We're a long way from a US-style religious right

Christianity and politics are separate, thank God.

Despite reports to the contrary, there is little evidence of the emergence of a US-style Religious Right in Britain. Yes, there's opposition to same sex marriage from some Christian groups, but to label this as a US-style Religious Right is either disingenuous or mistaken. That's the finding of the research published this week by the think tank Theos. We suggest that while observant Christians are indeed more likely to be right of the national average on social issues like abortion and gay rights, they are also more likely to left of the national average economically. Under these circumstances, "Religious Right" is a misnomer.

The New Statesman has reported this alleged phenomenon, as has The Guardian. But it's not only liberal-left publications sounding the alarm. The Times, The Telegraph and The Spectator have all spoken of a Religious Right as if it was a fact of political life in this country. There has certainly been increased activity, funding and profile of some socially conservative Christian groups. Meanwhile, a series of legal cases have been brought in a bid to defend Christians against alleged "persecution."

This has meant the growth of a symbiotic relationship between the Daily Mail and Christian pressure groups has rapidly developed. The Mail's argument that Christianity is being "pushed out" is given support by these cases, while the media exposure helps Christian Concern, The Christian Institute and others to grow their profile. In the light of this, it's easy to see why the stories mentioned (and many others) have been written. They suggest that, once again, our political culture has followed the USA and we now have our own Religious Right in the mould of that much-reviled American movement.

The American Religious Right coalesces around eight policy areas, namely: pro-life, anti-gay rights, religious freedom, pro-Israel, pro-military intervention, creationism, anti-Islam and anti-big government. It is defined by its support for these areas and its desire to see legislative success on them through the vehicle of the Republican Party. Despite some cross-over in terms of policy (gay marriage, abortion) the British groups we studied showed little interest in many of the others - Israel and big government just aren't on their agendas, for example. We also looked at the vehicle through which a British Religious Right would have to operate to achieve that success - namely the Conservative Party.

There are social conservatives within the party, of course, and many will rebel on gay marriage. But the Party leadership is united in its socially liberal agenda - there is no sign that socially conservative pressure groups will find a home in the Tory fold. At this point, the accusation immediately comes back "You've set up a straw man… of course there's no US-style Religious Right but we do have one of our own." See The Guardian's response and indeed Nelson Jones' blog yesterday which said, "In denying that the UK has a religious right in a narrow party-political sense, Theos is attacking claims that no one really makes."

Well, as we've already seen, there are plenty of people making precisely that accusation. So why am I more sanguine than Nelson Jones about the undoubted rise of a socially conservative streak within UK Christianity? According to British Social Attitudes data from 2009, 43 per cent of frequent religious observers either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well off.”

This was in contrast with 38 per cent of those who said they had no religion and 36 per cent of the general population. Similarly, when asked whether they thought it was “the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes”, 67 per cent the “religious and frequent attendance” group agreed, compared with 62 per cent of the no religion group. Other examples could be chosen, such as the 58 per cent of frequent religious observers who agreed that “the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements,” compared with 33 per cent of the non-religious. And what about that all-important access to the corridors of power, which is intrinsic to the American Religious Right? Jones says "the conservative Christian lobby has powerful friends in government, including Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove."

Well, hang on a minute, there's no evidence that this access (which arguably doesn't even exist) has resulted in any change in policy from the Tory-led government. Gay rights, abortion and other areas of concern aren't being legislated on as conservative Christian pressure groups would like. In fact, it's the right-wing party which is legislating for increased gay rights - a vast difference to the USA. Much has been made of the link between Christian Concern and Tory MP Nadine Dorries. This relationship was featured in a Channel Four Dispatches documentary. But we can easily see how insignificant this relationship really is. Dorries is an MP who isn’t part of the Government and has no prospect of promotion. Her attempts to influence abortion law have failed to gain significant support.

The central "scoop" in Dispatches was a clip of Christian Concern's Andrea Minichiello Williams asking Lord Tebbit to put down an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to lower the time limit at which abortion is legal. Footage shows him agreeing and the audience is left with the impression that Tebbit will do this. Modell wrote in The Independent that, “Lord Tebbit seems persuaded and agrees to the request. Andrea (our lobbyist) wastes no time in whipping out her pre-drafted amendment and hands it to Tebbit, who dutifully takes it away with him. Job done.”

This sounds as if Williams successfully managed to get Tebbit to table an amendment written by her. However, we found no evidence of Tebbit ever tabling an amendment to that Bill. It may be surprising to see the ease with which he appears to acquiesce to the demands of Christian Concern, but the fact that he didn’t follow up with concrete action undermines Modell’s contention that he’d seen concrete evidence of his claim that, “radical Christian groups are not in America – they are here and are aiming to change the laws of our land.”

Surely it is nonsensical to suggest the emergence of a British Religious Right without the access to power, the same range of policy concerns and the mono-party affiliation of the US Religious Right? Any attempt to do so would be to stretch that terminology far beyond its existing meaning. It is certainly possible that a US-style Religious Right could emerge at some point in 21st century Britain. However, the evidence to date suggests that one does not currently exist. Mislabelling risks provoking the very thing that critics claim to want to avoid.

Calling socially-conservative religious groups a nascent Religious Right may turn them into one, and this (we believe) would be deleterious. British politics would not benefit from the kind of religiously-tinged partisan nature of US politics and, perhaps more importantly, British Christianity would suffer greatly from being hitched to any particular party or narrow political agenda.

Photograph: Getty Images
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.