Will Catholics abandon Labour?

Will Catholics abandon Labour?


    Will Glasgow East see the first sign of an exodus?

There has been much written already about the potential fortunes of the Labour Party in Glasgow East, and as remarkable as it seems, the 13,507 majority currently enjoyed by David Marshall was not even enough to prevent the SNP from being ‘bookies’ favourites’ when the markets first opened. The punters on the site, far more knowledgeable on the specifics of this constituency than I, have made me wonder how we can use the result of this by-election to discern trends that could become more widespread in a General Election.

What marks Glasgow East out from most other UK constituencies is its high proportion of Roman Catholics. Parkhead, the stadium of Catholic-affiliated Glasgow Celtic, is in the constituency and a high proportion of the 73% who identify as ‘Christian’ will be of a Petrine rather than Pauline persuasion.

One of the most vocal critics of the Blair and Brown governements has been the Cardinal-Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Keith O’Brian. The most senior churchman in Scotland, he has vociferously attacked the government’s policies on divorce, civil partnerships, and most recently Human Fertility & Embryology. I will be extremely interested to see if he or his colleagues in the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland make any statements about recent legislation in the run up to this by-election.

Labour has traditionally been the party of both the working class and of the Catholic community in Great Britain. It could be argued that the party’s policy platform (Marxism, Methodism, now neo-liberalism) has never made much attempt to appeal to the doctrinal views of Catholics, and that the affiliation of so many Catholics was merely an additional consequence of holding the working class vote in such numbers. This is plausible, but one might also posit that as long as the Church of Engliand enjoyed the sobriquet of “the Tory Party at Prayer”, that sectarian Catholics would always maintain an affinity for Labour. For whatever reason, Labour has been confident of winning a majority of Catholic voters in almost every General Election since Emancipation.

However, with the resignation letter of Conor McGinn (vice-chairman of Young Labour) claiming an ‘anti-catholic’ hostility in the party, and a recent article by Labour MEP Mary Honeyball that asked whether Catholics should be allowed to hold governmental office, there is much discussion amongst Catholics as to whether this natural loyalty to Labour is something that should be perpetuated. Be it Ed Balls’ perceived attack on faith schools, or the claimed unofficial whipping of Labour MPs on the abortion threshold vote, it is becoming apparent that the fragile relationship that has existed for so long might not survive to the next General Election.

Clearly this is of concern to some within the party. Jim Dobbin (Lab – Heywood & Middleton) wrote to the Prime Minister to express concern about such attitutes within the PLP, and Stephen Pound (Lab – Ealing North) decried Mary Honeyball’s remarks as having “a strong whiff of the 17th Century about them”.

I do not believe that recent policies would be enough to break the link between Catholic voters and the Labour party, in spite of the response they have provoked from the Cardinals. Rather it is the perception, a fairly new perception, that the party is institutionally hostile to Catholics – by refusing them a free vote on abortion, or by insisting that no exemptions could be found for Catholic adoption agencies – that could cost Labour dear.

In 2005, only 36% of the population voted Labour, but that rose to 53% amongst the five million British Catholics who decided to vote. A non-scientific poll for totalcatholic.com indicated that 72% would vote Conservative as a result of the HFE Bill, and though this sample would be more conservative than the mainstream, it does indicate the fury in certain parts of the Church. I would expect this reaction to be most marked in a part of the world renowned for the ferocity of its sectarianism.

I don’t know if the Catholic vote will abandon Labour at the next General Election, or whether the perceived hostility is any greater problem than the perceived alienation from the white working classes. However, I would expect that if there is to be an identifiable swing away from Labour amongst Catholics, we will see it soonest and most obviously in the Glasgow East by-election later this month.



UPDATE: Iain Dale is running a story that the favourite to be Labour’s candidate, Cllr George Ryan, did not show up to the selection meeting, prompting the cancellation of an event tomorrow morning.

UPDATE: Margeret Curran, MSP for Glasgow Bailleston, is now being tipped as the likely favourite to contest the by-election for Labour. She had previously been tipped to replace Wendy Alexander as leader of the Labour MSPs. Details here

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