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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Tail docking is described as “barbaric” – so why did the SNP vote to bring it back?

The decision by the SNP to permit the docking of puppies' tails seems bizarre - until you consider the party's divided loyalties.

As Holyrood votes go, it probably doesn't get more emotive than the decision to lift the ban on tail docking - a procedure carried out on three-day-old puppies which involves crushing cartilage, nerves and bone without anaesthetic, and which campaigners have called "barbaric".

The reasoning is that these "working" dogs, flushing out animals to be shot on Scotland's vast hunting estates, can injure their long tails. The British Veterinary Association disagrees, saying the procedure inflicts significant pain and deprives dogs of a "vital form of canine expression". 

So why has the Scottish National Party, with its left-wing rhethoric and substantial block of left-leaning newer members, voted through such a deeply controversial proposal?

One clue is to be found in 2014-15 - not the independence referendum, but the push for land reform which followed it. The extraordinary concentration of land ownership in Scotland - around 430 families or companies own half of the private land - became a touchstone issue for independence campaigners. After September 2014, many transferred their enthusiasm to this issue, demanding a new bill that would kickstart land reform after a decade in the long grass.

This presented a real problem for the SNP. In its longheld tactic of appealing to both left and right, rich and poor, the land issue showed up the cracks. While the new First Minister made rash promises of "radical" reform in November 2015, her cabinet nevertheless included Fergus Ewing, a centre-right politician with links to the landed estates and rural lobby. 
 
Pictures of Ewing clad in tweed alongside gamekeepers at a PR stunt caused some of the party's new membership a twinge of unease. Unedifying rows over fracking, which highlighted Ewing's relationship with the Duke of Buccleuch, did not help. While much was made of the SNP's 56 MPs opposing fox hunting at Westminster, Ewing opposed a Scottish ban more than a decade before
  
Before the SNP made its unprecedented break into the Labour strongholds of the west of Scotland and central belt, the party's support was concentrated in the largely rural east. Perthshire, Banff and Buchan, Moray are places where people voted Tory in the past - and indeed, turned blue once more this June. Not that such a swing can be said to have come entirely from SNP voters. Nevertheless, it does highlights another side of SNP membership that is often forgotten about. "It's said that there are two SNPs," said Professor Ailsa Henderson, professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh. "An SNP voter in Govan is perceived to have a very different profile than another in Perthshire". 
 
This project to appeal to all Scotland - particularly noticeable during Alex Salmond's leadership - produces strange paradoxes, and this tail docking issue is just the latest. The rural lobby is strong, from gamekeepers' associations to hunting proponents to the powerful Countryside Alliance. The current government's proposal to reintroduce the practice didn't come out of the blue. As Green MSP Mark Ruskell explains, the lobbying began with the SNP's victory at Holyrood in 2007. The previous Labour-led "rainbow" parliament, with its seven green MSPs and six socialists, had introduced the Animal Welfare (Scotland) Act, banning the practice of docking as well as fox hunting. 
 
"The gamekeepers were furious," Ruskell said, "And the first thing they did was to lobby the new Scottish government". Ten years later, their wish was granted. "The evidence was rejected by professional bodies, but they still went ahead. It's been spectacularly misjudged," added Ruskell. The power of lobby groups at Holyrood has repeatedly been raised as a concern by campaigners and parliamentarians alike, with last year's Lobbying Act cricitised as being far too weak to ensure real transparency. Pressure from gamekeepers and shooting groups, Ruskell said, influenced the whole way the evidence was put together. One report was simply a survey of self-selecting shooting estates, describing the frequency of tail injuries. 
 
For its part the Scottish government defended the move by pointing out that the rules will still be more restrictive than in other parts of the UK. Only a vet can make the decision to shorten tails - "no more than the end third" - and it will apply only to spaniels and hunt point retrievers. "We have seen enough evidence that some working dogs are suffering tail injuries to make the case for the law being changed", said a government spokesperson. "Scotland is a nation of animal lovers and we take the welfare of our pets, animals and livestock very seriously." 
 
Reaction from SNP members online has been fairly damning, with some talking of leaving the party - though others have defended the decision. The next big showdowns in Holyrood on animal welfare are likely to be just as emotive: the use of electric shock collars on dogs, and the prosecution of wildlife crime (or, how to deal with the fact that poisoned, bludgeoned birds of prey keep turning up on grouse shooting estates). The latter in particular will test, once again, the direction of a party split between appeasing a land management lobby, and meeting the high expectations of its newer members. 
 

0800 7318496