Political elites often down play the importance of religion in UK elections. In this post, however, James Tilley uses survey data to show that religion remains an important predictor of party vote choice, even when controlling for a host of other voter characteristics. He argues that religious voting stems from religious divisions of the 19th and 20th century, and explores some of the reasons for the persistence of religion in the contemporary political context.
Few would argue that the choice that faces voters at the next general election is a choice between radically different parties offering radically different policies. Thirty years ago, that was not the case. The two main parties articulated the views of different social classes and offered very different policies designed to appeal to those classes. This change in how class structures politics is obvious, even if the exact mechanisms are not. In most other European countries, there has also been a withering of class politics, but the other main division of religion remains relatively important. In France or Spain, practising Catholics are much more likely to support the parties of the right. By contrast in Britain, religion is normally dismissed as an important marker of vote choices. In 2003 Alistair Campbell, famously interrupted an interview with Tony Blair to tell the journalist that ‘we don’t do God’. That succinctly summarises the role of religion in elite political discourse in Britain over the last fifty years. Very few politicians refer to religion and very few, with the ironic exception of Tony Blair, are overtly religious. This is perhaps not surprising as Britain is a very secular country and the role of religion in post-war politics has generally been perceived as weak. This perception is wrong.
In fact, religion was a good predictor of vote in the past, and remains a good predictor today. I show, using survey data that stretches back to the early 1960s, that there are large and constant differences between different denominations in their party preferences. Moreover these are in the opposite direction to the differences that we see on the continent. British Catholics vote for the left, not the right. The figures below show the proportion of people who identify with the Labour party over time. As is clear, in England, the gap between Catholics and practising Anglicans in their support for Labour is a consistent 25 percentage points. In Scotland, this gap is even larger, with three quarters of Catholics regularly voting Labour compared to only a third of practising Presbyterians. Those with no religion, and non-conformists in England, lie somewhere between these two extremes.
Proportion of people who identify with the Labour party over time
What explains these effects of religion? One obvious explanation might be that they are simply disguised effects of class, or other social characteristics like age. If Catholics are more working class than Anglicans then the explanation for Catholics voting Labour is their class not their religion. This is not the case. Holding constant a large array of different social characteristics like class, income, education, region and so forth, differences in party choice by religious denomination remain. The other obvious explanation is that people in different denominations have different values, different policy attitudes and different national identities. Again, this is not the case. Holding constant people’s levels of social conservatism, economic leftism and national identity does not affect these religious differences.
What does explain religious voting in Britain then? I argue that it is rooted in the religious divisions of the 19th and early 20th century. Before the emergence of the Labour party, when only a minority of men, and only men, could cast their vote for the Liberals or Conservatives, religious denomination mattered. The Liberals were clearly aligned with non-conformists in the 19th and early 20th century. This was related not just to the disestablishment of Anglicanism in Wales, but also education policy and the temperance movement. Conversely, the Conservatives were seen as the party of the Church of England. The Church of England was the established church, and the Conservatives were the party of established privilege. These relationships were then complicated by the emergence of the Labour party which explicitly mobilized Catholics as the party grew in the early 20th century. This was in the main related to issues of Irish home rule, which Labour supported, but also the fact that Catholics were predominantly working class Irish immigrants who would naturally support the new workers’ party. Denominations were linked to different parties in a particular way, and this is the pattern that remains. Catholics, unlike in every other European country, are more likely to support the left today. Equally non-conformists are still somewhat more likely to support the Liberals and practising members of the established churches in both Scotland and England are more likely to support the establishment party of the Conservatives. The denominational patterns that we see today are the same patterns evident in the 19th and early 20th century.
Why do these differences persist? I show that people’s parents’ party affiliations are crucial. Religion maintains its link with party loyalties via parental socialisation into both a religious and party identity when children are growing up. Religious voting is thus a relic of past associations between groups and parties: religious divisions remain because religion is a marker of parents’ and grandparents’ party affiliation from an era when religion did matter for policy choices and for voters. These findings suggest that divisions that seem to be built on very little today can ironically be more resilient than those, like class, that seem to be built more firmly on the self-interest of today’s voters.
Of course, there is a big caveat to all this. Fewer and fewer people are religious. In that sense, religion at the next election will play a more minor role than it did 50 years ago. Nonetheless, there is still a sizable minority of people in Britain with a religious identity (around a third of the electorate) and the divisions within that group are just as strong as they ever were. While few politicians and journalists will mention religion during the forthcoming campaign, it will nevertheless shape some people’s party choices in 2015 just as it has done for the last 100 years or more.
James Tilley is a fellow of Jesus College and a university lecturer at the Department of Politics and IR, University of Oxford. The results discussed here come from James Tilley (2014), ‘We don’t do God? Religion and party choice in Britain’, British Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).