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Catholicism and nationalism: Mass at St Andrews Cathedral, Fife (photo: Lawrence OP, via Flickr)

During the election campaign we have had politicians doing God and churchmen doing politics, but have heard very little on the most important factor in all of this: the religious voters. As I write, hustings are taking place in churches, chapels and mosques across the country but you will hear little about it. Few focus groups will involve the faithful; few polls will exclusively target believers. The lack of reference to, or analysis of, the religious vote in the UK reflects the overwhelmingly secular mindset of most politicians, pollsters and their associates in think-tanks and across the media. Ethnicity is the preferred distinguishing mark, with “BMEs” (black and minority ethnic) the latest acronym favoured by the number crunchers and policy wonks in Whitehall. But the lumping together of ethnic minorities, and Christians for that matter, is even more problematic at election time. Can we really say that today’s ethnic minorities have a shared experience, let alone shared values, which collectively determine their partisan affiliation? Do Christians who worship under the same cross tick the same box in the polling booth?

The tendency to slice British society along ethnic lines is in fact a hangover from Britain’s outdated model of multiculturalism forged in the 1970s, which was secular in its construction and hinged on what respected sociologist Tariq Modood has called  a “white/black dualism”, one that ignored the fact that most minorities (particularly Muslims, who are an ethnically diverse group united by faith) classify themselves by their religion rather than their race. A connection between faith and party is much more illuminating than any lazy link between race and party. Among Britain’s non-Christian communities for example, there is a clear correlation between Muslim voters who tend to vote Labour, Jewish voters, once Liberal, then Labour, and now overwhelmingly Tory, and Buddhists, who side with the Liberal Democrats. Hindus and Sikhs are much more evenly split between the two main parties.

Data analysis on the religious vote over the last 40 years collated by the Christian think-tank Theos also reveals that despite growing secularisation there is still a clear political demarcation between Christian denominations and political affiliation. Unlike those on the European continent, the post-war period did not see the emergence of a singular Christian party in the UK but the continuation of historic religious-political bonds that had governed politics since the 19th century. Anglicans are still overwhelmingly Tory voters and twice as likely to vote Conservative as Catholics, who remain predominantly Labour supporters regardless of how devout they are. It perhaps does not need saying that there exists a clear political divide between churchgoers and their church leaders: “Guardian readers preaching to Telegraph readers” was how one Anglican vicar put it in the 1980s, a phrase that still rings true today in most parishes. (Incidentally, the Catholic Church often has the opposite tension.) For all their protestations, church leaders have failed to convert their congregations politically.

Britain’s Nonconformists — a shrunken army since their glory days as the spiritual force behind the 19th-century Liberal party — are now more evenly spread across all parties. Statistics for the 2010 general election, for example, revealed that while the majority of Baptists and Methodists voted Conservative, United Reform Church members favoured the Liberal Democrats, and Free Presbyterians voted Labour.

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