Published:

114 comments


6a00d83451b31c69e20133f2f0b85b970b-pi This is the fourth of a five part series looking at the
Conservative Party's relationship with churchgoers after thirteen years
of Labour government.
Dr Martin Parsons is a regular contributor to CentreRight.

In Part 1 we examined Labour’s
sustained attack on Christian liberties in Britain and in part 2 the
how the Conservative opposition in the Lords had led the defence of
Britain’s historic heritage freedom of belief and the right to express
it. We also observed that a very large number of practising Christians
who had not recently vote Conservative had become profoundly
disillusioned with the Labour government. In part 3
examined how large and how potentially significant this move away from
Labour among practising Christians was. Today we consider whether the Conservative Party alienated Christians at the general election.

In 1997 the Conservative Party lost its
majority in a landslide to Labour, a situation which, despite the
colossal unpopularity of the last Labour government, we have not yet
managed to reverse. A year after that defeat William Hague reflected
that:

‘Millions of people who share our
values and our principles felt they could not support the Conservative
Party with their votes. We need to reconnect with those people, to
persuade them that we share their hopes and their concerns for the
future of our country.’

Among those ‘millions’ who felt
disillusioned with us in 1997 were many active Christians, people who
were socially conservative. They not only intuitively believed in that
thing called ‘society’, but were some of the most active participants
in it, not just in nice middle class areas, but in the difficult inner
city areas, where they continue to make a major contribution to
repairing Britain’s broken society.

During the last decade of the
Thatcher/Major governments many Christians felt (wrongly) that
Conservatives were uncaring, some even began publicly to question
whether it was possible to be a Christian and a Conservative. Tony
Blair openly played on this during the 1997 election campaign
attempting to identify Labour with moral and Christian values and quite
wrongly implied that Labour was the only party that Christians could
vote for.

The end result was that millions of
people including what was almost certainly at least hundreds of
thousands of committed Christians who had previously voted Conservative
switched to voting Labour.

Why many Christians started to look to the Conservative Party again – but many didn't vote for us in the end

It was a long uphill struggle after
that, but huge amounts of work were put in by countless people to
winning back understanding of what the Conservative Party stood for
amongst Christians. The listening to Britain’s churches programme was
begun, the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF) begun in 1990 by Tim
Montogomerie and David Burrowes MP undertook an immense amount of work.
The Centre for Social Justice was set up by Iain Duncan Smith. CCF in
particular, though by no means alone, has made immense strides in
gaining understanding and even support for the Conservative Party among
black Christians, people who have more typically traditionally voted
Labour, but had become increasingly concerned by Labour’s legislative
agenda that was seen as an attack on basic Christian freedoms in
Britain.

In part 1 we saw how Labour’s attack on
historic British liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of
religion had created a widespread perception among practising
Christians that there is increasing intolerance against them and a very
real, and not wholly unfounded fear that Christians are being
increasingly excluded from public life.

In part 2 we saw how it was
Conservative peers who had taken stand against the Labour government’s
attack on freedom of belief and the right to express it. The scene
should therefore have been set for the Conservatives to win over the
votes of many practising Christians. In part 3 we saw that even at a
conservative estimate, taking only a fraction of those who regularly
attend church, there were between 3 and 4 million plus voters who were
deeply concerned about Labour’s attack on freedom of religion. Even 3
million voters is the equivalent of more than 4,500 voters per
constituency. Given that we lost 47 seats by less than 3,000 votes,
these are potentially very significant figures. Even if we had only
managed to secure the votes of only 2,000 of those 4,500 voters (less
than 45%) we would still have managed to secure an overall Conservative
majority with 327 seats. While if only 1,000 (well under a quarter) of
those 4,500 Christians in each marginal constituency had actually
switched from voting Labour to voting Conservative, then it is likely
that we would have gained an overall majority. 

One group that was particularly acutely
concerned about the loss of Christian freedoms under Labour were black
Christians a group that had more typically voted Labour in the past,
but were increasingly looking with new interest at the Conservative
Party. With 48% of black people regularly attending church,
the Labour government’s sustained attack on freedom of belief and
freedom of speech was clearly going to be an important issue if the
Conservative Party was to achieve one of its key electoral aims of
winning over large numbers of black voters, an aim that it largely
failed to achieve.

So what went wrong?

Firstly, although over the previous two
years it was Conservative amendments in the Lords that had protected
aspects of religious freedom, during the actual election campaign there
was absolutely no encouragement to Christians that on the issues that
concerned them – a future Conservative government would treat them
fairly, or at the very least with a greater degree of fairness than
Labour. What was perhaps surprising about this was that what Christians
were asking for – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom for
arbitrary arrest etc are actually fundamental Conservative principles.

Secondly, nationally the Conservative
Party took Christians for granted. Our electoral strategy was to some
extent at least focused on winning over socially liberal voters on the
assumption that socially conservative voters would vote for us anyway.
According to the British Social Attitudes Survey approximately 36% of
voters hold socially conservative views with around a third of voters
socially liberal and another third undecided.

The weakness of the strategy was that
it ignored the fact that many people with socially conservative views
do not automatically vote Conservative. In fact taking 2001 and 2005
election results where the Conservatives gained 31% and 32% of the
vote, it is clear that there were in excess of 4-5% of voters who had
not voted for us in the previous two elections yet held socially
conservative views. Those as we saw in part 3 included many practising
Christians.

