Earlier this week, Theos, a London-based think-tank, published a major study entitled Voting and Values in Britain: does religion count? As its authors, Theos’s research director Nick Spencer and Leicester University politics lecturer Dr Ben Clements, point out, while in the USA the “religious vote” is taken for granted, and has been the subject of extensive scholarly study, this is much less true of the UK.
Voting and Values is designed as a first attempt to fill this gap. On reading it, I was flattered to see that not only is my own research on the British-Jewish vote fully acknowledged, but that such research forms the basis of much, though not all, of what Clements and Spencer have to say on the subject of Anglo-Jewish voting habits.
Let me summarise their broad conclusions: self-identifying Anglicans have been more likely to vote Conservative than Labour; self-identifying Catholics have been generally inclined to vote Labour; self-identifying nonconformists have shown “greater voting fluidity than either Anglicans or Catholics”; at the time of the 2010 general election, Muslims tended to support Labour, while the Jewish and Hindu votes were more Conservative. The Sikh vote was split roughly 50-50 between the Socialists and the Tories, but Buddhists plumped heavily for the Lib-Dems.
It is often said that Britain has become a less religious country over the past half-century. But there is much more to religion than the mere formal act of worship. A religious upbringing can have a profound effect on what is termed “values voting,” by which is meant voting on the basis of a set of value-based beliefs in relation to issues such as abortion and sexuality. In this country, politicians across the spectrum tend to fight shy of such issues, certainly when they’re on the campaign trail. But that does not mean that these issues play no part whatsoever in determining voters’ intentions.
Over recent months I’ve spoken about politics to a number of Hackney-based Charedim. I’m struck by the extent to which they (both female and male) are apparently prepared to overlook the support their local MP, Diane Abbott, has given to gay marriage.
On Israel, they’re agnostic. Their overriding concern is with the economy, the cost of living and — above all else — the squeeze on welfare benefits introduced by the coalition government. About UKIP, they are vocally contemptuous. But a few months earlier, in Hendon, I had watched UKIP leader Nigel Farage wow a capacity audience composed of Jews of all sorts and descriptions. What seemed to impress them most was Farage’s support for Israel and his opposition to gay marriage.
Most British political activists (but not, in my experience, Muslims) decry what they see today as the unwarranted intrusion of religion into politics. But, in private, I’m certain that they will pore over the Theos report, looking for ways in which they might lever a few more votes by targeting particular religious sub-sets.
In England, there are perhaps half-a-dozen parliamentary seats in which the Jewish vote could prove decisive. Labour’s Andrew Dismore was no doubt unlucky in losing the Hendon seat to his Conservative opponent, Matthew Offord, by just 106 votes. But a UKIP intervention in Hendon next year is certain to strengthen Dismore’s ability to win back this most Jewish constituency.
At Ilford North, by contrast, the 2010 victory of the Tory Jew Lee Scott over his Labour opponent (Sonia Klein) appears to have been assisted by the clumsy intervention, against Scott, of Muslim extremists whose antics may actually have alienated moderate Muslims of the capitalist persuasion; I have myself met Ilford North Jews who, though normally Labour supporters (or so they alleged), claim to have voted for Scott so as to “see off” his Muslim detractors.
Then there is the issue of taxpayer-assisted faith schools. More British Jews than ever are sending their offspring to such establishments. Can they really — and realistically — be expected to cast their votes for parliamentary candidates (of whatever party) whose support for these seats of learning is anything less than 100 per cent?