How humanist are the three main parties? With the general election fast approaching, Paul Sims has been canvassing
When Britain goes to the polls this spring, where will you be placing your cross? Will you be joining the 40 per cent of Christians who, according to a new poll from the Christian think tank Theos, say they will vote for David Cameron’s Conservative Party? Or will you, like a reported 57 per cent of Muslims, vote Labour in the hope of giving our beleaguered Prime Minister another term in office? While the religious vote hasn’t quite reached the significance it holds in the United States, where elections can be won and lost at the pulpit, the fact that both these figures outstrip the two main parties’ overall share of the polls would suggest that belief plays an important role in determining how people vote.
But what about non-belief? When you step into the polling station, will you be voting as a humanist, having weighed up which party sits most comfortably with your secular, rationalist values? In Observer columnist Nick Cohen’s view, that’s a choice would-be humanist voters would struggle to make. “It’s quite despairing really,” he told me. “There are vast numbers of secularists, but we don’t really have a party to vote for. It’s as if we have no home.” On key issues of concern to humanists, such as faith schools and the response to religious fundamentalism, Cohen sees little to choose between the three main parties. He’s well known for his anger at Labour’s engagement with reactionary Muslim groups like the Muslim Council of Britain at the expense of moderate, left-wing Muslims, but he doesn’t expect that the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats would be much better.
Many secularists feel that they have been abandoned by the Labour Party during its 13 years in power, particularly in its expansion of state-funded faith schools. This is something that has angered veteran education correspondent Francis Beckett, whose 2007 book The Great City Academy Fraud attacked the party’s education reforms. “The careful compromise of the 1944 Education Act between church and state – which gave too much to the church for my taste, but not enough for theirs – has been exploded by New Labour,” he told me. “They have done this by handing control of many more schools to religions and religious foundations.” But would a Conservative government really prove more amenable to secularism? Historically the party of the Anglican establishment, the religious lobby seems to have risen to prominence during the Cameron-led resurgence. A recent profile in the Financial Times suggested the evangelical wing of the party, led by ConservativeHome blogger Tim Montgomerie, has become increasingly influential in the formation of party policy in areas such as family and education (they are credited with the idea of tax breaks for married couples), while Independent columnist Johann Hari has gone further and described evangelicals as “Cameron’s Militant Tendency”, ramping up their influence by exploiting the Tories’ use of open primaries to select new parliamentary candidates. Certainly there will be little to gain from voting Tory if your main concern is faith schools – Cameron has repeatedly stressed his support for them, and religious groups are queuing up to get involved in running their proposed “free schools”, from the Catholic Church to actress Goldie Hawn and her schools based around Buddhist breathing exercises.
Which leaves the Liberal Democrats. Looking at our policies table below, the third party appear appealing to secularists. They say they would ensure any new faith schools would be prevented from selecting pupils on the basis of religious belief, while insisting that existing schools address the discrimination that mars their selection and employment processes. It’s difficult to see exactly how the party would differ from Labour in attempts to tackle extremism, but its stance on issues such as science, an elected House of Lords (which would boot the bishops out) and moral issues such as gay rights and assisted dying will be in tune with that of many humanists. It’s hard, however, not to view this with a degree of scepticism – as the party with no realistic hope of taking of office, perhaps these are promises Liberal Democrats can afford to make.
So with no natural home, how should a humanist approach the ballot? Nick Cohen believes it’s time to stand up and be counted, and make politicians aware of the potential of the non-religious vote. “Politicians think offending secular values is a cost-free option. It’s always good to remind them that there is a price to be paid. Secularists need to look at their individual candidates and raise concerns directly with them.”
This view is shared by Richard Wilson, author of Don’t Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic’s Guide to Life, who became so disillusioned by the intrusion of unreason into politics that he helped set up Skeptical Voter, a website which allows people to check the credentials of individual MPs and candidates on rational issues. Currently in its early stages, it is a wiki to which members of the public can contribute information on politicians’ records in key areas. Wilson stresses the importance of government taking an evidence-based approach to policy making, and the final straw for him was the Home Secretary’s sacking last year of drug adviser Professor David Nutt for his assertion that some illegal drugs like ecstasy and cannabis are less harmful than alcohol and tobacco. “Evidence-based policy,” Wilson says, “is a reality check on ideology creeping into areas that it shouldn’t. You try to get the objective facts first and then base your policy on that, rather than coming in with a predetermined policy and then looking for the evidence.” Key issues on which the founders of Skeptical Voter want to hold MPs to account include alternative medicine, libel reform, the teaching of creationism in schools and the separation of church and state. Wilson says a good litmus test is a 2007 Early Day Motion in support of the provision of homeopathy on the NHS – you can find out on Skeptical Voter whether your MP was one of the 206 who supported it, and if they were you might find yourself seriously questioning their ability to think rationally in other areas.