In fact, the figure of 4-5% of socially
conservative voters not yet voting for Conservative is almost certainly
too low, as it assumes that no one with socially liberal views voted
Conservative in 2001 or 2005 which clearly was not the case. If we
assume that the minority of Conservative voters who are socially
liberal is at least 10% – then only 28 or so of that 31% (2001) or
32%(2005) who voted for us were social conservatives. That means that
in the 2001 and 2005 elections there must have been at least 8% of
voters who were socially conservative but not actually voting
Conservative. (It also follows that if more than 10% of Conservative
voters in 2001/2005 were socially liberal then there must be
proportionally more than 8% of people holding socially conservative
views whose votes the Conservative Party still needed to win). Those
8%+ of votes were extremely important to us, to the extent that if the
Conservatives had won only half of those votes, then we would have
secured 40% of the national vote, which is the figure widely assumed we
needed to gain an overall majority.

So, the question must be asked as to
whether we were so intent on winning the socially liberal vote, that we
took for granted the socially conservative voters whose support we
needed to win an overall majority? Did we assume that socially
conservative voters would automatically vote for us, when in reality
there were a significant number of such voters that the Conservative
Party actively needed to win over?

Thirdly, at a national level the
Conservative Party came across as so keen to win the gay rights vote
that we appeared to be endorsing some of the very things that Labour
had done that had led many Christians to feel that they were not being
given equal rights with gay people. Whilst there was a very strong
movement away from voting Labour among many Christians, the way a
number of issues were handled nationally meant that the Conservatives
failed to seal the deal with many Christian voters and many of those
voters dissipated to a wide range of parties or none rather than going
to the Conservatives. In fact, on the doorstep during the election I
several times came across practising Christians deeply concerned about
Labour’s sustained attack on Christian liberties who were actually
going to vote Lib-Dem rather than Conservative. They were without
exception totally unaware that Labour’s so called ‘equality’ laws that
they were most concerned about were originally Lib-Dem policies that
had been adopted by the Labour government and wholeheartedly supported
by the Lib Dems on whipped votes.

Particular issues that led to this failure to secure these votes included:

a) The Party’s reaction to Chris
Grayling’s comments that he personally felt whilst hotels should be
required to offer rooms to anyone regardless, Christians offering bed
and breakfast in their own homes should be allowed to specify house
rules about who shares a double room. When these secretly recorded
comments were broadcast there was a huge sense of relief among many
Christians that at last someone was taking their concerns seriously and
suggesting a compromise that at least tried to be fair to both
Christians and gay people. However, when Chris Grayling was forced to
retract these comments a huge sense of disillusionment set it. It led
to a perception among some Christians that ‘the Conservatives are just
like the Labour Party then’.

b) The deselection of a Conservative
candidate by the Scottish Conservative Party during the actual election
because of comments on his website that whilst he would treat gay
people completely equally, he couldn’t personally endorse homosexual
practices. Whilst it may not have been exactly politically astute to
put his views on a website during the election campaign, the action of
the Scottish Conservative Party in deselecting him because of it, was
widely condemned as overly harsh, including by many on Conservative
Home. Amongst Christians it created the impression that the
Conservatives were just as intolerant of Christians as the Labour
Party. Actually, this wasn’t the case as the Labour manifesto
threatened to remove the ‘free speech clause’ introduced by
Conservative peers, so that any criticism of homosexual acts would in
effect become a criminal act. Nonetheless, the Scottish Party’s action
created the impression that the Conservative Party was intolerant of
Christians, to the extent that anyone holding orthodox Christian views
on sexual ethics would be barred from becoming a Conservative
parliamentary candidate. This was an extremely dangerous position for
the Conservative Party to allow itself to be in during a general
election campaign.

c) During the general election period a
Christian street preacher was arbitrarily arrested. The preacher was
asked by a PCSO about his views on homosexuality. The PCSO then told
him that he was the force’s gay and lesbian liaison officer and found
his views ‘offensive’ before arranging for uniformed officers to arrest him  – even though it was perfectly clear that no actual crime had been committed. The YouTube video of
his arrest is a profoundly disturbing commentary on politically correct
policing under New Labour. At the time one Christian leader e-mailed me
to say ‘I said a few months ago that it would only be a matter of time
before Christians in Britain were arrested for simply reading aloud
from the Bible – now it’s happened’ Many, including even veteran gay
rights activist Peter Tatchell spoke out against it. It
was the sort of politically correct abuse of police powers that the
British public normally looked to the Conservative Party to speak out
on. However, Christians across Britain watched in disbelief as not one
single political leader spoke out about the police action.

Frankly, we should never have allowed
ourselves to get pushed into such a corner. The Conservative Party
needs to be seen as tolerant and open at all levels including being
parliamentary candidates to anyone in Britain, whether straight or gay,
Christian, Muslim, Jew, atheist etc. who holds to basic Conservative
principles.

In the final part of this series tomorrow we
will look at what the party needs to do to win back the confidence of
Christian voters who prior to the election were abandoning Labour in
droves but whose trust and support the Conservative Party failed to
gain in the general election to the extent that it should have.

114 comments for: Martin Parsons: Did we alienate Christian voters at the election?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.