Whiff of anti-popery

Observations on the Left

Is Labour becoming the anti-Catholic party? Young Labour's vice chairman, Conor McGinn, thinks so. He has resigned his position, offended by what he saw as the anti-Catholic attitude surrounding the recent Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. This was most stridently articulated by the Labour MEP Mary Honeyball, who asked: "Should devout Catholics such as Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy be allowed on the government front bench in the light of their predilection to favour the Pope's word above the government's?"

McGinn describes Honeyball's language as harking back to the days of Guy Fawkes. "Imagine substituting the words Jew or Muslim for Catholic in Mary Honeyball's comments - there would have been a furious reaction," says McGinn, whose stance resonates with several Catholic Labour MPs.

The words have "a strong whiff of the 17th century about them," agrees Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing. He suggests that if there is no place for Catholics in political parties, then that points towards the creation of a separate party. "This leads to exclusively Muslim, Hindu, Anglican and even atheist parties."

Jim Dobbin, MP for Rochdale and chairman of the all-party pro-life group, has sent a letter to Gordon Brown expressing similar concerns. "There was the attempt by Alan Johnson, when education secretary, to force faith schools to take 25 per cent of non-believers. Then there was the adoption agency legislation to stop discrimination against gays and lesbians which finished up discriminating against the Catholic Church. Catholic adoption agencies are now closing."

He adds: "There are five million Catholics in the country. If the government think they can disregard even a small number of these voters then they are living in cloud cuckoo land."

Labour has 43 Catholic MPs, and while just 36 per cent of voters chose Labour in the last election, 53 per cent of Catholics stayed loyal to the party, according to pollster Ipsos Mori. The Catholic vote is particularly strong in London, Scotland and the north-west (where one in five is Catholic).

Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham, is under no illusions that the anti-Catholic rhetoric could have serious implications for the party at the ballot box. "Those behind the attacks fail to understand the strength of the Catholic constituency - not just voters backing Labour, but also among activists, unions and MPs."

Not all parliamentarians share the view that there is an anti-Catholic bias within the Labour Party. Thurrock MP Andrew Mackinlay says that, in the more than 30 years he has been a member, the party is no more anti-Catholic now than it has been at any time in the past. He believes that on the question of faith schools, Alan Johnson just made a political miscalculation; and climbed down when that was pointed out.

One northern Catholic MP does not believe the prejudice is anything like as bad as in the past. "When the debate on abortion was on in 1988 my local party tried to deselect me because of my position against it. At the actual vote there was a lot of strong-arming in the lobby, and there wasn't this time."

But he believes the Catholic Church is not helping itself by its actions. "The Church has to decide whether it wants to disengage from politics altogether on broader issues and just be heard on personal issues like abortion and euthanasia. The perception is increasing, both in parliament and in the media, that the Church only has a view on these particular issues."

Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.