General Election 2024: the Christian vote

Election 24 hustings Aldeburgh Parish Church. Image credit: @stopsizewellC

By Tim Wyatt

Discussion of how American Christians, especially evangelicals, will vote is a perennial feature of US politics coverage. But when it comes to UK elections, there is little exploration on how Christians will vote. While British Christians do not act as a coherent bloc vote, they will play a role in the upcoming general election in several interesting ways

What does the Christian electorate look like?

The 2021 Census for England and Wales asked the question: “What is your religion?” and offered eight options. A total of 27.5 million people — 46 per cent of the population — identified as Christian. In Scotland, 38.8 per cent identified as Christian and in Northern Ireland 79.7 per cent said they belonged to a Christian denomination.

The gold-standard social science annual survey by British Social Attitudes (BSA) found a lower number. In 2023, it phrased the religion question: “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” and found 38 per cent identified as Christian.

While Christianity remains by far the largest single religion present in Britain, Christian affiliation has been in decline for many decades, dropping from 72 per cent in the 2001 Census for England and Wales. The last time Labour won from opposition in 1997, the BSA recorded a lower figure — 52 per cent of the population — as Christian.

The BSA looked at the split between denominations: 13 per cent of the population are non-denominational; 12 per cent are affiliated with the Church of England (or its Anglican sister churches in Wales and Scotland); 7 per cent are Catholic; and even fewer identify as Presbyterian (including Church of Scotland), Methodist, Baptist, and other smaller denominations. Surveys normally find between 4 and 8 per cent of the population attend church regularly.

How do Christians engage in politics?

Religion Counts, recent research by the Theos think tank, quotes social scientists saying that “religion, by nurturing civic skills, inculcating moral values, encouraging altruism, and fostering civic recruitment, is a primary source of social capital”.

Many studies have shown that Christians are notably more likely to engage in politics then the general population, especially around election time. The long-running British Election Study (BES) found in its latest surveys that 83 per cent of Christians said they were very or fairly likely to vote in the next general election. Turnout in recent elections has been in the 60 to 70 per cent range.

Theos dug into the BES data to find that the more often a Christian goes to church, the more likely they are to vote. The gap in turnout between nominal believers and churchgoers was most pronounced among Anglicans and Catholics.

These findings have been partly echoed by another recent survey, run by the cross-denominational Evangelical Alliance (EA) organisation.

The EA polled 1,300 self-described evangelicals, who came from a number of denominations and none, to find out what they thought about the election and politics in general.

While this is not as statistically robust as the BES because the sample was a self-selecting panel, the EA survey found an astonishing 94 per cent of evangelicals were either certain or very likely or vote, a figure that vastly outstrips normal turnout among the wider population.

On other metrics of engagement, the evangelicals were also more plugged in. One in 10 said they were members of a party or actively campaigning, much higher than the 1.5 per cent of the general population.

Evangelicals were also more likely than average to contact their MP or councillor, boycott a product for political or ethical reasons and donate money to a campaign. In fact, the only political act those surveyed were less likely than wider society to take part in was joining a demonstration or picket line.

Who do Christians vote for?

Despite the stereotypes about “lefty bishops” and regular clashes between the Church of England hierarchy and the Conservative Party, Anglicans in the pews have long tended to lean towards the Tories.

Catholics have had a comparable preference for Labour for generations, although this has been gradually weakening in recent years.

The “Other Christian” group, which includes Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Evangelicals and non-denominational believers, has no clear historical preference, partly because it is a mixture of very different theological convictions and styles of Christian practice.

Theos analysis of recent BES data finds that Anglicans still favour the Conservatives over the past decade. The level of support waxes and wanes following broader political shifts but is consistently 10 to 20 percentage points higher than the general population.

As the popularity of the current Tory government has plummeted in the past few years, so too have Anglicans cooled on the party. Last year’s BES found 35 per cent of Anglicans planned to vote for the Conservatives, well down from a peak of 58 per cent in 2021 but still notably higher than the 20 per cent support the Tories found across the BES sample.

When it comes to Catholics, their traditional adherence to Labour seems to have mostly ended. In many 20th-century elections, British Catholics would vote Labour up to 20 percentage points higher than the general population, but in the past decade, BES data shows the Catholic vote is barely distinguishable from the rest of the electorate.

This is possibly due to the changing nature of British Catholicism, which historically was dominated by working-class people of Irish descent, already predisposed to lean towards Labour. Today, after decades of immigration and social shifts, British Catholics are a much more diverse group, both ethnically and in terms of class, and no longer monolithically attached to Labour.

