Tim Montgomerie is something of a poster boy for grassroots Conservatives. If you want to get a taste of the levels of adoration he receives, you should have a look at this tribute to him from Archbishop Cranmer. He has an impressive list of achievements having founded the Conservative Christian Fellowship, The Centre for Social Justice and Conservative Home website and has been described as “one of the most important Conservative activists of the past 20 years” by the Times.
Yesterday he wrote this article at Conservative Home entitled ‘Building a Conservative Majority (18): Sustained outreach to Britain’s churchgoers’ where he sets out the need for the Tories to win over Christian voters if they are to gain outright victory in the next general election. In his article he says:
“The Conservative Party has damaged relations with many of the country’s churchgoers by promising to introduce gay marriage. Many of the more than half-a-million signatories to the Coalition for marriage petition are churchgoers. It’s also been a big factor in a slump in Tory membership. MPs tell me that the issue is a top reason for why members are resigning.
“The Conservative Party can’t afford to lose core churchgoing voters and must make an effort to re-establish its credentials among them and among the Jewish, Muslim and other faith communities who have similar moral outlooks.”
Labour has acknowledged that it lost many Christian voters to the Tories at the last general election. Active Christians are more likely to vote in elections than the general public at large and with over half of the UK population describing themselves as ‘Christian’ in the 2011 Census, it is clear that Christian voters are a group that all parties would be sensible to focus on however you define who a Christian voter actually is.
Yet despite it seeming like a wise move to me at least for any party to work hard to court the Christian vote, the evidence suggests otherwise.
Back in April the think tank Demos produced a report for the Labour Party entitled Faithful Citizens, which examined the views and values of Christians in the UK. It’s findings won’t be of any great surprise to many Christians who take their faith seriously. It acknowledges that it is crucial for parties to engage with Christians. This is part of its summary:
‘The report presents two key findings. First, religious people are more active citizens – they volunteer more, donate more to charity and are more likely to campaign on political issues. Second, and more counter-intuitively, religious people are more likely to be politically progressive. They put a greater value on equality than the non-religious, are more likely to be welcoming of immigrants as neighbours and when asked are more likely to put themselves on the left of the political spectrum.
‘Based on this, Faithful Citizens recommends that progressive politicians should work with faith groups on issues which they are particularly engaged, including immigration, women’s rights, international development, the environment and youth work. Faith group members, the report argues, will be key to any future, election-winning, progressive coalition.’
The report is extensive, but one of the worrying aspects that comes out of it is the apparent levels of ignorance in the political classes towards what Christians believe and the level of positive contribution they make to our society. This religious illiteracy has been highlighted in the Clearing the Ground Inquiry by Christians in Parliament that I’ve written about extensively in previous posts. Michael Merrick has written a withering review of the Demos report that highlights some of these concerns and failings in detail.
I doubt many Christians are looking for special treatment by the political parties. Rather what we are looking for is an acknowledgement of the importance of faith in Christian’s lives and an understanding and appreciation that we have plenty to offer our country that is of benefit. Acceptance and support would be a good starting point instead of suspicion and interference that inhibits the work of Christian organisations and puts it beneath that of secular ones.
It’s not all bad news though. In all three of the main parties there are those fighting to have Christians taken seriously. The Christian Socialist Movement, Conservative Christian Fellowship and Liberal Democrat Christian Forum are all doing excellent work within their respective parties, but there is still some way to go for each party if they are going to prove to Christian voters that they can be trusted.
The Bible teaches us to hate injustice, value actions over words and treat all people with respect. Christians are likely to respond well to any party that takes these issues seriously.
Tim Montgomerie in his article says that the Conservatives need to go further in both policy and relationship building. The same could easily be said of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
He suggests two key policies:
- ‘First of all… introducing a recognition of marriage in the tax system. A marriage tax break is popular, more pro-poor than raising the income tax threshold and would start to rebuild confidence amongst the churches.
- ‘Secondly I would ask two MPs to take on two new faith-centred roles in Government:
- One would be responsible for ensuring that faith-based charities have fair access to government grants. Religious people, motivated by their faith, are often in the forefront of caring for some of society’s neediest people but when they seek funding for their work they face discrimination. We need to think about how faith-based groups are treated fairly by Whitehall, local government and quangoes.
- Secondly we should appoint an Envoy for Religious Freedom. Mark Field MP wrote on Saturday about the real persecution that many Christians are facing because of the Arab Spring. Fighting for religious freedom abroad should become a central goal of British foreign policy. The Envoy would report to William Hague and future Foreign Secretaries on infringements of religious liberty in all parts of the world and they should lobby the guilty regimes. The Foreign Office working with Canada and the United States – who already focus on these topics – should constantly put related issues on the agenda of the UN, G8 and G20.’
I completely agree with these. Marriage needs as much support as possible as it has been shown time and again to be the most stable building block for family life. Also, the Government has said in the past that condemns the oppression of religious freedom abroad, but very little concrete evidence has been shown throught their actions to back this up so far.
Finally Montgomerie talks about the need to build relationships and work with the movers and shakers within UK Christianity, keeping them constantly up-to-date with what the Government is doing and asking them what they think the Government should be doing.
That last point is really a key to it all. Christians don’t want parties just telling them why they should be voting for them. There needs to be active engagement demonstrating that they are listening to Christians’ concerns and views resulting in meaningful and productive dialogue.
If you want to genuinely win people over for the long term then you need to demonstrate that you value them and what they have to offer at more than just face value. It’s really not that difficult or complicated at all.