Why Eric Pickles is in a pickle over religion

The narrative of Christian marginalisation is implausible while the religion's representatives sit by right in the nation's legislature.

We have a government that likes to "do God". To be more accurate, we have a government including some members who like to talk publicly about the importance of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular. Few are keener to talk about it than Eric Pickles. Writing in the Telegraph last week the larger-than-life Communities Secretary was characteristically effusive about the contribution that Christianity made to British public life.

It "has shaped the heritage, morality and public life of Britain; and... continues to influence our society for the better," he wrote. He further contrasted the positive story of the country's "Christian ethos" (including the Reformation, which was "entwined with British political liberty and freedoms" - a message unlikely to go down well with Roman Catholics) with the danger posed by secularism, as represented by "the intolerant National Secular Society".

This intervention is just the latest in a long line of ministerial (and prime ministerial) pronouncements since this government came to power. To take a few examples, David Cameron said in a speech last year celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible that "we are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so." Baroness Sayeeda Warsi - whose new title, since the reshuffle, is "senior minister of state and minister for faith and communities" - wrote in the Telegraph earlier this year warning that "a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies", a "deeply intolerant" creed that "demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes."  Michael Gove arranged for copies of the King James Bible to be distributed to schools.

Such statements and gestures may reflect an actual policy agenda, such as the government's continued encouragement of faith schools. Making pro-faith noises is also a way of appealing to a group of core supporters (Britain's small but politically active "religious right") and of differentiating the Conservatives from the Liberal Democrats, who are led by a self-proclaimed atheist. It may just be empty rhetoric. Pickles was especially keen to reassure Christian activists that the government is on their side despite such things as same-sex marriage or the spectacle last week of British government lawyers at the European Court of Human Rights arguing that a Christian woman had no right to wear a cross at work.

That one poses a particular problem for Pickles, given that both he and David Cameron have previously denounced such restrictions and even promised to enshrine the right to wear crosses in new legislation. In his latest article, Pickles proclaimed that "banning discreet religious symbols for reasons of political correctness is not acceptable" before going on to justify the government's legal position, bizarrely, as "resisting Brussels interference and gold-plating of what should be a matter for common sense."  

It's interesting that cross-wearing has recently become a touchstone issue. Whatever the legal arguments, the cases reflect a sense among some that Christianity is ceasing to be taken for granted in British society but has become a particular identity that needs to be asserted. Many Christians certainly feel themselves to have been "marginalised". A survey carried out for Premier Christian Radio a few years ago found that almost three quarters believed this to be the case. The marginalisation "narrative", in which the high-profile court cases play an important part, has been pushed by campaign groups such as Christian Concern (with support from parts of the media, especially the Mail and the Telegraph). Prominent Christian leaders reinforce it, too: most notably Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu and two retired Anglican prelates, Michael Nazir-Ali and George Carey.

According to this narrative, a small cadre of secularists, acting in the name of multiculturalism and/or equality, are aggressively relegating Christianity from the centre of public life, where it has been for centuries, to the periphery. Conversely, secularists and some liberal Christians argue that what the campaigners are actually lamenting is the loss of the power and privilege that the churches used to enjoy. I find both claims implausible. There is clearly nothing marginal about a religion whose representatives sit by right in the nation's legislature, which runs a third of the country's state schools and to which half the population, on the most recent figures, still claims to belong. But at the same time Christianity is clearly not as strong as it was. By any standards, decline in religious observance has been one of the most striking features of the past fifty years.

While the decline in actual attendance at church services now seems to be slowing, the proportion of the population that claims a religious affiliation has fallen dramatically in the past two decades, especially among younger people. The result is a sharpening of the boundary between believers and the rest of society - especially since a higher proportion of church members now identify themselves as evangelical or otherwise theologically conservative.

In the past, the fact that the majority of the population paid lip-service to the idea of a Christian nation meant that the true believers, always a fairly small proportion of the whole, felt themeselves to represent the moral core of society. Traditional "Christian" attitudes were widely shared even by people who rarely if ever went to church. Today, they are far from universally adhered to even by Christians.

