It’s time for Labour to be nicer to Catholics, says Kevin Meagher

Forget Ann Widdecombe. Or any of the other establishment talking heads rolled out to speak for the Church of Rome for that matter. Most Catholics in Britain are like me: working-class, from the North and ethnically Irish. And most vote Labour.  

But relations between Catholics and some on the left have traditionally rested on a delicate modus vivendi. We walk in tandem on economic and social justice. We both abhor war and starvation. We even have similar things to say on the environment (although the Vatican, understandably, stops well short of ‘Earth worship’ greenery). And we both have a penchant for moral absolutism. 

But we go our separate ways on abortion, birth control, gay rights, euthanasia and the ‘importance’ of marriage. And there it lies. Like Cyprus or Korea we have a demarcation line that is simply irreducible. The iron doctrinal differences on either side are simply not bridgeable.  

So, wisely, we try and avoid confrontation that will dredge up the full extent of our differences and instead focus on the significant areas where we do agree. But it’s not easy. Our time in office saw one flashpoint after another. Sometimes on big issues: Abortion adverts on television; the Mental Capacity Bill; euthanasia; faith schools; human embryology legislation and gay adoption. But sometimes on smaller issues too, like the British Secular Society’s splenetic call for hospital chaplains to be cut – which, sadly, saw no health minister take to the airwaves to denounce such mean-spirited nonsense.#

We have to be realistic: There will always be disagreements between Catholics and secular socialists. There always have been; but we Catholics have often been willing to see the bigger picture. And it’s a good job we do. What the irreligious bear-baiters on the left usually fail to understand is the sheer scale of Catholic devotion to Labour.  

Let’s put it this way: if the rest of the electorate voted Labour in the same proportions that Catholics do, we would have walked it in May. Ipsos-MORI research from 1992 onwards shows large Catholic leads for Labour compared to the Conservatives. This peaked at a staggering 60% to 19% gap in 2001. Researchers from the British Religion in Numbers (BRIN) project at Manchester University reckon there was still a significant lead by 2010: “The Labour share of the vote…stood at 43% for Catholics, compared with 30% for the electorate as a whole. Conservative figures were 24% and 36% respectively, and for the Liberal Democrats 24% and 23%.” 

But it is in political attitudes where Catholic support for Labour shines through. As Ipsos MORI found: While fewer than a quarter (22 per cent) of the public generally describe themselves as “Old Labour”, over a third (34 per cent) of Catholics say that term best describes their political view. Quite simply, Labour would never have won three election victories without its rock-solid Catholic support. 

For Catholics, there is a natural inclination to the political left. Justification by action is a cornerstone of our faith. The Gospel and the practical expression of it, are, to many of us, indissoluble. We do unto other as we would have them do unto us. I am my brother’s keeper. We are just a bit sick of turning the other cheek. 

So our new leader needs to better understand Labour’s Catholic tribe. Of our five leadership contenders only one, Andy Burnham, is Catholic. Ed Balls and Diane Abbott have Christian backgrounds, while the Milibands are from honourable atheist stock. But questioned recently by the New Statesman about ‘what God means to you?’ Ed Miliband replied: “something that some people believe in, and I don’t”. Slightly less gracious than his brother who said God was “something that gives other people enormous strength.” Ever the diplomat. 

The electoral consequences for Labour in antagonising Catholics should be obvious. But the habit has crept in regardless. Take London Labour MEP, Mary Honeyball. Two years ago she seriously asked the question: “Should devout Catholics such as [Ruth] Kelly, [Des] Browne and [Paul] Murphy be allowed on the government front bench in the light of their predilection to favour the Pope’s word above the government’s?” 

I know Labour-supporting Catholics in London who found it impossible to vote in the last European elections because of her frequent, Cromwellian utterances. Her diatribes against Catholics should have seen the party leadership intervene and remove her as a candidate. It is examples like this that give ground to the view that anti-Catholic bigotry is the new anti-semitism of the left. 

As we seek to rebuild after the election defeat, it is worth pondering what damage these accumulated spats, niggles and snide remarks have made and whether it is time to take Britain’s five million Catholics a bit more seriously. 

We have paid lip-service to legitimate Catholic grievances for too long. In office we should have moved with more enthusiasm to address the age-old discrimination built into the Act of Settlement; instead, all we got was a watery promise to “review” it. This is an Act that proclaims no-one may be monarch who “professes the popish religion, or marries a papist”. Replace ‘popish’ and ‘papist’ with ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’. Would such legislation, regardless of how esoteric it may appear, be left on the statute book?  

Yet we Catholics plough on. Doubtless it will be Catholic charities that are on the frontline of opposing the coalition’s arbitrary cuts. Just as we provided the backbone for the Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns. We speak up for asylum seekers when no-one else will. Our aid agency, Cafod, is at the forefront of helping flood victims in Pakistan. And I will bet hard cash there are not many branches of Unite Against Fascism or the Stop the War coalition that do not have a local priest and some of his congregation involved.  

You only have to read ‘The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching’ to see that. This paper, launched before the 1997 election, was a coded “Vote Labour” with its strong emphasis on social and economic justice.  

So my message to the secular jihadists within Labour is that the party must remain – ironically for them – a broad church. There must be room for people in the pews who may hold strongly differing views on moral issues. We must relearn the art of agreeing to disagree. We each have to clench our teeth, paint on a smile and be polite to each other. The alternative: the continued and deliberate alienation of Catholics – will leave Labour with a great big hole in its electoral bucket. My appeal to so-called rationalists in the party is simple: be rational about how we win elections.  

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both failed to reinforce this simple home truth. It is up to the next Labour leader to make sure that they work to maintain this delicate equilibrium, which has served us so well for the past century. 

Otherwise it may well require divine intervention for us to win another general election.

Kevin Meagher was special adviser to the Labour secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

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4 Responses to “It’s time for Labour to be nicer to Catholics, says Kevin Meagher”

  1. Sparky says:

    And who do you demand Labour throw under the bus to secure the Catholic vote?

    You brush over those “differences” very casually – while forgetting that the Catholic church is fighting vehemently against the human rights of GBLT people like myself, to say nothing of women’s rights.

    You forget that a great deal of the “antaogism” towards the church – both Catholic and Anglican – has flared up over some highly bigoted practices. You brush over this very casually.

  2. AmberStar says:

    Yes, we should have Andy Burnham as leader. He’s the best man for the job. That he’s a Catholic would be a ‘bonus’ – sorry, I can’t think of a more elegant way to put it. 😎

  3. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Sure, there’s no need to show massive hostility to Catholics – although you haven’t shown much evidence for it aside from one former MEP and the failure of ministers to rebut one fringe statement that even the British Secular Society can’t have thought would have been taken seriously. The fact that the Miliband aren’t religious is not an insult to Catholics.

    That said, Catholics won’t get their way on abortion or gay rights or stem cells or other similar issues. Those are red lines for most of the rest of the party. The current situation, whereby many Catholics vote Labour despite disagreeing on these issues, will have to continue.

  4. Treats says:

    Must take issue with your assertion that most Catholics are working-class, from the North, ethnically Irish and vote Labour.

    I am not even sure any of traits is individually in the majority never mind all of them together (says I as a middle-class Tory from the West Midlands who might be half Irish but wouldn’t class myself as ethnically Irish).

    But then again you must be literally mad to be Catholic and vote Labour. Hardly surprising.

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