Whoever wins next month’s Labour leadership election, we can be sure of one thing – the party will become an increasingly hostile place for church-going Catholics.
Despite its traditional links with Irish Catholic immigrants both in England and Scotland, Labour is the only one of the major parties never to have had a Catholic in charge.
In recent times, the Conservatives have been led (albeit inauspiciously) by Iain Duncan-Smith, a committed Catholic who is open about his faith informing his political views; likewise, the Liberal Democrats were led by Charles Kennedy (a quiet Catholic, but a Catholic nevertheless).
In contrast the party that Harold Wilson famously said “owed more to Methodism than to Marx” has seen no shortage of non-conformist leaders such as Keir Hardie and Ramsay McDonald, or Anglicans such as George Lansbury. It’s also been led by the son of a Scottish minister in the shape of Gordon Brown. But no Catholics.
Tony Blair, a famous convert to Rome, came across to the faith only after he left office. His press secretary, Alastair Campbell, notoriously replied that “we don’t do God” when a journalist wanted to question him about his faith. Blair himself once remarked that “people do think you’re a nutter” if you talk about religion in politics. So, in the main, they don’t. Especially in Labour circles; and given we are midway through a leadership election I’ll make this pledge: I’ll eat my hat if the party is ever led by a Catholic.
This may seem to overstate the argument, given Labour has previously been led by three committed Christians in a row (John Smith, Blair and Brown). But that was then. Ed Miliband, an atheist, was initially dismissive of religion. When asked by New Statesman in 2010 “what God meant to him”, he replied bluntly that: “God is something that some people believe in, and I don’t.”
Thankfully, when it mattered in the last parliament, Miliband at least allowed Labour MPs a free vote on the Same Sex Marriage Bill, the influence, no doubt, of his chief of staff, Tim Livesey (a Catholic but former aide to Archbishop Rowan Williams), coming into play.
Likewise, Maurice Glasman, the intellectual behind the “Blue Labour” movement, was another friend at court and a passionate advocate of Catholic Social Teaching. The Dagenham MP, Jon Cruddas, Miliband’s policy co-ordinator and thinker-at-large, is currently leading an independent review into why the party lost May’s general election and was another influential voice for whom Catholicism offers solutions, not problems.
Looking ahead, Catholics may eventually think they got off relatively lightly under Miliband. It seems unlikely that, faced with other legislation that conflicts with Catholic teaching, the next Labour leader will be so lenient.
Former altar boy Andy Burnham has pledged to compel all faith schools to teach about gay rights, saying he has “no support” for religious schools who argue it may conflict with their teachings. He claimed that since becoming an MP in 2001 he had been “repeatedly at odds with the Catholic Church”, despite sending his children to a Catholic school. He has warm words to say about Pope Francis, but doesn’t everyone on the liberal-left?
Yvette Cooper can barely contain her disdain for the religious, claiming that she “didn’t really ‘do’ God” in an interview with LBC recently, as though she was politely refusing the opportunity to perform the can-can. During one of the early leadership hustings at the GMB union, Burnham remarked that Pope Francis was right on a lot of issues. “Not on contraception” shot back a voice from the platform.
It was Mary Creagh, the Wakefield MP, sometime leadership contender (and another à la carte Catholic), but many thought it was Cooper’s remark. Keen to burnish her credentials with Labour’s atheist twitterati, Cooper helpfully tweeted to her followers later: “Got to admit it was actually @MaryCreaghMP who said it – but I agree with her!”
Intriguingly, Liz Kendall replied that she had once been an atheist but now considered herself agnostic. A classic Blairite “third way” position. She courted unpopularity with the party early on by supporting free schools, an indication, perhaps, that she would not seek to reignite a battle over faith schools.
As for left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, need you ask? He found religion “fascinating” in much the same way, I suspect, that a botanist finds weed growth of interest. The PublicWhip website reports that he has previously voted “strongly against” faith schools, and it is hard to imagine that the caravan of gesture-politicking fellow travellers that follows him will be able to resist leaving Catholics alone.
To be religious on the Left is to be treated as though you’re slightly demented. Like people who wear red trousers or read the Fortean Times, it signals a certain kind of benign weirdness.
It leads to the religiously devout keeping a low profile, especially in the face of a noisy atheism that runs from the top of the party down to the grassroots and treats Catholicism as a suspect creed. It likes to think of itself as a modern, reasoned critique (evidence-based bigotry if you like) and not the old-style variant, although the disdain is usually the same.
Christianity, in the abstract, is deemed to be OK, as long as its clerics (of whatever hue, the party isn’t fussy – and usually doesn’t understand the difference) are scolding Conservative ministers or opening food banks. Religion may have waned in the party, but piety has not. Atheists in politics are usually the first to exclaim that something they don’t like is “immoral”.
