Former Archbishop of Canterbury accuses PM of "persecuting" Christians

Really, it's all about not liking gay marriage.

In today's Daily Mail, George Carey has executed what is to my mind becoming the classic Conservative manoeuvre, known as the "I-like-David-Cameron-but…". The Conservative peer and former Archbishop of Canterbury has penned an oped in which he lambasts the PM for "aiding and abetting" aggressive secularisation.

He writes:

At his pre-Easter Downing Street reception for faith leaders, he said that he supported Christians’ right to practise their faith. Yet many Christians doubt his sincerity. According to a new ComRes poll more than two-thirds of Christians feel that they are part of a ‘persecuted minority’.

Their fears may be exaggerated because few in the UK are actually persecuted, but the Prime Minister has done more than any other recent political leader to feed these anxieties.

Let's put aside for a second the fact that a member of this "persecuted minority" has been given the front page of a national newspaper to air his opinions. Still, the irony of Carey's timing couldn't be more acute. The Mail has chosen to splash on his remarks the day before the culmination of one of the biggest Christian festivals of the year, which the nation is marking by having two public holidays. It's quite hard to feel like you live in an aggressively secular nation on a weekend when, for instance, thousands of people gather in central London to watch a religious reenactment or BBC2 will be broadcasting a Christian service timed so you can still catch most of Doctor Who straight after.

The census, too, didn't quite bear out Carey's view that his religion is now in the minority. While 10 per cent fewer people volunteered their religion as Christian in 2011 than in 2001, the figure was still 59 per cent. And as NS blogger Nelson Jones pointed when the 2011 data was released, choosing to identitfy yourself as religious has now become a political statement, as religion dominates discussions of education, marriage, abortion and medical ethics.

Which brings us to surely the real reason behind Carey's dislike of David Cameron - the prime minister's stance on gay marriage. Near the end of his article, it comes out:

By dividing marriage into religious and civil the Government threatens the church and state link which they purport to support. But they also threaten to empty marriage of its fundamental religious and civic meaning as an institution orientated towards the upbringing of children.

It's politics, pure and simple. The equal marriage legislation will be considered by the House of Lords in the near future. Carey has sat in the Lords for a long time - first as a bishop (because this "aggresively secular" country still appoints the officers of our established church to our legislature) and after his retirement as a Conservative peer. It's a political warning to the prime minister that his Bill won't get an easy ride in the upper house.

But is this really the kind of publicity the Christian church wants at the climax of one its most important festivals? If political headlines are what you want, there are lots of government policies that are about to kick in (as my colleague George Eaton has laid out here) that will really harm the most vulnerable in society that Carey could legitimately criticise as unchristian, rather than indulging in some self-serving moral outrage.

The last word on this definitely goes to pseudonymous blogger Archbishop Cranmer. As His Grace puts it:

Jesus went to hell and back. Christians are being persecuted or slaughtered across Asia, Africa, and the Greater Middle East. Surely we can put up with a bit of 'marginalisation'.
 

George Carey in 2004. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.