Faith and the General Election: how influential is the religious vote?

April 1, 2015

Elections are usually fought on major national issues, such as the economy or the NHS.


But poor voter turnout and increased apathy with mainstream political parties means fringe issues could come to the fore.


Religious groups have a range of concerns they will bring to the ballot box, on top of issues about austerity and the cost of living, but just how significant could these be to electoral success?


The rise of the Islamic State, anti-terror legislation and austerity cuts are all painted as major national issues, but all have a bearing on particular faiths in the UK. 


Christian values


The UK is officially a Christian country and Christianity is the largest religion in Britain at 59.3 per cent of the population, according to the 2011 census.


While the Church has traditionally been seen as a source of spiritual guidance for matters of state, many Christian leaders have felt increasingly sidelined and have faced criticism for mixing faith and politics.


The Archbishop of York John Sentamu launched a book of essays titled On Rock or Sand earlier this year which criticised government austerity measures, yet rather than look at policy proposals, critics accused the church of meddling.


Ahead of the election, Catholic bishops have written to parishes urging them to back MPs who support the Christian way of life on issues such as poverty and family and marriage.


In contrast, a letter from Church of England bishops to parishes is more withdrawn, referencing the importance of Christian values but emphasising that casting a vote is more important.


It says: ‘Unless we exercise the democratic rights that our ancestors struggled for, we will share responsibility for the failures of the political classes. It is the duty of every Christian adult to vote, even though it may have to be a vote for something less than a vision that inspires us.’


With 33 million Christians in the UK, forming a unified voting stance is difficult as there are a multitude of denominations.


Barbara Ridpath, director of Christian think-tank St Paul’s Institute, says the Christian ethic is more important than the idea of a Christian vote.


She explains: ‘I do not think there is such a thing as a Christian vote, given the diversity of denominations, beliefs, and practices that all call themselves Christian.


‘Rather, there may be a vote ‘informed by a Christian ethic’ because, over history, Christianity has been very good about teaching on values of equality and living in community and loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Indeed Christianity has ‘majored’ on these issues for so long that many of these values are now upheld as secular, societal values.’


A Jewish community under attack


From the Israel/Gaza conflict, the kosher deli terrorist attack in Paris and figures showing the highest ever levels of anti-semitism in the UK, the Jewish community has been brought to the top of the national and international news agenda many times in the past year.


Yet for a community that has said its future feels under threat in the UK, Jews only make up 0.5 percent of the UK population, or around 270,000 people.


A manifesto launched by the Board of Deputies of British Jews outlines ten commitments it wants from MPs, including calls for more support for security at schools and synagogues, tackling hate speech online and supporting kosher animal slaughter methods.


As key as these issues are for the community, there are few constituencies where the Jewish population is big enough to swing a vote.


One in five Jews in England and Wales live in the London Borough of Barnet, but the closest Jews come to a majority is in the constituency of Salford at 41 per cent.


Jonathan Boyd, of the Jewish Policy Research Institute, said: ‘Jews hold very little sway in general elections at all – they constitute about 0.5 per cent of the national population, and don’t come close to being a majority of voters in any constituency anywhere, including the areas where large numbers of Jews live.’


Engaging with ethnic minorities


The challenge is bigger for political parties when it comes to black and ethnic minority communities, of which Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims fall.


Most minorities have traditionally backed Labour, although more recent data suggests this support is waning, according to the Ethnic Minority British Election Study.


According to the British Sikh Report, 31 per cent of Sikhs intend to vote Labour, 16 per cent Conservatives and only 1 per cent intend to vote for the Liberal Democrats.


The Tories have been taking steps to turn this around, hosting receptions and discussing a Sikh regiment in the British Army.


Sikhs make up 0.8 per cent of the population, about 430,000 people, but another report, from lobby group the Sikh Network, claims there are 50 seats where the Sikh vote could be crucial.


It highlights ten points Sikh voters should consider, including more public representation of their contribution to society and support for schools and religious dress.


Hindus, who make up 1.5 per cent of the population, have also made representations to politicians. Umbrella group the Hindu UK Council has called for more funding for faith schools and better planning permission for temples. Others have made suggestions such as making Diwali a Bank Holiday.


But it is the Muslim vote that could make the most difference among black and ethnic minority groups.


Making the difference


Muslims make up one in three of the BME community.


Islam is the second largest religion in the UK with 2.7million identifying as Muslims in the 2011 census, or 4.8 per cent of the population.


Fiyaz Mughal of anti-extremism group Faith Matters says the main electoral issues for the community are support for faith schools, protection of Halal food, Islamic finance, tackling Islamophobia and less talk about international interventions.


The Muslim community is made up of many groups and despite communal bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain and Islamic Society, there is no single organisation that can claim to speak for them.


But just as important as polices is the issue of voter turnout.


The Ethnic Minority British Election Study, taken after the 2010 general election, found that Muslims are less likely than other minority groups to be registered to vote.


A group called YouElect has been set up to encourage Muslims to register and cast their vote and counteract extremist rhetoric from radical preachers or the Islamic State against the democratic process.


It has released a survey showing 49 per cent of Muslims polled are most concerned about arms sales to Israel, while 18 per cent were concerned about NHS privatisation and another 13 per cent on counter terror legislation.


Analysis by the Muslim Council of Britain shows there are at least 26 constituencies where the Islamic vote could make a difference.


More than half of the population in Bradford West and Birmingham Hodge Hill constituencies identify as Muslim.


Dr Jamil Sharif of the Muslim Council of Britain warned political parties not to take the Muslim vote for granted, and said that younger voters could not be expected to follow their parent's party loyalties.


‘We're witnessing a surge in the number of Muslims voters and there will be around 100,000 more new voters than there were last time round...most of these will not have decided who they'll give their vote to.’


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