As turnouts at elections fall, the influence of strongly motivated minorities rises. I'd guess it's the case that a majority of the population doesn't want religious interference in public life. But an advantage in numbers doesn't count for much if secularism is weak and the passions of the religious are strong. In these circumstances, the clever democratic politician understands that the smart move is to stick with the minority. He knows that the religious will vote and are more than willing to switch party if they are not given what they demand. Many in the apparently powerful majority won't be too upset, or even notice if their views are ignored. This is the electoral logic behind New Labour's plan to ban the incitement of religious hatred. It's also what is known in the jargon of American politics as 'a wedge issue' that keeps voters you think should be yours away from rival parties. George W Bush used the proposed constitutional ban of gay marriage to keep working-class religious conservatives from switching to Kerry. The Democrats were snookered because they couldn't say that they were against homosexual equality without alienating voters who were already in the bag. In the Bush manner, Tony Blair is using religious hatred to tie down the Muslim vote, which was giving every indication of preparing to rush away from the party after the Iraq war.

As most were likely to switch to the Liberal Democrats, their leadership deserves great credit for refusing to abandon liberal principles. The compromise its leaders suggested of clarifying the existing incitement to racial hatred law to cover the use of anti-religious language as racism by proxy – attacks on 'Muslims' as a surrogate for attacks on 'Pakis', for instance – was unobjectionable, covered all reasonable Muslim grievance and may well have had a benign effect on race relations. But New Labour voted it down because it wants its wedge and wants to be able to cast its rivals as Islamophobes.

If the leaders of British Islam are dumb enough to fall for this transparent trick, and it seems that they are, then they're not fit to lead those they purport to represent.

The Tories deserve credit, too, for they must be hoping that one day Asian small-business people will follow their class interests and turn to them. Nonetheless, in their reply to New Humanist, they had the courage to put calculation to one side and say that: "A person's religion is a matter of choice or conscience, whereas race is not a matter of choice." Their statement has the virtues of being succinct, well put and true.

On faith schools, only the Greens are ready to declare for a separation of church and state. Among the major parties abolition of faith schools is inconceivable because they are too popular. Humanists should not be downcast. In most instances their popularity has nothing to do with the religious education they offer and everything to do with the selective education they offer. To get a place for their child, parents have to work hard. And any educationalist will tell you that a school with engaged parents can count on well-behaved and high-achieving pupils.

But the manner of the work that parents have to put in may well rebound on the religions. Instead of selecting children on their ability, they select on their ability of parents to lie to vicars. They must go to church and pray to a god they don't believe in, and flatter and deceive priests they don't respect. If the anger at the toddlers' group I take my son to at the humiliations parents must endure for the sake of finding a half-decent school is typical, then the next wave of militant anti-clericalism in Britain will be led by soccer moms.

You can study for yourself the subtle differences between the parties on living wills. I would just inject a note of caution about allowing euthanasia to become a shibboleth for secularists. Although it is opposed by the religions for irrational reasons, not all their arguments are irrational. It's a complicated and technical debate and it would be a tactical error if secularism were to become a cult of death in the public mind, and a humanist a man who wants to chivvy doctors into bumping off his mother so he can pocket her savings and flog off her house. There are enough good causes to fight for.

At the risk of sounding bombastic, I want to say that there are two parties about which there can be no shilly-shallying. The first is the BNP, which is simply an old neo-Nazi movement with a PR makeover. The second is Respect, an alliance between the intellectually exhausted Marxist-Leninists of the Socialist Workers Party and Islamic fundamentalists, which has come together under the leadership of George Galloway, a charismatic huckster who praised Saddam Hussein for his "courage, strength and indefatigability".

Not voting for these variants of totalitarianism will be more of a pleasure than a duty, and is one of the few reasons to look forward to the election.

For what it's worth, I'm voting Labour, in part because of its role in the downfall of the Taliban, in part as a protest against the failure of the opponents of the war against Iraq to show the smallest sign of solidarity with the victims of Saddam's murderous regime, and in part because if I didn't vote Labour all my ancestors would rise from their graves, and I'd just have to bury them again, as Groucho Marx said.

