Religion and voting in Britain before and after Brexit

The origin of the ‘Christian vote’

While the influence of religion in British politics and on party support has been declining since World War II, Britain's Christian communities have long maintained a propensity to support one or another political party. This is not because of overlap between their religious values and party ideologies. Steven (2010) points out that the ideological priorities of Christians are apparent within the agendas of all the major parties. Rather, it reflects the historic relationships between the Christian communities and the major parties, and the predisposition to support those parties instilled within members of those communities, frequently through early socialisation (Tilley 2015). Hence, it is voters’ attachment to religious communities (religious belonging) that lies at the heart of Britain’s Christian ‘religious vote’.

Anglicans and Presbyterians have long favoured the Conservative Party because of its support for the historically privileged position of the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland within the British state and government. Indeed, for much of the 16th and 17th centuries the Church of England and the English state were largely the same, with the church having enormous control over education, social behaviour, marriage and conununity infrastructure (McLean and Linsley 2004; Steven 2010). While this ‘Anglican privilege’ was opposed by Radicals, Liberals and ‘non-conformists’, it was protected by the Tory and then Conservative Party, with the Church of England frequently known as ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’ (Steven 2010: 67). The Conservatives’ attachment to other traditional institutions supported by Anglicans and Presbyterians -including traditional conceptions of the family, marriage and national identity - as well as its opposition to Scottish separatism, have also underpinned the lurk between them.

Roman Catholics, on the other hand, have preferred the Labour Party since its emergence in the early 20th century. This partly reflects Catholic hostility to the Church of England and their persecution at its hands and that of the British state, leading them to support campaigners for radical change to the establishment (Steven 2010). It also reflects the ancestral and migrant origins of Britain’s Catholic population, many of whom descended fr om Irish working-class migrants to England and Scotland in the 1940s and 1950s and who had roots in the Irish trade imion movement, making Labour a natural home (Tilley 2015).

Finally, free chinch Protestants have, like Catholics, tended to support parties opposed to the Chinch of England (which persecuted them when they refused to conform to the Chinch’s authority, hence the derogatory label ‘non-conformists’) and the policies sympathetic to Anglican privilege within the British state (Steven 2010). Their institutional organisation - rooted in local communities with no overarching institutional authority - meant they also found the ‘live and let live’ ideology of classical liberalism appealing (McAndrew 2017a; Tilley 2015). In the 18-19th centuries, this saw free church Protestants primarily support the Liberal Party, and they continue to display sympathies for the Liberal Democrats (McAndrew 2017a). There are also lurks between Methodism and the emergence of Labour in the early 1900s - with many of Labour’s early social policies drawn from Calvinist Methodists in Welsh industrialised communities (McLean and Linsley 2004).

The ‘Christian vote’ and EU membership

We used the BES to examine the voting behaviour of the Christian communities between the 1979 and 2019 general elections, covering almost the duration of the UK’s EU membership.1 As the primary source of religious voting in Britain (for Christians) is the historic relationships between the major parties and the Christian communities, and given the small sample sizes of particularly the earlier BES surveys, our focus is on religious belonging only. In Figures 6.1 and 6.2, we show the support of the Chr istian communities (as well as the non-religious for reference) for the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and UKIP,/Brexit Party. The data for Presbyterians are limited to Scotland, for which we also include the SNP. Figure 6.1 shows the (weighted) proportion of each conununity that supported each party between 1979 and 2019. To make it easier to identify the greater or lesser propensity of the communities to vote for the parties, Figure 6.2 shows the support of each conununity for each party net of then-national vote.



  • ---Conservative ---Labour ......Lib Dem
  • --SNP --UKIP/BP




60% --------------------------------------

  • ---Conservative ---Labour ......Lib Dem
  • ---SNP —-UKIP/BP

Presbyterian (Scotland)

Voting behaviour of largest Christian denominations, 1979-2019 general elections, per cent

Figure 6.1 Voting behaviour of largest Christian denominations, 1979-2019 general elections, per cent

  • ---Conservative ---Labour ......Lib Dem
  • ---SNP - — UKIP/BP

Source British Election Study Data weighted using cross-sectional weights where possible Data for 1979-2010 come from post-election BES surveys, and data for 2015-2019 are taken from BESIP post-election waves

Cushioning the blow 97

Catholic vs. Electorate

Methodists vs. Electorate

Anglicans vs. Electorate

  • -15% -------------------------------------
  • -20% -------------------------------------
  • ---Conservative ----Labour ---Lib Dem
  • 25% -------------------------------------
  • 20% -------------------------------------
  • ---Conservative ----Labour ---Lib Dem
  • 25%
  • -20% -----------------------------------
  • ---Conservative ----Labour ---Lib Dem
  • 98 Cushioning the blow

Baptist vs. Electorate

  • 25% -------------------------
  • 20% ---------------------------

Presb. vs. (Scot) Electorate 25% -------------------------------------

---Conservative ----Labour ---Lib Dem

Figure 6.2 Electoral support of largest Christian denominations relative to wider electorate. 1979-2019 general elections, per cent

  • -15% -------------------------------------
  • -20% -------------------------------------
  • ----Conservative ----Labour
  • ---Lib Dem - - - SNP
  • ----Conservative
  • ---Lib Dem
  • ---- Labour
  • --- SNP