When I went for a parliamentary selection some years ago my experience was one of stark opposites. I found lots of Catholic party members who instinctively cleaved towards someone with a similar worldview. Then there were those who did not. “I suppose you’ll be standing by the phone waiting to take your orders from the Pope?” I was asked. “Of course I will” I replied, “but I expect he’ll email these days.” It’s irritating to have to justify your faith and impossible to imagine a Muslim or Jewish candidate having to face such nakedly hostile questioning, especially by the ultra-politically correct brothers and sisters.
For a Labour loyalist like me, it’s a maddeningly stupid habit the party’s got itself into. Given that Catholics vote Labour in overwhelming numbers, alienating us is akin to a “friendly fire” incident. Polling from Ipsos MORI from 1992 onwards shows large Catholic leads for Labour compared with the Conservatives.
This peaked at a staggering 60-19 per cent advantage in 2001. Even in May, 41 per cent of Catholics voted Labour, 11 per cent higher than the population at large, according to figures from the British Religion in Numbers project at Manchester University.
Indeed, much of Labour’s meltdown in Scotland, where the party lost 40 seats in May, was down to Catholics abandoning the party in droves. Between 2010 and 2015, Labour’s share of the Catholic vote fell from 63 per cent to just 36 per cent. Any way back for Labour in Scotland means retrieving the Catholic support that went to the SNP.
It’s a trend that is perhaps most pronounced in general political attitudes, where Catholic support for Labour shines through. As Ipsos MORI found, while fewer than a quarter (22 per cent) of the public generally describe themselves as “Old Labour”, more than a third (34 per cent) of Catholics say that term best describes their political view. On questions of distributional justice, most Catholics are reliably left-wing.
Yet on ethical and social issues, the party and its Catholic voters are often on different planets. The Labour Life Group has repeatedly asked to officially affiliate to the party, but these appeals have always been rejected. There is, of course, only one ‘‘correct’’ view on abortion.
The danger for Labour is that the more that politics becomes focused on social rights and less on economic redistribution, fewer and fewer Catholics will find they have much in common with the liberal-left.
At present, it’s a bit like the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. Everything’s OK as long as neither side ventures too far. But if things hot up, it’s hard to imagine much of a shared future. The next flashpoint comes next month, when further efforts are made to legislate for “assisted dying” with a Labour MP, Rob Marris, bringing forth a private member’s Bill. Less divisive than abortion, this should be the issue where Catholic Labour parliamentarians feel able to make a stand.
However, their ranks are depleted. The sad deaths of two of the very few committed Catholics on the Labour benches, Jim Dobbin and Paul Goggins, were terrible blows, while the virtual wipe-out in Scotland has deprived Labour of one if its staunchest Catholic contingents.
Most other Catholic Labour MPs choose to keep their heads down. They are Catholic if it comes to welcoming the Pope’s recent encyclical on the environment, but they are nowhere to be found when it comes to the unpopular stuff. One bright spark is the election of the excellent Conor McGinn in St Helens. A few years ago, he resigned from a senior position in the party’s youth wing in protest at the outrageous comments of Mary Honeyball, a hitherto obscure London Labour MEP.
Writing for The Guardian back in 2008, she asked whether the reservations of Catholic cabinet ministers, Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy about parts of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill meant they should be allowed to serve as ministers “in light of their predilection to favour the Pope’s word above the Government’s”.
It’s wearying to repeat that such comments wouldn’t be countenanced against a Jew or a Muslim, but it’s true, they wouldn’t. Honeyball would have been drummed out of the party. Given that the list system used in the European elections means you cannot vote for individual candidates and you have to vote for a party slate, I would find it impossible to vote Labour on the basis of Ms Honeyball’s continued candidacy.
All of which is to point out that if you have the “correct” voguish views, you’ll be fine in Labour politics, but if you don’t, then the party can be a cold house. It’s increasingly hard to stand up for Catholic teaching when it conflicts with the “faith” of urban modernists who regard all religion as an irritating throwback, let alone Catholicism, which openly challenges their core belief in maximising personal autonomy.
In terms of the current Labour leadership contenders, each of them share the same basic assumptions about the importance of courting liberal-left opinion, although Kendall and Burnham seem at least to display some understanding of the importance of not alienating Catholics. To be fair to Jeremy Corbyn, his main preoccupation lies in defeating capitalism; which leaves Yvette Cooper as the candidate who seems to enjoy tweaking the noses of the faithful the most.
But whoever wins next month, I’m sad to say that I can’t see the party ever being led by a Catholic, or it ever being an especially welcoming place for believers.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (07/8/15).
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