But I am compelled to admit that if you want to be a rigorous humanist you would have to vote Lib Dem. Or Green. Or Tory. I never thought I'd write that last sentence. - NC

Party positions on some key issues for humanists

Conservative Party

Michael Howard's Conservatives enter the general election hustings with a programme of tough justice policies aimed particularly at voters worried about crime and immigration.

The Tories have no policies intended to appeal directly to humanists and secularists. The fact that they don't could indicate that, like other parties, they have failed to grasp the existence of humanists as a significant political demographic – or it could mean that they believe humanists to be more interested in topics of general debate than in special-interest issues.

Asked about their position on the incitement to religious hatred law, the Conservatives' election team responded that the party believes the issue was "not a matter for legislation" and that "the danger is that legislation of this nature will curb the freedom of speech, without any benefit being realised." Stating that "religion and race must not be put in the same category", they warned that "the legislation would apply to devil worshippers and sects, about which people may have legitimate concerns."

The Conservatives profess to "recognise and appreciate the values, achievements and popularity of faith schools" and "intend to protect and enhance those which already exist in our country and would be happy to see their numbers grow". This will put them at odds with more trenchant secularists, who view religious schooling as a divisive form of education and do not want to see state support for it.

As a safeguard against total segregation, the Conservatives propose to fund places in faith schools "which undertake to deliver the National Curriculum, accept inspection by OFSTED and set admissions policies which permit entry of at least a minimum proportion of their intake from people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds." What happens to those schools which decline government funding for pupils of other faiths is not spelled out.

Like most other parties, the Conservatives are cautious when it comes to speaking out in favour of abortion rights or assisted suicide and leave it up to individual MPs to decide how they vote. However, Michael Howard has expressed his personal support for stem cell research as a way forward in the battle to overcome crippling disease, saying: "We must look at their potential in a responsible and grown up way. The hopes of millions of people rest on what could be achieved."

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Green party

The Green Party is fielding candidates in only 114 constituencies, but hopes to gain its first seat in the Commons this year. Its sister party, the Scottish Green Party, is currently planning to put 18 candidates forward for election.

Not being one of the established parties, the Greens have less to lose than their larger rivals and can consequently afford to be more outspoken on various issues. Among the policies likely to appeal to humanists are the Greens' commitment to "phase out or secularise" faith schools and their support for non-denominational alternatives.

At the same time the party would want to continue to "provide education about other cultures and religions in order to help children to understand the way other people live and to respect those people's rights and lifestyle choices".

The Green Party has no firm stance on voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill, but it does back "NHS funding for patients' preferred treatment, whether it be within the conventional framework of treating an illness and/or utilising alternative therapies".

The Green Party states that it is "opposed to mature animal stem cell research and embryonic animal stem cell research". It also believes that "an immediate international ban should be placed on all cloning and genetic manipulation of embryos, whether for research, therapeutic or reproductive purposes," but does support "strictly regulated research on mature human stem cells, including their possible therapeutic use".

While acknowledging that "it is entirely understandable that many wish to see [the number of abortions] significantly reduced," the Green Party says it supports a "multi-policy strategy" made up of better and compulsory sex education, "adequate financial and social support for parents, particularly lone parents", and increased provision of free family planning advice and free contraceptives.

The party does not support any change to the current laws on abortions which would aim to make it more difficult for women to obtain them.

Finally, the Green Party believes that "the legal offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel should be abolished".

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Labour Party

As the ruling party, Labour has provoked the ire of secularists over the past year with its attempt to institute a new law of incitement to religious hatred – a law seen by many as giving religious organisations special protection from criticism.

Labour justifies this move by saying that the law would "close the unacceptable loophole that mono-ethnic faith groups are protected from incited hatred whereas multi-ethnic faith groups (such as Muslims, Christians) are not", without considering the possibility that no group should be entitled to special privileges on the basis of its faith alone.

