Recess and Religion
by Dr Ben Kirby, Consultant

MPs are back at their desks following a six week recess. Brexit negotiations are not all they have to worry about on their return: the summer months have seen two major controversies dominate political coverage, both concerning discrimination against religious and ethnic minority groups.

The first has seen allegations of a culture of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party resurface. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has himself come directly under fire from those both inside and outside the party for his handling of the furore, as well as for his own past remarks and public appearances. ComRes research paints a divided picture of public opinion: a third of British adults (34%) agree that the Labour Party has a serious anti-Semitism problem, with a quarter saying they disagree (23%), and over two in five saying they don’t know (43%).

The second dispute has involved allegations of a culture of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party, in this case centring on former Foreign Secretary (and perennial leadership contender) Boris Johnson and his recent comments about Muslim women wearing the burqa. ComRes research shows that British adults are starkly divided on this issue: 40% say that Boris Johnson should be disciplined for his controversial remarks, and 53% say he should not be.

Particularly striking are the differences of perspective across age groups when it comes to these issues. In relation to the Conservative Party controversy, 18-24 year olds are three times more likely than those aged 65+ to say that that Johnson should be disciplined for his comments (62% vs. 19%). In contrast, British adults aged 65+ are over twice as likely as 18-24 year olds to agree that the Labour Party has a serious anti-Semitism problem (54% vs. 23%), with half of 18-24 year olds (51%) answering that they don’t know.

These disparities can be attributed to numerous factors, including patterns of political allegiance across different age groups, proximity to and awareness of the events surrounding the Second World War, and shifting attitudes towards free speech and immigration.

One factor that is considerably less significant here (and perhaps surprisingly so) is that of religious identity itself. A familiar narrative is that British people are becoming increasingly less religious with every generation. However, figures released this week from the 2018 British Social Attitudes survey suggest that religious affiliation has dropped across age groups since 2002: for example, while 70% of 18-24 year olds say they have no religion (up 14 percentage points), it is notable that 34% of those aged 65+ now say the same (up 16 percentage points). Furthermore, ComRes research shows that older British adults are actually just as likely as younger British adults to say that religion is not important to them (18-34 71%, 35-54 74%, 55+ 71%).

Whether or not religion is important to a majority of British people individually, what these controversies demonstrate is that religious identity carries a remarkable potency at a turbulent political moment. In the lead up to what promises to be a lively party conference season, these debates arguably have just as much capacity to influence leadership struggles as those surrounding Brexit strategy.