It's no coincidence that the one issue above all that excites many believers in the marginalisation narrative is the government's stated intention to open marriage to same sex couples. It's not simply a question of prejudice or bigotry, as some (including apparently Nick Clegg's speechwriters) appear to believe. It's more that the issue reveals the gulf that separates some traditionalists from what has become the moral centre of gravity in wider society. The battle today is within the churches, not between Christians and secularists. Opponents of the change thus feel in danger of being doubly marginalised, fighting liberals in their own ranks. "Aggressive secularists" make a convenient scapegoat.

In his latest contribution, Eric Pickles promised to take note of opponents' "legitimate fears" that churches might be forced by the European Court of Human Rights to marry gay couples. Whether or not such fears are actually legitimate (it seems unlikely) his reassurance is unlikely to cut much ice. The real issue is the government's proposal to allow any same sex couple, religious or otherwise, to get married. Ironically, special exemptions and opt-outs written into law would only underline the new status of Christians as a "marginalised" minority interest group instead of one that has, in Pickles' words, "a unique position in British society and a particularly strong claim to be heard."

 

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What to look out for in the 2016 local and devolved elections

Your guide throughout Thursday night and into Friday. 

22:00: Close of polls. My advice is to use this time to stock up on vital supplies, like energy drinks, dips and fast food. And also to open the New Statesman’s all-singing all-dancing liveblog, which I will kick off from 10pm.

23:00: First to declare will be borough councils in Sunderland and Tunbridge Wells.  Sunderland is a Labour stronghold while Tunbridge is a Conservative fortress and both elect in “thirds” – electing a third of their councillors every year, a break every four years, as councillors are elected once every four years.

So even if the Conservatives win all 25 seats in Sunderland or Labour storm Tunbridge, it won’t matter in terms of who runs services there. You may ask “Hey, isn’t this a really stupid way of running elections, designed to produce gridlock and political failure?” The answer to this question is “Yes!”

Though frankly if we see Labour gains in Tunbridge – they have three councillors there in total – David Cameron is going to have to start updating his LinkedIn pretty damn quick, but keep an eye out for how Ukip do in Sunderland.

23:30: Look out for Rugby, which also elects in thirds. The Conservatives took back control of this council in 2007 after years of it being hung. On a good night for Labour, they could knock it back into no overall control, and it’s places like this they need to be posting good results in if they want to get back into power in 2020. (Winning Rugby on a uniform swing would mean Labour was in power with a majority of eight.)

Less interesting is Tameside, another Labour stronghold, though watch out not only for how Ukip do but whether the Conservatives can come through the middle in any of the seats here. Overall, though, the non-Labour parties haven’t gone above double figures here since the 2010 election, so anything other than hegemony is a troubling sign for Labour.

00:00: Remember Nuneaton, commonly known as the sight of Ed Miliband’s Waterloo? (It was defeat here in 2015 that made it clear that not only were Labour not on course for victory, but that defeat was going to be worse than many predicted.) Well, half of the council seats there are up for grabs in the council of Nuneaton and Bedworth. Nuneaton and Bedworth elect in halves – where, spoiler alert, they elect half their councillors every two years. Although Nuneaton has a Conservative MP it is solidly Labour at a local level and anything other than a Labour hold here would be very worrying.

Keep an eye out for the Labour strongholds of Wolverhampton and Sefton, both of which elect in thirds. There really should be nothing to see there, but if things are going badly, you might see Ukip making some gains.

Southend-on-Sea is a lot of fun – this true-blue seaside town is run by a Labour coalition with a group of independent parties, after a long period of rule by the Conservatives. Can Labour and its ragtag coalition keep control? Demographic change is very slowly moving Southend towards Labour, so keep an eye out for some progress here.

00:30: Another Labour council in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, which likewise elects in thirds. The Liberal Democrats – remember them? – ran Newcastle from 2004 to 2011, so although a change of power is unlikely, if there is indeed a serious revival in Liberal Democrat fortunes since exiting the coalition, they should look to make some gains here.