Whether or not the law will limit the freedom of speech of atheists and secularists to publicly criticise religion remains to be seen, though Labour argues that "it will not interfere with legitimate debate".

On faith schools, the appointment of Ruth Kelly, a member of the secretive Catholic group Opus Dei, as Education Secretary raised eyebrows, but she has consistently denied that her faith will affect her role in government. Nevertheless, Labour has sought to increase the number of faith schools and hand the running of so-called City Academies over to private investors including the millionaire evangelical Christian Peter Vardy, whose schools in Gateshead and Middlesborough have made the teaching of Creationism part of biology lessons.

Labour sees the issue of faith schools as one of choice, stressing that "they play a very important part in our education system and are popular with parents" and will be supported "where there is demand".

To balance the record, under Labour (after much lobbying from the British Humanist Association) the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has developed the first national framework for religious education to explicitly recommend teaching about non-religious beliefs in schools.

The Labour government has taken tentative steps towards giving terminally-ill patients the right to refuse further treatment by introducing limited 'living wills'. These allow patients to specify what – if any – treatment they would accept if they became incapacitated. On assisted suicide however "there are no plans to change the law", according to Labour's election team.

On the issue of stem cell research Labour points to the strict scheme of regulated research put in place over the last few years, which has attracted scientists from the US – where such research is largely prohibited – to the UK. Labour asserts that it believes "all types of stem cell research, including therapeutic cloning, should be encouraged," and that it would be "indefensible to stop this research and deny millions of people and their families the chance of new treatments which could save their lives".

To this end a UK stem cell bank was created in 2002, responsible for "storing, characterising and supplying ethically approved, quality-controlled stem cell lines for research and treatment".

Labour does not have a party line on abortion and allows its MPs and peers to vote according to their own conscience, though the election team stresses that there are currently "no plans to change the law on abortion".

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Liberal Democrats

For so long the third party in the realm, the Lib Dems are hoping to capitalise on the apathy of Labour and Conservative voters at this general election and make a giant step towards establishing themselves as a voice that cannot be ignored.

Given that one of the most actively secular politicians, Evan Harris (MP for Oxford West & Abingdon), is a Lib Dem, the party stands a strong chance of winning favour with humanist voters.

Harris has taken the lead in opposing Labour's incitement to religious hatred law, securing a number of amendments to the bill. However, a cross-party bid to replace the proposed law with one that would "extend the existing law on racial hatred to cover the use of religious language when it is a pretext for incitement of racial hatred" failed early this year.

The Lib Dems were the only party to warn that a law against incitement to religious hatred could have a chilling effect and increase pressure to self-censor or not to publish – a key issue in view of the Bezhti and Jerry Springer fiascos.

The Lib Dems say they would abolish the existing blasphemy law because it is discriminatory, outdated, incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and "unnecessary on taste grounds given the existence of more modern advertising and broadcast standards".

On faith schools the party says it would seek to "ensure that faith schools reflect the diversity of their local community by operating a fair admissions policy and teaching the National Curriculum". While recognising "the popularity and the success of many church schools", the Lib Dems say they "question the rationale behind an expansion of faith schools if they are to become more exclusive". To combat this exclusivity they want faith schools to have "an open admissions policy to pupils of all faiths, so that no child is excluded on the grounds of religious belief". The party would not support moves to remove state funding from faith schools, as Charles Kennedy has said on numerous occasions.

The Liberal Democrat position on assisted suicide is distinct from that of most other parties: it supports the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia. In response to our questionnaire the election team stated that: "In cases of terminal illness or severe, incurable and progressive physical illness, where patients are without hope of recovery, medical doctors should legally be able to provide competent adults with assistance to die if they have expressed the wish to do so, within securely defined circumstances." The Lib Dems also support the development of stem cell research.

Lib Dem MPs are allowed a free vote on abortion issues, though the party does believe in better support and information for women who are considering having a termination, better sex education for young people and wider availability of contraception.

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Respect, the party that has emerged from the Stop the War Coalition and whose figurehead is the former Labour MP George Galloway, failed to respond to our requests for information on their policies. Information on the party can be found at