The UK Labour Party and faith communities

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The UK Labour Party and faith communities

Polls suggest the Labour Party may win the 2024 UK election. But what is the party’s relationship like with different faith communities?

Traditionally in the UK, the relationship between political parties and faith communities has been difficult to balance. Faith communities still have strong affiliations with different political parties and vote accordingly in the present day. Research conducted by YouGov in June 2017 showed that an overwhelming majority of Muslims (85%), 42% of Catholics, and 26% of Jews voted for the UK Labour Party.[1]

2024 is an election year in the UK with polls suggesting that the Labour Party (henceforth referred to as Labour) may win a landslide victory.[2] However, nearly seven years after the YouGov poll, the voting landscape looks very different. Following the antisemitism scandal under former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the relationship between Labour and many Jewish voters was critically damaged if not completely severed.

Moreover, leader Keir Starmer’s handling of the Israel-Gaza war has significantly altered Labour’s connection with its once dependable support from British Muslims.[3] This article will reflect on Labour’s relationship with faith communities past and present. It will also look ahead at how faith communities may vote in this year’s election.

The relationship between Labour and British Catholics

In the early 20th century, Labour emerged as a political force representing the interests of the working class and in opposition to traditional conservative values. Concurrently, there is a history of the Church of England and the British state persecuting Catholics and nonconformists. As a result, they instinctively supported left-wing parties such as Labour. Many British Catholics are also derived from Irish immigrants who were trade unionists and hence have a stronger affinity with Labour.[4]

In fact, this relationship has been of great importance in ensuring electoral success in the past, particularly in the 2005 elections. The support of Catholic voters gave the then Prime Minister Tony Blair the edge in Labour’s narrow defeat of the Conservatives.[5] However, in recent decades, ‘culture wars’ and shifts in societal views on topics like abortion and LGBTQ+ rights have led some British Catholics to feel that their traditional values clash with the liberal policies of Labour.[6] This and other issues have led to a shift in British Catholics’ affiliation with Labour: in the 1980s, Catholic support for Labour was around 13 points higher than the wider electorate but, by 2019, Catholics were no more likely to vote Labour than non-Catholics.[7]

The relationship between Labour and British Jews

Typically, immigrant-origin ethnic minority groups in Britain have overwhelmingly supported Labour. This includes Jewish communities who traditionally supported Labour, especially in the early to mid-20th century. Some of the reasons included shared values of social justice, workers’ rights, and opposition to discrimination.[8] Moreover, during the 1970s, 75% of first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants were heavily concentrated in urban areas where Labour was strong, such as East London, Manchester, Leeds, and Glasgow.[9]

However, over the past few decades, Jewish support for Labour has weakened. One explanation is that the social and economic advancement of British Jews means they now hold demographic characteristics typically associated with the Conservative party.[10]

Yet, the largest contributor to the weakening of Jewish support was allegations of antisemitism within the party under former leader Jeremy Corbyn. During Corbyn’s leadership (2015-2020), Labour faced numerous accusations of antisemitism within its ranks. The party was criticised for its handling of allegations and Corbyn’s past comments on Israel further exacerbated tensions.[11] Several Labour members resigned from the party in protest and the antisemitism crisis had implications for the party; in the 2019 general election, 93% of British Jews said they would not vote for Labour.[12]

The relationship between the Labour Party and British Muslims

The support for Labour by immigrant-origin ethnic minority groups also includes British Muslims. British Muslims “experience the greatest economic disadvantages of any group in UK society”[13] and therefore the social-economic positions of many British Muslims politically align them most clearly to Labour. In the past three elections, the majority of British Muslims have voted for Labour: 85% in 2017, 86% in 2019, and 77% in 2021.[14] [15]

However, similarly to the antisemitism allegations, in recent years Labour has been at the centre of a discussion on Islamophobia. A 2020 report highlighted that anti-Muslim sentiment remains ingrained in Labour with 29% of Muslim members and supporters experiencing Islamophobia in the party. Furthermore, 44% did not believe the party took the issue seriously.[16] Following this, there have been increasing calls for an independent review of Islamophobia in the party. However, this seems unlikely to happen.[17]

