What are "matters of conscience" in a non-religious country?

It takes religion for parliament to accept that an MP might have a conscience.

Today's census figures are the second to include an answer to the question of what religion people identify with. They show a country of rapidly declining faith: 25 per cent of people now say they have "no religion", up from 15.5 per cent in 2001; 59.3 per cent of people say they are Christian, down from 72 per cent in 2001; the Muslim population had increased to 5 per cent; and other religions totalled 8.4 per cent.

In other words, slightly over half of Britons are Christian. We can't know how that breaks down over various denominations, because the question was not specified any further, but if adherents to the state religion – the Church of England – aren't already a minority in Britain, then they are fast on their way there.

All of which marks out quite how bizarre the continued religious influence in our legislature is. Not just that we still have 26 bishops in the House of Lords in the year two thousand and twelve (although the e-petition to put an end to that has just broken 10,000 signatures), since that is something which, when it comes down to it, only matters on a symbolic level.

The far stranger influence religion has on the laws of the land has surfaced today with the debate over same-sex marriage. Take a look, for instance, at George's post about Labour's decision to offer a free vote on the bill:

"The three-line whip only applied to civil ceremonies. Now the government has agreed to allow gay marriages in religious buildings, we will hold a free vote."

That is: same-sex marriages weren't an issue "of conscience" until they involved religious buildings; now that they do, they are.

Clearly same-sex marriage is something which people care greatly about; and it is perhaps understandable that some people of faith feel that involving religious buildings to be involved is a categorically different issue to whether or not to allow equal marriage in the first place.

But why are we still acting as though religious beliefs are the only ones which people hold closely enough that they ought not be made to break them by a party whip? Are the 25 per cent of people who hold no religious beliefs also unable to ask for a free vote on matters of conscience? Can an atheist not be as vehemently opposed to war as a Christian is to abortion?

Britain is less religious by the day; soon, we will have to confront these questions head on.

The House of Commons in 1890, about as long ago as it made sense to have bishops in the Lords. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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John McDonnell's seminars are restoring Labour's economic credibility

The Shadow Chancellor's embrace of new economics backed by clear plans will see Labour profit at the polls, argues Liam Young.

It’s the economy, stupid. Perhaps ‘it’s the economy that lost Labour the last two elections, stupid’ is more accurate. But I don’t see Bill Clinton winning an election on that one.

Campaign slogan theft aside it is a phrase Labour supporters are all too familiar with. Whatever part of the ‘broad church’ you belong to it is something we are faced with on a regular basis. How can Labour be trusted with the economy after they crashed it into the ground? It is still unpopular to try and reason with people. ‘It was a global crisis’ you say as eyes roll. ‘Gordon Brown actually made things better’ you say as they laugh. It’s not an easy life.

On Saturday, the Labour party took serious steps towards regaining its economic credibility. In January a member of John McDonnell’s economic advisory committee argued that “opposing austerity is not enough”. Writing for the New Statesman, David Blanchflower stated that he would assist the leadership alongside others in putting together “credible economic policies.” We have started to see this plan emerge. Those who accuse the Labour leadership of simply shouting anti-austerity rhetoric have been forced to listen to the economic alternative.

It seems like a good time to have done so. Recent polls suggest that the economy has emerged as the most important issue for the EU referendum with a double-digit lead. Public confidence in the government’s handling of the economy continues to fall. Faith in Cameron and Osborne is heading in the same direction. As public confidence continues to plummet many have questioned whether another crash is close. It is wise of the Labour leadership to offer an alternative vision of the economy at a time in which people are eager to listen to a way by which things may be done better.

Far from rhetoric we were offered clear plans. McDonnell announced on Saturday that he wants councils to offer cheap, local-authority backed mortgages so that first-time buyers may actually have a chance of stepping on the housing ladder. We also heard of a real plan to introduce rent regulations in major cities to ease excessive charges and to offer support to those putting the rent on the overdraft. The plans go much further than the Tory right-to-buy scheme and rather than forcing local authorities to sell off their council housing stock, it will be protected and increased.

It is of course important that the new economics rhetoric is matched with actual policy. But let’s not forget how important the rhetoric actually is. The Tory handling of the economy over the last six years has been dismal. But at the last election they were seen as the safer bet. Ed Miliband failed to convince the British public that his economic plan could lead to growth. The branding of the new economics is simple but effective. It does the job of distancing from the past while also putting a positive spin on what is to come. As long as actual policy continues to flow from this initiative the Labour leadership can be confident of people paying attention. And as economic concerns continue to grow ever more pessimistic the British public will be more likely to hear the Labour party’s alternative plan.

Liam Young is a commentator for the IndependentNew Statesman, Mirror and others.