any election before 1997, with a surprising level of turmoil beneath the surface stability. While these largely cancelled out on that occasion, it set the stage for more dramatic changes in the parties’ votes later on.

So British voters now seem more likely than ever to jump from party to party. But who exactly are these swingers? Are they disillusioned former party loyalists? Or have British voters simply stopped getting into a serious relationship with the parties in the first place? We can get some insight into this using data from the yearly British Social Attitudes Survey, looking at the number of respondents who say that they do not identify with any of the political parties (party identifiers tend to switch much less often) when they are asked ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a supporter of any one political party?’ and then ‘Do you think of yourself as a little closer to one political party than to the others?’ if they say no to the first question. The graph below combines data from 1984 to 2013. Each line represents people who were born in a different year. Higher lines mean that there are more people who do not identify with a political party. So, for instance, voters born in 1955 started with very low levels of non-identification (22 per cent), which have gradually risen to 44 per cent in the latest survey. Most of the lines on the graph go up over time, which shows that almost all generations are falling out of love with the parties.

However, an acquired taste in swinging among the older generations is dwarfed by the promiscuous younger generations – shown by the dashed lines – most of whom never form an attachment to a party at all. Each generation in the data has been less committed to the parties than the previous generation was at the same age, with around 60 per cent of the youngest generation – those born since 1985 – expressing no attachment to any political party.

Since most of this change has been a generational shift, it may be a long road back for the parties. Loyalty to parties is often handed down in families, with children inheriting their parents’ commitment to a party. Now that this process has broken down, and younger generations have lost their attachment to parties, they may in turn pass on this political detachment to their children.

The majority of younger voters have simply never grown up with the idea of getting into a long-term relationship with a political party, so they may never settle down. Many Labour MPs were outraged when it turned out that lots of the new members who joined up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn had voted for the Green Party just a few months before, but this may simply reflect the political approach of a generation who see parties as needing to earn their vote each time rather than commanding lasting, even unconditional loyalty.

If Britain’s newfound taste for swinging isn’t going to disappear any time soon, what does it mean for party competition? In the past most people had settled partisan views, which seldom changed. General elections could be won by attracting the relatively small group of voters who hadn’t made up their minds and could very easily vote for either of the two main parties, so political parties based their strategies around mobilising their core voters and targeting the few waverers. While they worried about traditional loyalists not turning up to the polls, the parties could be assured of their supporters’ votes as long as they got them to the voting booth.

Nowadays, swing voters are no longer a small section of the electorate who are being pulled back and forth by the parties, but a substantial chunk of all voters. This helps to explain why politicians have been so surprised by the sudden rise of new parties competing for groups previously thought to be reliable supporters. The new parties that have entered British politics have also allowed voters to express their views on issues that don’t fall neatly into traditional left– right politics such as immigration (UKIP) or Scottish independence (the SNP). This in turn has posed a dilemma for the traditional parties, who are pulled in multiple directions trying to stop their voters being tempted away.

This may just be the start. If the number of swing voters stays this high, the parties will have to get used to defending themselves on multiple fronts.

This is an extract from More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford.