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Does religion influence votes?

by
17 May 2024

Yes, but not in a straightforward way, write Paul Bickley and George Lapshynov

Daniel Heighton/iStock

IT WAS James Carville, Bill Clinton’s political adviser, who said that, when it came to elections, what mattered was “the economy, stupid”.

It is a safe bet that, in the results of the recent local elections, the Conservative Party paid the price for public perceptions of economic failure. The results more or less confirmed what almost everybody was already expecting: that, when the General Election comes, the Conservatives are likely heading out of office, and Labour is probably heading in.

If anything took the shine off Labour’s strong performance, though, it was an issue that had nothing to do with the economy. Multiple council seats were lost, as was control over councils in Oldham and Kirklees, because of the so-called “Gaza effect”. This has triggered wider speculation about whether Labour’s path to power could be more difficult than expected. People are now asking, what will the Muslim vote do?

It seems that the 2024 General Election will be one in which religion counts. Before the polling, Theos is carrying out new research that looks at how people from different religious backgrounds may vote. The research looks at data from a long-running survey, the British Election Study (BES).


IN BRITAIN’s political history, multiple important affinities between religious groups and political parties have emerged (and sometimes been submerged). The Church of England is the “Tory Party at prayer”; the Labour Party “owes more to Methodism than Marx” — these are clichés, but only because they have been, and to a certain extent still are, true.

The BES data show that — until now — at least 60 per cent of Muslims “would vote Labour if there were a general election tomorrow”. In 2019, every constituency in which more than 30 per cent of the voters were Muslim elected a Labour MP. Given the substantial size of the Muslim population, should we recoin the phrase for the 21st-century Labour Party? It owes more to Muslims than Marx (or Methodists).

Of course, there is more going on than pure religious identity. UK Muslims are generally younger on average, more often born abroad, and more likely to be either long-term unemployed or engaged in industrial and unskilled elementary jobs. Still, Muslim voters cannot be stripped of their religious affiliation and simplified to a modern working-class: religious ties, demographic profile, and economic position combine to form a multifaceted entity that resists simple separation.

These theo-political affiliations are not immutable. No data have yet been published by the BES for voter intentions after the Gaza crisis, but we should expect things to shift.

There are lessons in recent history. As recently as the early 2000s, the Labour Party was the political party of choice for Roman Catholics — but very many of them in Britain were Irish and working-class. As the community has become more ethnically and socio-economically diverse, its ties with Labour have weakened — but then they have also been weakened by multiple policy standoffs between the RC Church and Labour governments (the adoption-agency debate, for example).

Our research suggests that the “Roman Catholic Labour vote” might have disappeared: no more RCs are likely to vote Labour than the population at large. Like them, Muslims may find reasons to look for a new political home.


THAT said, a distinct “Anglican vote” seems surprisingly durable. According to the BES, the Church of England is still the “Conservative Party at prayer”, with occasionally fluctuating, but ultimately widespread, support for the Conservatives. During the past decade, Labour has never been a serious contender to win over the Anglican vote, even when allowing for factors such as age and relative wealth.

What does make a difference is what kind of Anglican a voter is. When religiosity — frequency of church attendance and religious self-perception — is taken into account, it is “nominal” Anglicans who tend to vote Conservative. So much for the “at prayer” part of the cliché.

In contrast, Anglicans who support Labour or the Liberal Democrats are more likely to attend church regularly and to view themselves as religious. Theos’s previous research, most lately particularly on emotional responses to death and dying in the UK (News, 1 December 2023), has consistently shown that active religious practice influences people differently from simply having a religious affiliation.

There is a final important point. Religious identity and practice influence not only voting intentions, but also voter turnout. It is an established fact that religion fosters citizenship, and serves as a significant source of social capital.

Our analysis of BES data indicates that Christians are more inclined to vote on election day compared with the non-religious, even after accounting for age and education. Church attendance and the degree of religiosity are important here as well: Christians who express a high likelihood of voting are more devout than those who are less inclined to vote.

And one final caveat: when it comes to minority religions, particularly in the Muslim community, this relationship is reversed. Greater religiosity makes these potential voters less likely to turn out. It goes to show that, when it comes to religion and politics, it’s complicated.


Paul Bickley is Head of Political Engagement and George Lapshynov is a researcher at Theos.

theosthinktank.co.uk/religion-counts-2024

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