Are religious people really more left-wing?

Demos's analysis suffers from some severe methodological problems.

In his Easter sermon, Rowan Williams suggested that "the high watermark of aggressive polemic against religious faith has passed".  Right on cue comes a report  from think-tank Demos suggesting that (in the words of author Jonathan Birdwell) the "natural allies" of progressives "may look more like the Archbishop of Canterbury than Richard Dawkins."  

Faithful Citizens (available here) boasts a foreword from the former Labour minister Stephen Timms, who writes that religious faith can provide  "a key source for the values the Labour party exists to promote and the aspirations it seeks to realise" and "a large reservoir of potential support for Labour's aims."  

That might come as a surprise to Oliver James, who wrote at the end of last month that he assumed that Guardian readers were "a largely agnostic or atheist bunch." But beyond the obvious point that not all practising Christians fit into a US-derived stereotype of the Religious Right, what does the report actually tell us about faith and politics in 21st century Britain?

Based on an analysis of the UK Citizenship Survey and the European Values Survey, the report highlights apparent correlations between religious commitment and social or political activism.  It emerges, for example, that 55% of people with faith described themselves as left of centre, that they were more likely than the non-religious to value equality over freedom and less likely to have negative feelings about immigrants. 

There was also a suggestion that the actively religious were more active politically, being more engaged in local community work, more likely to sign petitions or go on demonstrations, more likely to belong to a political party than people who weren't religious.  This would not, in itself, prove that believers are more left-wing.  Some might, after all, be volunteering for the Conservative party.  But taken together with the findings about general social attitudes, at least as reported at the weekend, it would seem to provide encouragement for Labour politicians to "do God" more enthusiastically.

Unfortunately, the analysis suffers from some severe methodological problems.

 The report looks at both the UK and some other European countries, but the selection of those countries looks somewhat arbitrary.  Switzerland, we are told, was excluded because it was not a member state of the EU, Italy because the patterns it revealed were "anomalous" (significantly, we are not told what was so anomalous about Italy) and the Scandanavian countries because "research consistently shows higher levels of civic engagement... which would have skewed our results". 

Since Scandanavian countries also consistently score low in markers of religious observance and belief in God, one can see how this might have "skewed" the result that Demos wants to present, that there is a natural link between religiosity and social activism. 

The report divides the public into three broad groups: "exclusivists" who believe that their religion is the One True Faith; secularists, who regard religions as all equally false; and "pluralists", less exclusive believers.  Unfortunately, the latter category is wholly artificial, as it combines two entirely different stances: followers of one religion who are prepared to concede that other religions might teach some common truths or ethical principles, and vaguely "spiritual" types who believe that no one religion has a monopoly of the truth. 

A "pluralist" might be a very devout and committed follower of their faith, or might not be a practising member of  any religion at all.  The category is meaningless.  It is especially meaningless if the aim, as that of the Demos reports appears to be, is to harness the social activism of practising religionists to progressive causes.

What about the key finding that religious believers were "more likely to be left-of-centre"? The way that this finding was reported strongly implied that believers were more likely to be left-wing than non-believers.  But this was not, in fact, the case. The figures for the UK showed that while 55% of believers considered themselves left-of-centre, 62% of non-believers did so.  Thus believers were actually less likely than secularists to consider themselves left-wing! 

With the other headline findings the picture was equally mixed.  We read with some surprise that "the extent to which someone feels that religion is important to their sense of identity does not appear to have a positive impact on their civic engagement."  On freedom versus equality, in the UK a clear majority (approaching 60%) of both the religiously affiliated and of secularists prioritised freedom.  Support for freedom was almost identical between the groups, though there were slightly less enthusiasm for equality among the non-religious (36% as opposed to 41%).  In the continental European sample there was indeed a clear divide, with religious believers more likely to prioritise equality; but here I suspect that not including the Scandanavian countries may have skewed the result.

On most other issues, there's very little difference between the views of believers and those of non-believers, and while practising religionists were indeed slightly more likely to be active in other ways, the divergence was not great.  For example, in the UK 12% of those who belonged to a religious organisation professed themselves "very interested" in politics, as opposed to 11% of those who were unaffiliated.  Well within the margin of error.

85% of British respondents, both religious and secular, said that competition was good rather than harmful.  There were similarly high levels of support for personal responsibility as opposed to reliance on the state.  Such answers raise obvious questions about the self-definition of the majority of people as left-of-centre politically but say nothing at all about the influence of religion.

One thing that the report does concede is that religious observance in the UK continues to decline -- 50% of Britains do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion, as opposed to 31% thirty years ago.  The trend is especially strong among younger citizens.  So politicians both left and right should perhaps think before chasing religious votes with too much enthusiasm. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams famously described himself as a "bearded lefty". Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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