Cushioning the blow: religion and party politics in the age of Brexit
Much psephological blood has been spilled on the question of whether religion or class is the most important influence on voting in contemporary democracies.
Напор and Miller (1987: 177)
The impact of the Brexit referendum on Britain’s politics was as dramatic as its result was unexpected. Within 24 hours of the result, the Prime Minister resigned and a no confidence motion was tabled in the Leader of the Opposition. Within a year. Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intention to hold a general election to ‘guarantee certainty for the years ahead’ and strengthen the government’s position ahead of its negotiations with the EU (BBC 2017). The outcome of the election was anything but certainty - a ‘hung’ parliament that paralysed government and left the question of whether the UK would leave the EU open for two more years. In 2019, Theresa May was replaced by one of the leaders of the Vote Leave campaign, Boris Johnson, whose own inability to deliver Brexit led him to demand the third general election in four years. This time the outcome was far more favourable to supporters of Brexit - a stunning 80-seat Conservative majority. Fifty days later, the UK left the EU.
The results of the 2017 and 2019 general elections were remarkable for several reasons. The 2017 election saw substantial increases in support for both the major parties, who successfully appealed to the majority of voters on either side of the Brexit divide at the expense of the smaller parties, whereby the Conservatives monopolised the pro-Brexit vote, and Labour the Remain vote (Cowley and Kavanagh 2018; Fieldhouse et al. 2020). The Conservatives’ victory in 2019 was built on their continued success in winning over pro-Brexit constituencies in former Labour heartlands, while Labour was unable to win enough constituencies more sympathetic to EU membership to compensate and the party fell to its worst result for decades (Cutts et al. 2019; Ford 2019; Fisher 2020).
The transformation of Labour and Conservative support after 2016 was another consequence of the gradual changes in the priorities of British voters - and their connections to their political parties - that started 40 years earlier and were accelerated by the ‘electoral shock' of Brexit (discussed in Chapter 1). Voters’ loyalties to political parties - and the social institutions upon which those parties’ formation was based (including religion and social class) - had weakened, and they were more prepared to switch votes between elections depending on who best represented their agenda. Their political priorities had changed, with deference to authority and traditional institutions, freedom of expression, individual autonomy, national identity, communitarianism and internationalism more important than since at least the 1975 referendum, and the left/right economic divide less central to the outcome of elections (Fieldhouse et al. 2020; Ford and Goodwin 2017; Evans and Menon 2017; Sobolewska and Ford 2020). Those socially conservative, communitarian voters with exclusive (primarily English) national identities who opposed European integration and immigration found themselves largely ignored (by the Conservatives) or taken for granted (by Labour) in the 2000s and were particularly receptive to the messages of the BNP and the UKIP - with their support for the latter helping to pressure David Cameron into promising the EU referendum in the first place. After the referendum, both major parties dramatically revised theh agendas to react to what their leaders believed was an ‘antiestablishment vote’ and a ‘vote for serious change’ (Shipman 2017). While this was also driven by the agendas the relatively new leaders of each party wanted to pursue (particularly, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn), both parties quickly abandoned any support for EU membership and embraced a distinctly pro-Brexit platform in the 2017 election (Labour Party 2017; Conservative Party 2017).
The Conservatives maintained theh explicitly pro-Brexit stance in both the 2017 and 2019 elections, as well as promoting sceptical views of immigration and tougher approaches on law and order, as they set out to win over the ‘more nationalistic, communitarian and inward-looking’ sections of the electorate who overwhelmingly endorsed Brexit (Ford and Goodwin 2017: 19). The party srrccessfully appealed to swathes of older, workingclass, socially conservative voters who for years had constituted the core of Labour’s working-class support. Despite their Brexit policy in 2017 being virtually identical to that of the Conservatives, Labour took a far-more critical view of it and even promised a second referendum including a ‘Remain’ option on the ballot in its 2019 manifesto. Despite dissenting voices from MPs representing northern former industrial constituencies, the party focused on the younger, university educated voters who ‘[regard] diversity as a core social strength; discrimination by gender, race, religion or sexual orientation as a key social evil.. . national identity as a matter of civic attachment. .. [and think] that individual freedoms matter much more than communal values’ (Ford and Goodwin 2017: 19; Pogrund and Maguire 2020). Such voters overwhelmingly supported Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, opposed Brexit in 2016 and had long seen immigration as a social benefit. In both 2017 and 2019, Labour successfully won the support of this constituency. Its catastrophic result in the latter election stemmed from the party’s (understandable) failure to escape the impossible position of its support, while based largely on former Remain voters, including a sizeable majority of pro-Brexit voters concentrated in so-called ‘red wall’ constituencies that were far more receptive to Boris Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ campaign than the muddled second referendum promise of Jeremy Corbyn (Curts et al. 2019).
The contribution of religion to this process has been mostly explored by focusing on the effects of secularisation. Fieldhouse et al. (2020) and de Geus and Shonocks (2020) show that secularisation contributed to younger generations becoming less conservative and less loyal to political parties, because of their lack of attachment to a religious community with the accompanying social conservatism and historic partisan predisposition. As we noted in Chapter 1, however, the assumption that secularisation has led to religion being all but irrelevant in shaping voter behaviour is misguided. Tilley (2015) shows that religion continues to shape voter behaviour to this day, even among those who do not identify with religious communities, because of the political habits and loyalties that are passed on from older generations. Along with McAndrew (2017a), Tilley also shows that voters who identify with religiotts communities continue to exhibit partisan preferences for the traditional party of those communities, rooted in the historic relationships between them formed decades ago.
In our final chapter, we build on and extend these studies to examine the voting behaviour of the largest Christian communities in Britain between the 1979 and 2019 general elections (i.e. throughout the UK’s EC/EU membership), and how it has changed over time in light of the rising salience of Euroscepticism and social conservatism and the changing nature of British party politics (such as in light of the rise of UKIP in the 2000s). We then look at the role of religion in explaining voter behaviour specifically in the post-referendum period, assessing both its impact in driving or frustrating changes in party loyalty reflecting voters’ preferences on Brexit and the continued importance of religion to explaining UK election results. This chapter makes two key arguments. Firstly, in line with Tilley (2015), we show that religion - specifically, religious belonging - continues to influence voting behaviour among British Christians, and that the changes in voter loyalty and behaviour associated with the rise of Euroscepticism and social conservatism since the 1980s also led to changes in the partisan loyalties of the religious conununities. This trend has been accelerated by Brexit and has resulted in the divergence in religious voting that characterised British elections throughout the 20th century - in which Anglicans and Presbyterians were disproportionately likely to vote Conservative while Catholics were more likely to vote Labour - being replaced by a tendency for Christians to increasingly support the Conservatives. Our final argument, therefore, is that while it certainly did not cause this change, Brexit and Euroscepticism have contributed to a change in the British party system which sees the Conservative Party emerge as the closest British politics has ever seen to a Christian Democratic Party.