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The left should embrace religious voters

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

Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu baptises a local church goer.
Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu baptises a local church goer in a water tank during an Easter Saturday ceremony. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.