01:00: Results will start to come through from the Welsh Assembly, with the rock-solid seat of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. If Labour can’t win here, they can’t win anywhere, but watch out for how well Ukip can do here. Ukip’s rise in Wales is the “biggest polling movement you’ve never heard of”, in the words of Cardiff University’ Roger Scully, and if they get a strong second expect that to signal big, big gains in the List system. (Wales uses the additional member system, a combination of first past the past and an area list, similar to the list method for the European Parliament.)

In England, results will come in from Ipswich and the Wirral, which both elect in thirds. Ipswich is Labour-run with two Conservative MPs, while Wirral is Labour-run with two Labour MPs. The seats of Ipswich, Wirral West and Wirral South are all key marginals – so both parties will be hoping for good performances here.

01:30: Provided that nothing unexpected has happened, there should be two routine Labour victories in the safe seats of Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough and Ogmore, by-elections which are being held on the same day. I wouldn’t rule out a good second for Ukip in Ogmore but other than that, nothing that interesting to see here.  

More interesting will be the councils of Bury and Swindon, both marginals. Bury is currently Labour-controlled while Swindon has been Conservative-run since 2003. Labour should win both if they are on a winning trajectory, although the fact it is on the thirds model means that a winning performance on the night might not be enough to take control in Swindon.

02:00: Is that a unicorn? No, it’s a Liberal Democrat run council! Eastleigh is one of just nine left in the country. The council elects in thirds and having been a one-party state in 2010, the effects of coalition mean that Eastleigh now sends a Tory to Westminster and has six Conservative councillors out of 44. Knocking out the two Tories who are up will have Tim Farron pouring champagne over himself, while the Conservatives will hope that they can continue their revival.

Scotpocalypse! The first results should come in from Scotland, with Cunninghame South, East Kilbride, Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Rutherglen, Uddington and Bellshil all due to declare. With the exception of Rutherglen and Uddington and Bellshil, the SNP won all of those seats in 2011, but expect those two Labour seats to turn a pleasant shade of yellow.

There should be better news for Labour in Blaenau Gwent in Wales, which is also due to declare.

02:30: Councils, councils, everywhere. Basildon, Birmingham, Coventry , Lincoln, Stockport, Walsall are the ones to watch. We’ll have an idea who is having a good night after they declare.

The yellowcoats are coming, the yellowcoats are coming! Watch out for the result from the constituencies of Orkney and Shetland, both solidly Liberal Democrat. If the SNP take both, expect a clean sweep of every constituency in Holyrood, with the other parties exiled to the lists. Less exciting will be Perthshire South & Kinross-shire, Perthshire North, and Stirling , all of which ought to go SNP.

And more news from Wales: Alyn & Deeside, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, Delyn, Yyns Mon and Vale of Clywd all declare. The Vale is one of a handful of seats that Labour won in the 2011 Assembly elections but lost in 2015 to the Conservatives – Labour has to hold onto and ideally do better in those seats this time – look out for Gower, Cardiff North and the Vale of Glamorgan later on in the night, too.

03:00: It all kicks off around here. (If you wanted, you could probably get away with going to bed at 8 and setting your alarm for three.)

Crunch time in Wales, with Aberavon, Aberconwy, Arfon, Brecon & Radnorshire, Clywd South, Clwyd West, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Gower, Montgomeryshire, Neath, Swansea East, Swansea West, Wrexham, Caerphilly, Islwyn, Newport East, Newport West, Ceredigion and Monmouth all due to the declare. By 4am we should have a clear idea of who’ll be running Wales. (Spoiler alert: it will be Labour, with the question being whether they will be able to govern alone or will have to make a deal with Plaid Cymru and/or the Liberal Democrats.)

Ones to watch: Aberconwy, a three-way marginal between Labour, the Conservatives and Plaid, currently Tory-held. And Gower.

