Religion’s Growing Role In UK Election Season – OpEd


By Peter Welby*

The UK is experiencing election fever once again. As of Dec. 12, there will have been as many elections in the last 10 years as in the previous 22; more, if one includes the Brexit referendum. All eyes are on the polls, which seem to show a growing Conservative lead, but Labour support increasing too at the expense of smaller parties.

This election, however, has higher stakes than most. In the three elections since 2010, there has been a means by which the Conservatives could lead a government even if they didn’t win a majority in Parliament. This time, if the Conservatives fail to win a majority then, even if they are the largest party — and even if they have fallen short by a number of seats in the single digits — they are likely to be out. There is no opposition party that is willing to deal with them.

The consequences of this reality are stark. The only viable leader of a government other than Boris Johnson is Jeremy Corbyn, who would not only upend the UK’s economic system but also rip up the foundations of its international alliances, with consequences more profound than those of Brexit.

In such a context, small things matter. A combination of religious affiliation and national or ethnic identity features in this election in ways that I cannot recall seeing before.

The obvious feature is a continuation of the anti-Semitism crisis that has gripped the UK’s Labour Party since Corbyn became leader in 2015. With his championing of far-left politics, he brought into the party the assorted detritus of multiple fringe causes, united mostly through their determination to see the world through the lens of various conspiracy theories. And, as those who have ever followed the rabbit hole of online conspiracy theorists will know, eventually all such theories end up at Israel and the Jews. The two most prominent examples in the 15 years prior to Corbyn’s election as Labour leader relate to 9/11 and the 2008 global banking crisis.

The failure of the Labour leadership to deal effectively with this poison coursing through the party, as well as a series of incidents where Corbyn himself has expressed deeply concerning views, has left many of Britain’s Jews feeling very nervous. Recent polling shows that 87 percent of British Jews regard Corbyn as an anti-Semite himself, and 47 percent would “seriously consider” emigrating if he became prime minister. The Jewish Chronicle, a leading paper for Britain’s Jews, ran a front page editorial urging all Britons not to vote for Labour.

Meanwhile, a group of public figures wrote a letter in the Guardian declaring that they would not vote Labour due to its anti-Semitism. This was countered by another group declaring that Labour’s anti-Semitism problem was not out of step with wider society, and that a government led by Corbyn would be in the strongest position to fight it.

Away from Labour’s anti-Semitism problem is the intrusion of the Kashmir debate into British politics. Stories have been emerging in recent weeks of a concerted effort to persuade British Hindus to vote Conservative due to the Labour Party passing a motion at its annual conference condemning Indian actions in Kashmir. Some allegeorganized links between this campaign and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India.

As with the defenses of Labour over anti-Semitism, there have been some contorted attempts by prominent Labour supporters in the media to explain the party’s position on Kashmir without further alienating potential Hindu voters. The stronger approach, however, seems to be in the argument that the BJP is interfering in British politics in a way that it should not. And, although polling of British Hindus has not been as intensive as that of British Jews, anecdotally the response has been less overwhelming, not least because the Conservatives already accounted for more Hindu votes than the Labour Party in 2017.

There are only a handful of constituencies in which either Hindus or Jews form an electorally significant population. Britain’s Muslims, on the other hand, are the country’s largest minority religion and form a majority in a number of constituencies. Politics within British Islam has played a role in previous votes, notably with the election of George Galloway in opposition to the Iraq War in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, followed by his 2012 success in Bradford West, both constituencies with significant Muslim populations.

In this election, accusations of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party have become a bigger issue than previously. These accusations are often used by Labour supporters as a riposte to Conservative accusations of systemic anti-Semitism in their own party’s ranks, but they are lent weight by one of the leading campaigners for an investigation into Conservative Islamophobia being a former chair of the party, Sayeeda Warsi. Nevertheless, Britain’s Muslims tend to vote Labour already: 85 per cent did so in 2017, compared to only 11 percent for the Conservatives.

As the majority religion in the UK, Christian political opinion tends to be about as diverse as the population. In recent elections, there has been an effort by the Conservative Party, in particular, to court some prominent Pentecostal churches with strong followings among ethnic minorities, which the party often struggles to reach. But the situation is nothing like the US, where Christian denominations are much more politically organized.

In an election as crucial as this — and one in which, despite the polling lead, the Conservatives will be fighting hard to gain a majority — every vote counts. Britain is not yet in the territory of the American culture wars, but religious voices are more important this election season than they once were.

  • Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby

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