Just as Cohen feels there is no natural party for humanists, Wilson feels there isn’t one for supporters of evidence-based policy. “There are good MPs in all parties, and there are woo-mongers in all parties,” he says. “We have to look at each case individually. And that was how our system was supposed to work – you vote based on the actual track record of the candidates. The difference is that nowadays with the internet it is actually practical to collate information and look it up.” And he makes a good point about the very idea of voting with the party system, saying, “You could argue that having a tribal loyalty to one particular party is fundamentally irrational and certainly contrary to scepticism. In a sense that’s faith-based politics.”
Wilson admits that the Skeptical Voter project is in its early stages, and he doesn’t claim that sceptics have much hope of influencing the outcome of the general election. But he believes a growing number of people are concerned about the role of rationality and evidence in British politics, and that the more we ask difficult questions, the more likely MPs and candidates are to listen. Nick Cohen agrees. “I think secularists actually represent the majority opinion in this country,” he says. “So ask your candidates what they think. You want politicians in five or ten years’ time, when something dreadful comes up, to say, ‘We’re going to really piss off the secularists if we do this, we’re going to lose a lot of votes.’”
Ten questions for your candidates
If you're planning on looking more closely at the individual candidates in your area, here are ten questions you might like to ask them (Sources: Skeptical Voter, British Humanist Association election manifesto)
- Do you think the government should fund faith schools?
- Should publicly funded faith schools be allowed to discriminate in their admissions and employment?
- Should schools be allowed to teach creationism as an equivalent theory to evolution?
- How would you vote on assisted dying for the terminally ill?
- Should anti-discrimination and equality legislation make religious groups exempt from regulations that other organisations would have to follow?
- Should religious leaders have privileged access to decision makers?
- Would you vote to retain or remove bishops from the House of Lords?
- Do you support the use of public funds to provide unproven alternative “treatments” such as homeopathy?
- Should Sharia law be allowed as an alternative system within UK law?
- Do you support the reform of English and Welsh libel law to allow a stronger ‘public interest’ defence?
What do the parties think?
In the absence of the parties’ manifestos at the time of going to press, we’ve pulled together what we know about their positions on five key humanist issues – education, extremism, science, constitutional reform and moral issues.
Labour: Faith schools now represent a third of all state-funded schools and have thrived under Labour. The first Muslim, Hindu and Sikh state schools have all opened since 1997, while Christian and Jewish schools have continued to grow. New legislation making sex education compulsory in all state schools was controversially amended by Schools Secretary Ed Balls to allow faith schools to include religious views on issues such as contraception and homosexuality. Support for faith schools is likely to continue if Labour win.
Conservatives: David Cameron and Shadow Children’s Secretary Michael Gove have indicated that there will be a major role for religious organisations in the establishment of new Swedish-style “free schools”, where independent organisations will run schools within the state system, in a similar manner to Labour’s academies. Religious groups are queuing up to get involved. Cameron declared himself a supporter of faith schools both “politically and personally”, although Gove has indicated that he would not accept schools that teach creationism.
Liberal Democrats: While the Liberal Democrats would not abolish faith schools or prevent new ones from opening, they are committed to addressing the discrimination practised by faith schools in admissions and employment. Discriminating schools would have their funding withdrawn, while new faith schools would be prevented from selecting pupils on the basis of religious belief. Nick Clegg suggested, in an interview with gay magazine Attitude, that “faith schools should have a requirement to have an anti-homophobic bullying policy”.
Labour: Labour’s response to terrorism and Islamic extremism has been confused. A hardline approach to security has seen liberal values compromised, from promotion of ID cards to acquiescence in “extraordinary rendition”. This has been combined with a softer policy of engagement with those considered vulnerable to radicalisation. Dithering over who to promote as partners in their engagement with Islam has led to the empowerment of self-styled “community leaders” and favour has shifted back and forth between conservative groups like the Muslim Council of Britain (which some argue has an Islamist agenda) and think tank-style bodies such as the Quilliam Foundation.
Conservatives: The Conservatives are promising to “review and consolidate” the government’s counter-terrorism policies. Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling has “serious misgivings” about the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism strategy. On civil liberties, the party was instrumental in the defeat of 42-day detention for terror suspects in 2008, and has pledged to drop plans for ID cards.