Meanwhile, in England, Bolton, Crawley, Dudley, Exeter, Great Yarmouth, Harlow, Hastings, Plymouth, Southampton, Stevenage and Thurrock are the councils to watch as a whole bunch come in. Bolton, Southampton and Plymouth are Labour-run and home to seats that were Labour in 2010 but went to the Tories in 2015 – Labour should hold on comfortably if they are to have  shot at winning back those constituencies in 2020. Harlow, Hastings, Crawley and Stevenage are Labour-run but Conservative since 2010 at the latest, and are places where Labour should consolidate power.

Can Tim Farron win on his own doorstep? A third of seats in South Lakeland, which includes his own seat of Westmoreland and Lunedale, are up for grabs. Even amidst general Liberal Democrat woe in 2015, his party actually gained two seats in Farron’s own seat and lost just two across South Lakeland. Expect a good night here.

And in Scotland, Angus North & Mearns, Angus South, Ayr, Carrick, Cumnock & Doon Valley, Clydebank & Milgavie, Cunninghame North, Dumbarton, Dumfriesshire, Dunddee City  East, Dundee City West, Galloway & Dumfries West, Greenock & Inverclyde, Kilmarnock & Irvine Valley, Strathkelvin & Bearsden will all declare.

03:30: Declarations from Edinburgh and Glasgow. It was Edinburgh that gave Labour its one MP in Scotland in 2015, but Edinburgh Southern, which holds the bulk of the wards in Ian Murray’s Edinburgh South seat, is already an SNP seat, while Edinburgh Central, which holds the remainder, is also already a fetching shade of yellow. But Edinburgh is still, despite having a near clean-sweep for the SNP at Westminster, one of the swingiest, most marginal-heavy cities in the United Kingdom, so something exciting could happen. (The word “could” is working very hard here.) Expect the SNP to win every seat in Glasgow, unless something untoward is happening.

In England, Redditch and Trafford are worth watching. Redditch was Labour until 2010 and Labour runs the council there – but they were defeated there in 2015 so it’s a must-win seat if Labour is to stay in the game for 2020. Trafford is an island of blue in a seat of red – it includes the safe Labour seats of Kate Green and Mike Kane, but also Graham Brady’s Tory stronghold – where victory would put Labour in a strong position at this stage of the parliament.

04:00: It never rains but it pours. Results to look out for are Cambridge, Carlisle, Colchester, Derby, Peterborough, Portsmouth and Slough. In Cambridge, if there is a Liberal Democrat revival, it will be here. Everywhere else is a straight Labour-Conservative battle.

And it’s decision time in Scotland, as Aberdeen Central, Aberdeen Donside, Aberdeen South & Kincardine North, Argyll & Bute, Clackmannanshire & Dunblane, Cowdenbeath, Dunfermline, East Lothian, Fife Mid & Glenrothes, Kirkcaldy and Moray all declare. But the newsworthy results will be in the list results from Glasgow and South Scotland, which should be announced. We’ll begin to know what the SNP’s opposition will look like at this point.

04:30: If you’re wondering “when’s best for a power nap?”, here’s not a bad shout. We should have a good idea of who’s had a good night, whether Labour is on an upward trajectory, if Cameron is in real difficulties, and who’ll be calling the shots in Cardiff and Holyrood by now. You can safely shut your eyes until 8am.

But if you’re as cool as me, you’ll stay up for a swathe of Scottish seats and at...

05:00: Results from the Scottish list system will start to come through.

In England, if the Greens are going to make any sort of splash tonight it’ll be in places like Norwich, where they are already the official opposition to Labour. The signs from by-elections so far is that Corbyn’s Labour goes down a treat in cities like Norwich, so there is a real risk that Labour could do them serious damage here. Getting out with the same number of seats, or even more, would indicate that there is life for the Greens even while Corbyn is Labour’s centre-forward.

Also keep an eye on Reading, one of a number of councils that is Labour at a local level but Conservative at Westminster. Labour really mustn’t fall back in places like if they are to have a shot at power in 2020. We’ll get the last results from Wales, with Cardiff North and the Vale of Glamorgan two to watch out for.

