Historically, British Catholics have leaned Labour, as shown by research projects such as the British Election Study, which looked at every general election between 1959 and 2015 and found a majority – usually a pretty considerable majority – of Catholics voting Labour, with the sole exception of 1979. In 1966, for example, Labour gained almost 70% of Catholic votes, leading the Tories by about 40 percentage points. In 1997 there was a similar gap (although it had sharply narrowed by 2015).
This is perhaps because in Britain, ours has for centuries been the faith of the outsider and not of the establishment. But the dynamics and alliances of politics are shifting. Labour’s increasing prioritisation of social and cultural radicalism means that it is ever-more at odds with Catholicism over issues such as family, sex and gender. Only five Labour MPs out of 202 voted against liberalisation of Northern Ireland’s abortion law; not one single Labour MP voted against the government’s Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill (which effectively introduced no-fault divorce).
In Britain, ours has for centuries been the faith of the outsider and not of the establishment. – Niall Gooch
This does not mean that the Conservative Party is the natural home for those who want to live by the Church’s political teaching. Although the government benches probably contain more individual MPs who are sympathetic to the Church on family and gender issues and so on, a decade of Conservative-led government has done almost nothing for social conservatives. As noted above, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill has recently become law. It removes the requirement for divorcing spouses to show unreasonable behaviour, desertion or adultery and makes it much harder for a spouse to contest a divorce. Liberalising initiatives from the government on Sunday trading laws have been contested by backbenchers. And of course many politically-engaged Christians have strong reservations about Tory policy.
Catholics seeking a party that upholds a genuinely Christian vision of society, challenging the sacred cows of both left and right, are therefore in a difficult position. This problem has been explored at length in books like Phillip Blond’s Red Tory and the essay collection Blue Labour, edited by Adrian Pabst and Ian Geary.
Catholics seeking a party that upholds a genuinely Christian vision of society… are therefore in a difficult position. – Niall Gooch
We are all going to have to make some crucial decisions about the nature of our political involvement. Perhaps some of us will decide not to continue within the current system, because involvement with either big party becomes morally untenable. I am sympathetic to this impulse. As Chesterton put it, “the business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.” Roughly translated to the question of where next for Catholic politics?, this means either withdrawing from politics altogether, or some kind of insurgency against existing political structures.
On the other hand, I am sympathetic to the view that you work with what you have. Some might argue that the Tory-Labour duopoly is not going anywhere: at the last general election those two parties gained 75% of the nationwide vote, and between them they hold over 85% of the seats in the House of Commons. The nature of our electoral system means that it is incredibly difficult for new parties to gain a serious foothold in national politics. Therefore establishing a new party – see the recent efforts of Change UK – could be a waste of resources that would ultimately bring about little change.
But this still doesn’t answer the question of where next for Catholic politics?
The Church encourages us to engage, as far as we are able, to engage in politics: engaging is included in the common task of ordering our lives together towards peace and justice. That can take many forms, at various different levels of society – it might mean local campaigning or parish-based charitable work, or it might mean working for a political party and trying to push it in a certain direction. Inevitably, it means taking a very hard look at which issues the Church calls us to prioritise, and which are the most pressing threats to human life, and to the mission of the Church – which is no easy feat.
Niall Gooch is a writer, writing for Catholic Herald and Unherd.
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