Liberal Democrats: The Liberal Democrats have criticised Labour’s Preventing Violent Extremism strategy for alienating Muslims. They promise a “balanced approach to tackling terrorism which means tackling the breeding grounds of terrorism – inequality, extremism and oppression” which they say would see them “reach out to young men in Muslim communities”. The party have criticised anti-terror laws for being draconian, and have long opposed ID cards.
Labour: The government has come under intense criticism from scientists since it announced £600 million of cuts in university and research budgets in December, undermining previous assurances that science budgets would be “ring-fenced”. The government enraged scientists last year with the sacking of chief drug adviser David Nutt, after he stated that some illegal drugs, like ecstasy, were less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco.
Conservatives: Shadow Science Minister Adam Afriyie has stressed the Conservatives’ commitment to science, saying it will play an important role in economic recovery. The party has appointed bagless-vacuum guy James Dyson to head an innovation taskforce. However there are no promises for increases in the budget. On evidence-based policy, the message is mixed – Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling backed the sacking of David Nutt, while Afriyie said that “scientific advisers now need reassurance that they can continue to challenge perceived wisdoms”.
Liberal Democrats: Speaking to the Royal Society in January, leader Nick Clegg pledged his party’s commitment to science research and education, and promised “honesty” on the issue of science funding. However, he didn’t go so far as to say science budgets wouldn’t be cut by a Liberal Democrat government working on cutting the deficit. Both Clegg and Science Spokesman Evan Harris have been outspoken in their condemnation of the sacking of David Nutt, with Harris writing that “we will all suffer if politicians ignore expert advice and policy is evidence-free”.
Labour: Although Labour’s National Policy Forum has voted to make a fully-elected second chamber party policy, which would by definition remove the 26 Church of England bishops from the House of Lords, the government has continued to stall on reform. There have even been suggestions that religious representation should be broadened to include all faiths.
Conservatives: House of Lords reform does not seem to be an urgent issue for the Conservatives. David Cameron has expressed support for a largely elected Lords, but according to the Guardian he views it as a “third-term issue”. Removal of the Bishops under the Tories seems unlikely.
Liberal Democrats: The Liberal Democrats support the introduction of a fully-elected second chamber, which would mean no more bishops in the House of Lords. They are also committed to a written constitition and electoral reform.
Labour: Labour’s reforms have pushed forward gay rights, with the introduction of civil partnerships and legislation banning discrimination. However, it has stopped short of allowing gay marriage, and equality legislation has allowed faith organisations to continue to discriminate in employment practices. On assisted suicide, Gordon Brown has said he would not support a change in the law.
Conservatives: Central to Conservative policy is a focus on the “traditional family”, with tax breaks to be offered to married couples. The party has been at pains to stress the break with its supposed homophobic past, with Cameron speaking out in praise of civil partnerships. The leadership remains opposed to assisted dying and many prospective and serving Conservative MPs are thought to favour cutting the abortion time limit from 24 to 20 weeks.
Liberal Democrats: Nick Clegg has expressed support for same-sex marriage, and said, “Homosexuality is normal, and I wish everyone accepted that.” He would seek to lift the ban on gay men giving blood. Evan Harris, a well-known humanist, has campaigned heavily for a change in the law on assisted dying, although there is not currently a party policy for legislative change.
And what about the other parties?
Greens: There’s plenty about the Green Party that might appeal to humanists, especially in their policy on faith schools. They believe that religious groups should play no role in running state schools, and support the scrapping of the current legal requirement for a daily act of “collective worship” in schools. The Greens are strongly associated with gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, and have a manifesto policy to legalise gay marriage. However, some have accused the party of being anti-science, citing its opposition to nuclear power and animal testing.
UKIP: If you’re not a fan of the EU, taxes or government in general, then there’s a chance you might be considering voting for UKIP. Well, if you feel the need to investigate further you’ll find they are quite keen on faith schools (their North East organiser told a Christian blogger that “the agenda of political correctness should not be shoved down their throats”), would ban immigration for five years, and would repeal the Human Rights Act. Their leader, Lord Pearson of Ranoch, was responsible for inviting far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders to the House of Lords last year.
BNP: Are you seriously reading this paragraph in the hope of discovering whether the British National Party have any humanist credentials? Having scoured the websites of the BNP we’ve found no evidence of policies that would appeal to humanists. Unless of course you want to live in an ethnically cleansed country founded on “Christian values” (the BNP variety), where minority rights have been removed, corporal punishment has returned to the schools and capital punishment has returned to the courts. In which case, are you really a humanist? If you live in an area where the BNP are standing, going out and voting for Anyone Else might just be the humanist thing to do.