Analysis: Does being religious make you right- or left-wing?

Nick Spencer: How seriously you take something should in theory matter less than whatever that something actually is
Nick Spencer: How seriously you take something should in theory matter less than whatever that something actually is

By Nick Spencer

In 2012, the religion and society think tank Theos published a report asking whether a US-style 'Religious Right' was emerging in Britain. 

The answer was broadly 'No', but this invited another question: if no 'Religious Right', what then? Who do the religious vote for? And why?

Over the last 18 months I have been working with Dr Ben Clements of the University of Leicester, going through years of data from the British Election Study, British Social Attitudes and other smaller sources to try to answer that question. The results can be read here.

And the answer is… well, there are lots of answers, or at least potential headlines.

One might say that the Tories are the Anglican party at prayer. Or that Roman Catholics are still largely Labour. Or that Muslims, like most religious minorities, remain predominantly Labour. Or that the non-religious are heavily liberal-left, with high support for Labour since '97 and a disproportionate number voting for the Liberal Democrats at the same time. All of these are true – broadly – but mask details that are more interesting.

So, for example, Anglicans who attend services regularly (once a month or more) have historically been more likely to vote Conservative than those who attended less often or not at all ('nominal Anglicans'). However, for the first time, in 2010, this was not the case. Does this indicate a loosening of the Anglican-Tory tie?

Similarly, the Catholic-Labour vote has fallen steadily since '97, hitting a 50-year low in 2010. It has fallen in this way before (between the mid 60s and late 70s) and subsequently recovered, but will it do so again, not least since Labour adopted a socially-liberal agenda under Blair? Are the long-attested links between Labour and Roman Catholics loosening?

Or, once again, as Peter Oborne indicated when writing on the subject, perhaps the Muslim vote isn't as securely for Labour as historic voting patterns have indicated. Perhaps there is a tussle for the Muslim electoral soul, between innate social conservatism/ high value placed on family and community/ entrepreneurial spirit (all pulling towards Conservatism) and lower socio-economic status/ first or second generation immigration mentality (pulling towards Labour).

The sheer size and range of data available leaves open much room for further analysis. But here is one thought to provoke discussion. Perhaps which religion you are makes less difference to how seriously you take it.

Intuitively that shouldn't be so. How seriously you take something should in theory matter less than whatever that something actually is. Is it not the case that the serious liberal Anglican has much more in common with the purely nominal Anglican than she does with the so-called 'fundamentalist' Christian? (Do you get 'fundamentalist Anglicans'?)

That sounds right, and yet our research suggested a greater consistency and coherence of group opinion when those groups are defined according to frequency of attendance than according to self-identified affiliation.

Two examples: on the welfarist-individualist scale, the opinion of Anglican, Catholic, Other Christian, Other Religion and No religion groups criss-cross and intertwine thoroughly. Differences in opinion according to these groups are neither major nor consistent.

By contrast, the opinion of 'frequent-attenders', 'infrequent-attenders' and 'never attenders' is commonly clearer and more obvious. 'Frequent-attenders' are consistently more willing to countenance the government spending more on welfare benefits for the poor even if it leads to higher taxes. They're more likely to disagree that most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one. And they're more sceptical about the claim that people are dolefiddling; and so forth.

Given that many of these 'frequent-attender' come from denominational groups who do not, as a rule, agree with these statements, this consistency is all the more telling.

A second, briefer but more striking example: Anglicans have been consistently most in favour of the death penalty, 61% agreeing or agreeing strongly that "for some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence" in 2012, down from 68% in 2005. By contrast, and when analysed by attendance, 'frequent-attenders' (many of whom will, of course, be Anglicans) have been consistently and significantly more opposed to the death penalty over the last ten years than people who never attend a religious service.

Such political values are rarely visible at election time, when people are, for the most part, motivated by the same issues (in 2010: economy, immigration, budget deficit) irrespective of what religion they affiliate with or attend. Elections are, after all, a very blunt measure of the way people think and just because something is not immediately visible, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Religion does count when it comes to making up people's political minds. But it seems to do so more at a local/value level (attitudes to welfarism vs. individualism, say) rather than a national/ electoral level (who is best place to govern for the next five years?). And, more importantly, it does do less on account of people's affiliation – what group they feel they belong to – and more on account of how seriously they take that notion of belonging.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.

Newsletter update