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6a00d83451b31c69e20133f2f0b85b970b-pi This is the final part 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 the previous four parts of this series
(see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
and Part 4) we have looked at how prior to the general election a great many
practising Christians were becoming deeply disillusioned with Labour as
a result of the government’s sustained attack on historic British
liberties such as freedom of belief and the right to express it.

We have also seen how it was
Conservative peers who alone of the three main parties had stood up
against this assault on Britain’s historic Christian liberties. With
between 3 and 4 million practising Christians who were deeply concerned
about this issue there was the potential for this to significantly
affect the outcome of the general election. This was the equivalent of
more than 4,500 voters per constituency. If only 1,000 of those 4,500
voters had switched from voting Labour (or Lib Dem in Lib Dem held
seats) to voting Conservative, then we would have gained an overall
majority.

However, in the actual election period
a number of factors led to much of this potential vote dissipating. In
part 4 we examined these, which included a lack of any specific
encouragement to Christian voters that on the issues that most
concerned them, the Conservatives would treat them fairly, or at least
more fairly than Labour had done. There were also instances that more
specifically led to a degree of alienation of Christian voters from the
Party. Most prominent of these were the party’s reaction to Chris
Grayling’s comments that Christians offering bed and breakfast in their
own homes should be allowed to set ‘house rules’ as to who shared a
double room, while those offerring accommodation outside of
their personal homes should be required to make it indiscriminately
available to all.

These comments were initially greeted with a huge
sigh of relief by many Christians, that at last someone was trying to
be fair to both Christians and gay people. But there was predictably a
huge sense of disappointment when Chris Grayling was forced to retract
them; This sense was heightened by the deselection of a parliamentary
candidate by the Scottish Conservative Party because the candidate’s
website stated that whilst he would always treat gay people equally, he
couldn’t personally endorse homosexual practices. This action by the
Scottish Party created a strong impression among many Christians that
the Conservative Party was intolerant of Christians and prepared to
actively discriminate against anyone holding orthodox Christian beliefs
on sexual ethics to the extent that they would prevent any such person
from becoming a Conservative MP.

The result was that whilst some
practising Christians did vote for us, for many others we failed to
secure their votes because we had (quite wrongly) allowed an impression
to be created that on the issues that most deeply concerned committed
Christians we were ‘just as bad as the other lot’. Yet if only a third
of these 4,500 voters who were practising Christians in each
constituency had switched from voting Labour (or Lib Dem in Lib Dem
seats) to voting Conservative then we would have secured a majority of
around 26 seats and if only 1,000 (less than a quarter) had done so we
would still have gained an overall majority.

Clearly, this was a corner that we
should never have allowed ourselves to get pushed into. 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.

What we should have done as a minimum was to:

a) Emphasise that we were the party of
equality that would treat ALL people equally, whether gay or straight,
Christian, Muslim, Jew, Humanist etc.

b) Set and publicise clear boundaries
in how far we would go along with the agenda of gay rights
organisations, boundaries that voters could clearly see did not
compromise values such as freedom of speech. If you read David
Cameron’s election interview with Gay News he actually did this –
refusing to follow Labour’s lead in agreeing to ban all criticism of
homosexual acts. However, as a party we clearly failed to set out that
boundary line for the wider public to see. As a result we allowed the
impression to be created that the Conservatives would show the same
degree of intolerance towards Christians as Labour had done.

c) At least steer a middle course. Why
did we not as an act of reassurance to Christians put up a gay shadow
minister to say that whilst as a gay person they naturally disagreed
with Christian views on homosexuality, it was fundamentally wrong in a
free society to ban people from expressing such opinions?

The future

Clearly there is a lot of fence mending
that needs to be done before the next election. The Conservative Party
needs to make very clear that it is in no sense intolerant of
Christians or anyone else for that matter who holds to basic
Conservative values. In particular, it needs to:

a) Adopt a policy that all who accept
basic Conservative principles are welcome in the Conservative Party at
all levels regardless of religious belief or non belief specifically
including Christians, Muslims, gay and straight etc.

b) Positively adopt a policy that the
Conservative Party will not discriminate against anyone becoming a
parliamentary candidate on the grounds of their religious beliefs,
provided that they accept basic Conservative principles – such as
freedom of the individual, freedom of speech, economic liberalism etc.

c) Avoid Lib-Dem coalition partners dragging us into any further erosion of religious liberty in the UK.

d) The coalition government urgently
needs to look at ways of addressing the exclusion of Christians from
public life, such as registrars and magistrates on adoption panels,
that began under the last Labour government. Interestingly, Labour
leadership hopeful Andy Burnham has recently felt the need to apologise to Christians for the way they were marginalised under the last Labour government.

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles has recently made a good start – and created a positive impression – by meeting Christian leaders and telling them that:

 “The days of the state trying to suppress Christianity and other faiths are over.”

However, we clearly need to follow up
words with actions if we are to reverse some of the damage that has
been done. In May 2010 we failed to persuade more than 36% of the
electorate to vote for us. As William Hague said in 1998:

‘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.’

154 comments for: Martin Parsons: What next in the Conservative Party’s relationship with Churchgoers?

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