05:30: Results from the Lothian region will come in from Scotland. It’s these party list votes that will be responsible for the bulk, probably the entirety, of the non-SNP presence at Holyrood. 

07:00: We should have results from the list vote in Wales, where Ukip will likely do well, while the last few regions from Scotland should report in too. Votes start being counted in the mayoral races. You can grab a cheeky two and a half hour sleep about now.

09:30:  Results from the mayoral contests in Liverpool, Bristol, London, and Salford will come in. Expect fairly quick declarations from Liverpool, Salford and London, all of which look fairly likely to return Labour candidates by large majorities. Bristol is a trickier test for Labour though it is another part of the country where Labour ought to gain a boost from having Corbyn as leader.  It could be as late as 11:00 if the contests are close.

11:00: The excitement begins anew, as Cannock Chase – Labour at a local level, Conservative at Westminster declares.

11:30: Kirklees, which contains the marginal seats of Wakefield, Colne Valley, and Dewsbury, declares.

12:00: Another rare Liberal Democrat local authority in the shape of Cheltenham. They elect in halves and the council was last up in 2014. The Liberal Democrats held the constituency of Cheltenham from 1992 until 2015, when the Conservatives regained a seat they had held without interruption since 1950. If the Liberal Democrats have a future, it’s in securing a big result here and using that to kick on and retake the seat in 2020.

Hyndburn (Labour nationally and locally) and Milton Keynes (Labour minority administration locally, Conservative in both Westminster seats) are the marginals to look out for. A great result for David Cameron would see them chip away at Labour’s majority in Hyndburn and take back Milton Keynes. A good result for Jeremy Corbyn would be a majority in Milton Keynes and advances in Hyndburn. Both elect in thirds.

12:30: Calderdale declares. Calderdale is made up of two marginals – Halifax, held by Labour’s Hollie Lynch, and Calder Valley, held by the Conservative Craig Whittaker. It’s currently run by a Labour minority administration. A good result for the Conservatives would be to tip the balance of power their way, a good result for Labour would be full control. The status quo would indicate that the 2020 election will look pretty much the same as the 2015 one.

13:00: Gloucester declares. Gloucester sent a Labour MP to Westminster until 2010 but is Conservative at a local and national level. Though the thirds model makes it difficult for Labour to take full control, knocking it into no overall control would indicate that Corbyn is on his way to becoming Prime Minister in 2020. Also declaring is Stroud, Conservative in Westminster but Labour locally. Defeat here would indicate Corbyn is on his way to Milibandtown in 2020.

13:30: Blackburn with Darwen. This is a weird unitary authority, combining solid Labour territory in Blackburn (though watch out for how Ukip do!) with more marginal areas in Darwen. And it elects in thirds. So, basically, if Labour do very well here, we’ll be able to tell. Otherwise, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

14:00: Pendle, currently no overall control but run by the Conservatives in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – hey sounds familiar! – has had a Tory MP since 2010. A good night here – Pendle uses the thirds model – would be good news for Labour’s chances in 2020.

15:00: Another unicorn aka Liberal Democrat-run Three Rivers, which has stayed orange despite no record of success at a Westminster level for that party since 1906. It’s up in thirds, so the Liberal Democrats are aiming for consolidation while the Tories are hoping for erosion.

Rossendale, which has sent a Conservative to Westminster since 2010 but is Labour run, has a third of its council seats up for election. An increased Labour presence on the council would indicate Labour was on course to take back the seat – a reduced one would suggest quite the reverse.

16:00: Get ready for the end of an era? Watford has been Liberal Democrat run since 2004 but their majority was slashed to just one in 2015. Get ready for a changing of the guard.

17:00: Rotherham elects in thirds and Ukip did spectacularly well last time on the back of a child sexual abuse scandal. Look out for their performance this time.

18:00: One last Labour-Conservative marginal fight in Warrington. A few late bloomers will declare over the weekend, but at this point you can go outside, get dinner of go to the pub.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.