The left should embrace religious voters

Contrary to Nelson Jones, Demos's report shows that the faithful are key allies for progressives.

On Easter Sunday, Demos launched the first report in a three part series  on religion in society, community and politics. The first report, Faithful Citizens, looked at the much-discussed relationship between religion and civic engagement. One finding might have been expected: religious people are more likely to be engaged in civic life. Another was not: religious people are more likely to self-identify as left-wing than right.

The report has already caused a stir, running contrary to the expectations of some on the "progressive" left. On the New Statesman website yesterday, blogger Nelson Jones sought to rescue secular politics from the report's findings by pointing to "severe methodological flaws".

One of Jones’s key criticisms was that, contrary to what we claimed, non-religious people were in fact more likely to be left-wing than religious people: 62% of secularists place themselves on the left side of the spectrum compared to 55% of religious respondents.  True enough, but the report didn’t claim otherwise. We argued that a majority of religious people in the UK identify as left-wing or left-of-centre, which is contrary to the common assumption that religious citizens are more likely to be conservative. This misunderstanding on his part does not detract from the report’s central premise (let alone say anything about the methodology): that left-wing progressives should sit up and take notice of the fact that religious citizens in the UK may be their natural allies on more issues than they think.

Behind Jones’s straw man argument, and the misdirection and lazy assumptions that characterise his other two methodological "critiques" (all methodological issues are addressed directly in the report itself and I’d be happy to discuss any questions with readers directly) is a clear desire to airbrush faith out of civic and political life. It is precisely this instinct that risks producing a schism on the progressive left between groups who ought to be allies.

Of course, you cannot put people neatly into a political box and our report does not attempt to. The majority of religious citizens in the UK may be more conservative in some aspects (for example, valuing tradition and institutions), but hold progressive views with respect to those on the vulnerable fringes of society (e.g. immigrants).  They are also more likely than non-religious citizens (as a proportion of the total) to value equality over freedom – a traditional left-wing view. Many on the left have been uncomfortable if not hostile toward the religious.  However, as our research suggests, those on the left can not afford to isolate religious citizens as they are likely to form a core component of any election-winning progressive coalition. 

In a way, our report reveals just as much about the breakdown of traditional political divides in the UK and Europe as it does about religion.  Faithful citizens are more likely than non-religious citizens to prioritise the principle of equality over freedom, but less keen on ‘equalising incomes’ if it means sacrificing work incentives.  They also overwhelmingly – along with non-religious citizens – think that individual responsibility should be privileged over state responsibility, and that competition is good rather than harmful: both of which are traditionally arguments of the political right.  And yet – despite holding specific views that would put them on the political right – the majority consider themselves on the political left.  These are the nuances behind present debates over everything from welfare reform, to creating a "big society". But the last point – that a majority put themselves on the left – should nonetheless galvanise the progressive left into embracing faithful citizens as key allies, much it seems to the dismay of the likes of Nelson Jones.   

The second and third reports, forthcoming this summer, will look at the role of faith groups in delivering public services, and the role of faith in politics more generally. They will, no doubt, provoke similarly strong reactions.

Jonathan Birdwell is Head of the Citizenship Programme at Demos and the author of Faithful Citizens.

Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu baptises a local church goer in a water tank during an Easter Saturday ceremony. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times