Other Christians tend to follow broader voting trends fairly closely, although they do show levels of support for smaller parties, especially the Liberal Democrats, much higher than among either Catholic or Anglican Christians.

When the BES data is analysed in the round, Christians overall are more likely to vote for the Conservatives — 30 per cent compared with 14 per cent of the non-religious cohort, largely thanks to the rightward leaning of the Anglicans.

However, in the 2023 survey Labour came a close second with 28 per cent of the Christians polled, suggesting the total Christian electorate is pretty mixed and not lined up significantly behind any one party.

These kinds of surveys, while helpful, can only tell us so much. Politics has changed a lot since last year, when the BES poll was held, and national surveys like this can only measure the views of Christians by affiliation: those who tick the box in a survey.

It is possible that the voting preferences and intentions of Christians who are practising their faith, a much smaller group, may differ from their more nominal co-religionists.

Some suggest the longstanding Christian preference for the Conservatives reflects that party’s values being closest to the faith. Historically, the Tories have been the party dedicated to upholding the established church and social conservatism. But others argue the Christian vote only leans towards the Tories because those who identify as believers are disproportionately older, richer and whiter than the general population — the exact group in society already predisposed to vote Conservative. Therefore, if the views of a truly representative sample of actual churchgoers were taken, any bias to the right may fade away.

However, there is some evidence that Anglicans in particular, whether churchgoing or nominal, do genuinely lean to the right. Professor Linda Woodhead, a sociologist of religion, conducted research in 2018 focusing on the Brexit referendum and found 66 per cent of Anglicans voted Leave, compared with 52 per cent nationally. And this effect persisted even if you controlled for other things that Anglicans were disproportionately likely to be: male, white and of higher social class.

Professor Woodhead also discovered that attending church regularly made Anglicans slightly more likely to vote Remain compared with nominal Anglicans, but Leave still captured majority support even among the churchgoers. Similar research conducted among British evangelicals found they split for Remain, on the whole.

The EA survey is not a representative sample, but it does offer a snapshot of the views of practising churchgoing Christians, in the past few months before Rishi Sunak called the election.

The headline figures suggest evangelical Christians are matching shifts in the general population and tacking towards the Labour Party. In the survey, 42 per cent planned to vote Labour in the upcoming election, compared with 28 per cent Conservative and 11 per cent Liberal Democrat. A further 5 per cent intend to vote for the Greens and another 5 per cent for Reform.

When you compare this with national polling, it is not that different. Evangelicals are slightly more likely to vote Conservative than the wider public and slightly less likely to vote for Reform. Otherwise, they seem to reflect the general population.

What issues are important to Christian voters?

Theos research: authoritarian or liberal

Theos has also explored the underlying political values that drive how Christians engage in politics. Their analysis looks at two scales: on the libertarian to authoritarian scale Christians tended to be more socially authoritarian. This means they place greater emphasis on “respect for traditional values, obedience to authority, or on harsher penalties for breaking the law”, the think tank explained. On an economic axis (measuring attitudes towards taxation, government spending, and the market), Christians verged towards the right wing of the spectrum, although only slightly.

These averages masked notable variation between denominations. Perhaps unsurprisingly given their Tory preferences, Anglicans were the most authoritarian and economically right wing, Other Christians were closer to the middle ground, while Catholics were very slightly to the left of centre on economics, although still mildly towards the authoritarian end of the spectrum: this position is not too dissimilar to where the average Briton lies on the map.

Christians who attended church regularly were more libertarian than their non-practising counterparts, which means they valued personal freedoms and individual autonomy more. They did not differ meaningfully on the left-right economic axis, however.

Paul Bickley, head of political engagement at Theos, told a Religion Media Centre briefing that “cultural Anglicans” who do not go to church might be fertile territory for the upstart right-wing populist Reform party, as they were the most authoritarian and right-wing part of the Christian bloc.

Trying to apply these values to actual policies can be more challenging, given the highly diverse nature of the Christian vote in Britain.

Evangelical Alliance survey: free speech and moral issues

The EA survey found that among the policies most favoured were protections for free speech in the workplace, opposition to assisted suicide, reducing the time limit on abortions, protecting single-sex spaces, backing more legal asylum routes, and increasing the minimum wage. The policy most likely to lose the Christian vote was leaving the European Convention on Human Rights.

