Religion marginalised? Nonsense

Far from being repressed, expressions of faith and evidence of religious practice and identity are e

Anyone who believes that religion has been marginalised in Britain should consider the extraordinary events of past few weeks in the Premier League, where two seriously ill footballers elicited a nationwide summons to prayer. However many of the supporters and the wider public actually heeded the calls to pray for Fabrice Muamba and Stilian Petrov, these scenes raise fresh questions about the public face of faith and its relationship with the secular world.

The emergence of a kulturkampf between a coalition of faith and the forces of so-called militant secularism is a regrettable fabrication. The imagined “threat” of secularism is a phenomenon that can be measured only in the indifference of the non-religious to religion – it is exists only as passivity. Religion, by contrast, is very much active.

This, in itself, is nothing of note, but vociferous groups and individuals are attempting to create a narrative through which they can portray themselves as victims, turn rights into privileges and create conflict where there was none.

It may or may not be a coincidence that the return to power of the Conservatives has seen an increase in this rhetoric. Baroness Warsi’s recent trip to the Vatican confirmed that a reactionary alliance was forming against a secularism that was not merely described as militant, but as “intolerant”. Intolerant?

This year’s ruling against public prayer as an official element of council meetings in Devon is not intolerance. It is a decision designed to protect those without faith – enforced through the same laws that protect the rights of the religious. Here is the myth of militant secularism, a fantasy to suit the persecution complexes of people who feel out of step with mainstream culture.

Even if the Tories are (tentatively) pushing a pro-religion stance to shore up voters with conservative social values it has not stopped some in Labour, David Lammy for one, pursuing the same line. What David Cameron thinks about all this is anyone’s guess, though one would suspect any unease he may feel – the campaigning of Nadine Dorries MP may give him sleepless nights – is outweighed by the thought of all those religious voters.

The disproportionate influence of faith schools, which make up one third of state funded schools in England, is another manifestation of religiosity that makes a mockery of these claims. Faith schools are regularly the best in their area because they are often able to cherry-pick children from better-off families. Hardly the province of the persecuted.

Although it is virtually impossible to assess the accuracy of Cameron’s proclamation that Britain is a Christian country, the fact the he feels he can say it is evidence that 1) it is at least partly true and 2) this is a country that does not discriminate against Christians. Religious people have rights, but a minority confuse those rights with privileges. The irony is that secular laws exist to protect the rights of the religious. Religious laws, where they exist, tend to work in the opposite way. The judge who upheld the complaint of the gay couple who were refused a booking at a Cornwall B&B because of the owners’ religious beliefs put it succinctly. “I do not consider that the appellants face any difficulty in manifesting their religious beliefs. They are merely prohibited from so doing in the commercial context they have chosen.” It is these people’s views that are discriminatory, not the law.

As well as specific examples of militant faith, a sense that religion is valuable and relevant – in public and in private – is creeping back into national life. Much was made of the positivity and good will of those involved in football after the dramatic and upsetting collapse of Bolton’s Muamba, followed a week later by the news that Aston Villa’s Petrov has leukaemia. The initial shock and sadness over Muamba’s condition was dignified and decent. But in the week that followed, ostentatious public concern – with a conspicuously religious element - became a national obsession.

There is something novel about so many British people openly accepting that prayer would contribute to the wellbeing of another person. Millions of tweets calling for prayer, thousands of tributes left outside the Reebok Stadium doing the same and days of quasi-obituaries with pictures reflected the latent soft-core religiosity of the public. “Pray” is not merely a synonym for “hope he gets better”. If there was any doubt that pray was meant literally the Sun ran the words of Muamba’s fiancee as its splash headline the same week: God is in control.

Despite its reputation for debauchery, football is chock-full of the faithful – mainly Catholic and charismatic Christians who genuflect and cross themselves on the pitch – and when they urged fans to pray they meant it. The nation’s favourite sport, with its most influential names, became the locus of a mass religious experience.

What football has shown us is that there is an untapped reservoir of faith envy. It is likely that most of those called to prayer to heal the sick were without faith, and yet they embraced the opportunity like lost pilgrims. It is also likely that the uneasy coalition of prosthelytising Christians and Muslims is aware of this potential.

If Christians (or Muslims or anyone else) are a minority in modern Britain they should have their rights protected. But hang on - they already do. Plus there are bishops in the Lords, churches in every town and village, priests on Radio 2 and religious iconography everywhere you look. This is not the landscape of a victimised and marginalised sect. There is nothing inherently wrong about the presence of religious expression and thought in public life, but after an Easter weekend of watching The King of Kings and The Passion from Port Talbot let us not pretend they are voices crying in the wilderness.

Young Tottenham fans hold up a banner in support of Fabrice Muamba. Photograph: Getty Images.

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.