Source: British Election Study. Data weighted using cross-sectional weights where possible. Data for 1979-2010 come from post-election BES surveys, and data for 2015-2019 are taken from BESIP post-election waves

The data show a clear propensity for Anglicans and Presbyterians to exhibit above-average support for the Conservatives since the 1970s. In 1979, for example, almost half of Anglicans voted Tory, while 27 per cent voted Labour and 13 per cent Lib Dem. Between 1979 and 2001, even as support for the Conservatives in the wider electorate plummeted (particularly in 1997 and 2001) Anglican support remained around 9 points higher for the Tories than that of the wider electorate. Similarly, Presbyterian support for the Conservatives in Scotland was on average 7 points higher than that of the wider electorate between 1979 and 2015. Even though on several occasions more Presbyterians voted Labour than Conservative, they nonetheless exhibited a greater propensity to vote Tory' than the wider Scottish electorate. Moreover, both established church Protestant communities have become even more likely to vote Conservative in recent years. After 2001, the gap between Anglican and the wider electorate’s support for the Tories grew, reaching 12 points in 2005 and 14 in 2010, before falling slightly to

12 in 2015 (after David Cameron’s socially liberal coalition government was in office, during which time same-sex marriage was legalised against the objections of many Conservative Party members and supporters). AfterBrexit, the Tories’ ‘Anglican boost’ grew to 20 points in 2017 and 2019. In Scotland, then ‘Presbyterian boost’ increased to 15 points in 2017, before falling to 11 points in 2019 (though this was still higher than the pre-2015 average). As we would expect, given the tendency of Anglicans and Presbyterians to be more supportive of Brexit, both communities were given more of a reason to vote Conservative after the EU referendum when the issue of Brexit (and the values associated with Euroscepticism) topped the political agenda. Another interesting feature of Presbyterian voting is their support for the Liberal Democrats. They showed a marginally greater propensity to support the Lib Dems after the 1980s (when Scotland as a whole all but rejected the Margaret Thatcher’s governments and the Conservative Party) -with then net support for the party around 1 point higher on average than that of the Scottish electorate. Figure 6.2 also shows that Presbyterians -despite being more likely than non-Presbyterians to hold a Scottish national identity (see Chapter 5) - were no more or less likely to support the SNP (except for a small and brief increase between 1992 and 1997). This is perhaps surprising given most Presbyterians’ opposition to Scottish separatism (Tilley 2015).

Tire greater propensity of Catholics to support Labour is clear in both Figrues 6.1 and 6.2. Equally clear, however, is a precipitous decline in Labour’s Catholic vote since the early 1990s. In 1983, for example, when Labour suffered one of the worst results of its history. Catholic support for the party was

13 points higher than that of the wider electorate, and it increased to 14 points in 1987 and 1992. From 1997, it started to deteriorate, dropping to 10 points in 2001, 5 points in 2010 and 4 points in 2015. By the 2019 election, it had disappeared entirely. At the same time. Catholic hostility to the Conservatives has been softening. In 1979, Catholic support for the Conservatives was 17 points lower than in the wider electorate and averaged 9 points lower than the electorate between 1983 and 1992. This gap fell to 7 points hi 1997 and 3 points between 2005 and 2015. By 2019, Catholic support for the Conservatives was 2 points higher than that of the wider electorate. This is particularly surprising given that most Catholics (as we saw in Chapter 3) were opposed to Brexit, which should, if anything, have given them more of a reason to support Labour. Instead, more Catholics voted Conservative in 2019 than Labour for the first tune since at least 1979. Labour’s collapse of Catholic support mirrors the decline in Labour’s working-class support described by Evans and Tilley (2017) - although it begins earlier than the process they describe -and may well be a result of the same process given that most Catholics in Britain in the 1980-2000s were from working-class backgrounds.

The data for Baptists and Methodists must be interpreted with slightly more caution because of then small numbers in any individual BES survey, making fluctuations from one election to the next that reflect nothing more than statistical noise more likely. Two broad trends are nonetheless discernible. First, consistent with the expectation above, while most have supported either Labour or the Conservatives in any given election, Methodists have been more supportive of Liberal Democrats than the wider electorate - with thefr support for the party 5 points higher on average between 1979 and 2015. Methodists are also equally likely to support the Conservatives - with then-support for the Tories also around 5 points higher than the wider electorate. Remarkably, there is no evidence of any ‘Methodist boost’ for Labour since 1979. Baptists, on the other hand, have been more supportive of Labour - with thefr support averaging 6 points higher than that of the electorate between 1979 and 2015. Whereas they have also leaned towards the Liberal Democrats, their support was only 1 point higher on average. The graphs also show that the voting behaviour of free church Protestants is changing. Figure 6.1 shows a plurality of Methodists and Baptists voted Conservative in 2017 and 2019, while support for Labour fell and support for the Lib Dems stagnated at the 2015 level. The Conservatives’ support amongst Methodists, by contrast, increased relative to the wider electorate from 10 points in 2015 to 14 points in 2019, while their Baptist support relative to the wider electorate increased from 4 points higher in 2015 to 8 points higher in 2019.

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