The relationship between British Muslims and Labour has experienced a severe weakening in light of current events. Following the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel on 7th October 2023, Starmer adopted a strong position in support of Israel’s right to defend itself, claiming Israel had the “right” to cut off water, electricity, and aid to Gaza and resisted calls from many in his party to demand a ceasefire by Israel in Gaza.[18] [19] This has understandably infuriated many British Muslims who feel the party is showing a lack of “sympathy for the plight of Palestinians.”[20] Surveys show that almost all Muslims (98%) have a negative view of how Labour has responded to the war. Moreover, responses show a large drop in potential Labour votes by Muslims, from 71% to just 5%.[21]

Will Labour win the votes of faith communities in the 2024 election?

It is clear that Labour’s relationships with different UK faith communities have deteriorated over time. Events in the past five or so years have led to a weakening of trust and support of British Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. Labour’s stance on Israel and Palestine has impacted both the Jewish and Muslim vote. Arguably, Starmer’s pledge to stamp out antisemitism in the party[22] is related to his defence of Israel’s actions in Gaza.[23] It remains to be seen if this position has won back some British Jewish voters.[24]

What is clear though is that Starmer’s position has had a detrimental impact on British Muslim voters. As journalist Tom Harris describes, “It could be argued that, in the 21st century, British Muslims are as important a stakeholder in Labour as the miners were in previous generations.” The fact that just 5% of British Muslims consider voting for Labour in 2024 is damning. Furthermore, voter registration and turnout from within British Muslim communities have been historically low. As such, British Muslims remain under-represented within UK politics and there is a fear that in the next election, their voices will not be reflected at all.[25] It remains to be seen how faith communities will vote but one thing is clear – Labour is going to have to put in a lot of work to win back voters.

Martha Scott-Cracknell

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[1] How faith communities vote in UK elections | Religion Media Centre

[2] Mega-poll predicts disaster for Tories – but reality could be even worse | Conservatives | The Guardian

[3] Labour and Conservatives losing the Muslim vote

[4] How Labour can win back their lost Catholic voters

[5] The Catholic Vote In Britain Helped Carry Blair To Victory | Ipsos

[6] Britain’s changing religious vote: why Catholics are leaving Labour and Conservatives are hoovering up Christian support

[7] Britain’s changing religious vote: why Catholics are leaving Labour and Conservatives are hoovering up Christian support

[8] Political realignment of British Jews: Testing competing explanations – ScienceDirect

[9] Political realignment of British Jews: Testing competing explanations – ScienceDirect

[10] Political realignment of British Jews: Testing competing explanations – ScienceDirect

[11] Labour Party Conference 2015: Controversy over Corbyn’s LFI reception speech: fails to mention Israel

[12] Polls: Despite mixed opinions on Brexit, 93% of UK Jews won’t vote for Labour | The Times of Israel

[13]The Social Mobility Challenges Faced by Young Muslims – GOV.UK

[14] British Muslims retain strong link to Labour, but leadership ratings lag those of the party. | Survation

[15] How faith communities vote in UK elections | Religion Media Centre

[16] Labour urged to tackle Islamophobia within party by new report – LabourList

[17] The Labour Party Is Ignoring Britain’s Muslims. A Judge-Led Inquiry Won’t Change That.

[18] Labour is riven with religious divisions

[19] Labour and Conservatives losing the Muslim vote

[20] Labour and Conservatives losing the Muslim vote

[21] Labour and Conservatives losing the Muslim vote

[22] Jewish leaders praise Keir Starmer for pledges on Labour antisemitism

[23] Keir Starmer warns of rising antisemitism and vows never to let it take hold in Labour again | The Independent

[24] Jews might play a key role in this year’s inevitable election – The Jewish Chronicle

[25] 2024 General Election | Muslim Council of Britain