The religious vote in Britain: bad news for Lib Dems?

When Theos published their report, Voting and Values in Britain: Does Religion Count?, it generated a lot of interest in the media. The continued - though weakened - historic links between Anglicans and Tories, Catholics and Labour, have been commented upon and analysed. But how do the Lib Dems come out of all of this? 

It is easy to glance at the report and think that the Lib Dems come out pretty badly on voting figures among religious groups. On almost every line graph, the yellow line trails below the others in a rather depressing manner. However, the figures must be kept in perspective: as the third party, it only reaches 20-25% support in a General Election on a good day, so this is the benchmark we should bear in mind whilst reading. There is so much that could be said about the report, but here are a few highlights and lowlights from a Lib Dem perspective that struck me during the Theos presentation I attended last week:

  • The report concludes that the historic link between Non-Conformism and the Liberal/Liberal Democrat Parties has all but disintegrated. While the overall figures admittedly show a lack of correlation, there still seems to be some correlations at a lower level. In 2010, 31.2% of those saying they were Methodists voted Lib Dem, and 42.9% of United Reformed Church members did - more than any other party. While the sample sizes for these groups were small, this trend is nevertheless significant.
  • Among regularly attending religious people, the Lib Dems come out reasonably well. In 2010, 25.8% of attending Anglicans, and 25% of attending Catholics, voted Lib Dem. Among nominal Anglicans or Catholics, the percentages were lower.
  • More Church of Scotland/Presbyterians voted Lib Dem than Conservative in the 2010 Election. 
  • For those with non-Christian religions, support for the Lib Dems varied significantly - the Buddhist vote was disporportionately high (38.1%), but support from Sikhs and Jews was low at around 15%. 
  • Among Ethnic Minorities, the Lib Dem vote in 2010 was low, ranging from 6.3% to 19.7% depending on religion. However, these figures had risen significantly over the previous 20 years, when support among ethnic minorities of any religion was between 0 and 5%. 

What does this mean for the Lib Dems?

We should be wary of drawing any conclusions from this report. For a start, although it tells us how people voted and what their religious affiliation and attendance level was, it does not tell us why people voted the way they did. So we don't know whether their religious affiliation was incidental to their voting behaviour, or the cause of it. 

Linked to this, we have to remember the vast range of things which affect the way people vote. Even if someone's religion would play a part in how they voted, there may be other factors which dominate in any particular election or context, for example the particular person standing, their stance on current issues, the wider political climate, and so forth. And of course, a factor which affects the Lib Dems far more than the other parties in this respect is the electoral system, and the impact of 'safe seats' - there are parts of the country where Lib Dems are virtually absent, which means that religious affiliation is unlikely to come in to the question of whether or not they might vote for the party.

However, I think this data does show that Christians who attend Church regularly are just as likely - if not more likely - than the average person in the population to vote Lib Dem. This is significant - it goes against the secular image of the party held by some. It should also be a challenge to the party, from a political perspective, not to disregard the effect of their policies and image towards people of faith. 

No doubt the party will be disappointed to see the voting stats in the report among ethnic minorities. Given its stance towards immigration and internationalism, as well as a push in recent years towards increasing diversity in the party, ethnic minorities are still disproportionately low in voting Lib Dem, prefering Labour. However, the big increase in support among these groups over the last 20 years should be taken as encouragement to those who have been working hard at making the party more accessible to ethnic minorities, including the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats.

Other findings

If you read the report, you will notice that I am focussing on the most recent rather than the historical figures, and on those who attend religious worship rather than say they are nominally religious. There is a lot of data that I haven't commented upon, and there are lots of interesting things to draw out of the data which have nothing to do with the Lib Dems. In particular, there is some interesting analysis of values and political beliefs held by participants.  It shows that religious people in Britain care about the same 'bread and butter' issues as the rest of the population; they are not any more likely than anyone else to be concerned about the 'moral' or 'family' issues associated with the Religious Right in the US. I recommend reading the report for yourself, and if you do, please leave a comment below about what stands out to you. 

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