The EA also asked how evangelicals decided how to vote, with six in 10 of those surveyed saying what would help the needy most was top of their mind in the polling booth. Next most popular was whether a party or platform was aligned with Scripture (54 per cent), followed by who would best manage the economy (48 per cent). Only one in 10 said they would vote for the party that they thought would best benefit themselves.

Faith Action: cost of living and housing

The charity FaithAction, which co-ordinates faith-based charities engaged in social action projects, has also been running a survey since the election was called, asking those in its network what was most important to them.

Daniel Singleton, FaithAction’s executive director, said the early results suggested Christians were most interested in health, the cost of living and housing policy. He also said that anecdotally he was finding lots of Christians more agitated about trust and integrity among politicians than particular policies.

This was partly borne out by the EA survey also. Compared with the last time they ran this exercise in 2014, the EA said evangelicals now believed the personal integrity of their politicians was as important as the policies they espoused.

Confidence in politicians remained very low — a mere 12 per cent of those they surveyed said they trusted politicians, although even that rock-bottom figure is marginally higher than the general population. Only one in three evangelicals said the UK’s political system worked well, too, and even fewer said they were hopeful about the future of the country.

Moral issues across denominations

Among the issues that Christian lobby groups have most prominently been campaigning upon in recent times are cutting the abortion time limit and resisting efforts by some MPs to decriminalise abortion entirely.

There has also been lobbying against the legalisation of assisted dying, which has been debated in recent months by parliaments in Jersey, the Isle of Man and Scotland.

Controversy about gender transition and sex education in schools has also been high up the agenda of many Christian Westminster activists.

However, some Christians in the political world doubt if these hyper-contentious culture war perennials are actually what most concerns the average believer.

Key issues for Catholics by Catherine Pepinster.

Catholics have been urged by their bishops to participate in the general election by focusing on key issues such as the family, poverty, climate change and migration, and on voting.

With an estimated five million Catholics in the UK, this is an “interest group” that could have real clout. And while the outlining of issues by Catholic organisations suggests that Labour and the Liberal Democrats may be more attractive to Catholic voters on issues such as climate change and migration, the Conservatives may be more attractive when it comes to education and faith schools.

A statement from the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales says the election is “not just about leaders, it is about us. We are not merely the passive recipients of politics but active citizens. An election is the best time for us as Christians to speak out, to get involved, and to lead.”

The bishops advise that gospel values should inform how Christians look at the world and that politics should be putting “the common good before self-interest”. Their main focus is on issues that they are say are of most interest to Catholics: criminal justice, domestic poverty, family life and taxation, education, the environment, international relations, human rights and peacebuilding, life issues and migration.

But of those issues, the most important, says Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Bishops’ Conference, is the family. “How do we seek to construct a society in which families can flourish? That’s the bedrock,” he said. “My view is that our next government should strive to create the circumstances in which families can flourish. So please get ready to vote on 4 July.”

Among the key issues outlined by the Catholic Bishops as particularly pertinent to Catholics are:

  1. Family life and poverty: the bishops say the cost-of-living crisis has exposed long-term structural challenges and injustices. They urge that the next government should remove the two-child cap on universal credit, and ensure that families have decent homes. The St Vincent de Paul Society, an international Christian voluntary network dedicated to tackling poverty, is urging its members to challenge candidates by asking them: If elected, would you commit to improve our social security system by raising the basic rate of Universal Credit so that people can meet their essential needs?
  2. The environment: like Pope Francis, the Catholic bishops have increasingly made the environment a focus of their teaching in recent years. In the run-up to the election, they are suggesting Catholic voters should challenge parliamentary candidates on supporting credible policies for the delivery of net zero by 2050, including a transition away from the use of fossil fuels, and how they would help poorer countries as they face climate disasters
  3. Education: Catholic schools make up 9 per cent of the state education sector, with the church providing land and school buildings free of charge and contributing to the cost of education. The bishops welcomed the decision in early May by education secretary Gillian Keegan to lift the existing 50 per cent faith cap, which means that if a new free school with religious character is oversubscribed, it can only prioritise pupils based on faith for 50 per cent of places. At least half of the school’s available places must be allocated without reference to faith-based admissions criteria. Now they are suggesting Catholic voters should ask parliamentary candidates whether they support the creation of new Catholic schools, including new Catholic special schools, through the removal of the cap on faith-based admissions.
  4. Life issues. the Catholic Church is implacably opposed to abortion and assisted dying. As these issues are ones where MPs usually vote independently according to their conscience, the bishops urge Catholic voters to ask candidates where they stand. They suggest asking whether they will challenge the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia; support measures to end medically unsupervised abortions in the home, resist the further extension of abortion limits and look to prevent abortion up to birth for babies diagnosed with disabilities and to reduce time limits for abortion.
  5. Criminal justice: the justice system should focus on retribution, rehabilitation and redemption, the bishops say, and should promote justice and mercy for all. The next government should focus on the overuse of custodial sentence for non-violent offences.
  6. Migration: the bishops are concerned about inflammatory language being used about migrants. The Catholic Church in England and Wales has often had its numbers boosted by migrants and provides many chaplaincy services for migrant communities. It is calling on the next government to establish more safe and legal routes for migrants coming to Britain, to allow migrants to work as soon as possible and have policies that help them find somewhere to live. The St Vincent de Paul Society is also asking its members to challenge parliamentary candidates on migration, asking if they will champion the right to safe and legal routes for people needing to flee their homes, rather than leave vulnerable people prey to people smugglers.
  7.  International relations: the Catholic Church has many organisations working in international aid, and the bishops have previously expressed concern on cuts to the British government’s aid budget. It suggests voters ask candidates whether they support restoring aid to its previous level and whether they back Britain remaining signed up to the International Convention on Human Rights.

Also calling on Catholics to vote is the Catholic Social Action Network, which has launched the #RegistertoVote campaign to encourage all Catholics eligible to register to vote and to use their vote on 4 July.

The Catholic aid charity Cafod has also produced a general election manifesto calling on the new government to end all spending on new oil and gas projects at home and abroad, and phase out existing projects, support low-income, climate-vulnerable countries, channel aid to support small-scale farmers, restore the UK aid budget to 0.7 per cent of gross national income and ensure UK aid is spent tackling poverty overseas, not redirected to domestic needs.

Meanwhile the Catholic international aid organisation, Cafod, and the St Vincent de Paul Society have joined forces to produce election resources to equip parishes who want to contact candidates to challenge them on issues and to set up hustings. They are focusing on issues such as climate change and poverty.

What about Christians in parliament?

A number of Christian MPs have announced they will be standing down at the election, changing the face of the parliamentary Christian contingent significantly already. Among those who are leaving Westminster are Labour’s Ben Bradshaw and Jon Cruddas; the Conservatives Michael Gove; Tim Loughton and Sir Gary Streeter (former chairman of Christians in Parliament), former prime minister Theresa May, a vicar’s daughter; the SNP’s Ian Blackford; and Jeffrey Donaldson, former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who in March 2024 was charged with rape and other sexual offences.

But a large number of prominent Christian faces are bidding to return, including Labour’s Sir Stephen Timms, Jonathan Reynolds, and Marsha DeCordova; former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron; and the Conservatives Miriam Cates, Fiona Bruce and Danny Kruger.

Each of the main parties also has a well-established Christian association, who all work fairly closely together under the auspices of the umbrella group Christians in Politics.

Hannah Rich, director of Christians on the Left, affiliated with Labour, recently said relations with the party hierarchy were cordial but fairly “pragmatic” and the current Labour leadership is interested in Christians and churches as the providers of valued community projects such as food banks. The party’s shadow faith minister is Baroness Sherlock, an ordained Anglican priest.

The well-connected charity the Good Faith Partnership was recently tasked by the party to set up a “Faith in Labour” network, which has been meeting with church groups to build relationships ahead of an expected new government.

David Burrowes, a former Tory MP who now works for the Conservative Christian Fellowship, said his team had a good working relationship with the top of the party but were clear their primary allegiance was to their faith and not the blue rosette. He said Christians could even model a more gracious and forgiving attitude in the party and politics more general, given the wave of scandals afflicting Tory MPs in recent years.

Elizabeth Jewkes, head of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum (LDCF), said there were plenty of Christians represented in the party even beyond the evangelical Tim Farron, starting with the current leader Sir Ed Davey and including MPs such as the Catholic Sarah Olney, the Church of Scotland church elder Alistair Carmichael, and Layla Moran who is of Palestinian Christian heritage.

However, in recent weeks a scandal has erupted over David Campanale, a Christian former BBC journalist who was chosen and then deselected in a key marginal constituency for Lib Dems. Campanale says a group of hardline secularist party activists worked to deselect him over his Christian views and because he was a former member of a tiny political movement, the Christian People’s Alliance. His efforts to get his candidate status back were backed by the Bishop of Winchester Philip Mounstephen, and the LDCF, which called for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to intervene.


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