Skip to content

Does religion make you a left-wing activist?

Image by fakelvis

Two weeks ago, think tank Demos released a report on the civic activism and political viewpoints of religious people. It is an attempt to use survey data to promote the importance of faith to a progressive and active society.

The first argument the report makes is that members of religious organisations are more connected and more likely to be active in their communities than the non-religious. It’s interesting that Demos felt they needed to prove this, as the relationship has been accepted among scholars of the social sciences since Robert Putnam first wrote about social capital. Any group that fosters sustained interaction within local communities, especially when they are targeted towards a common endeavour, is likely to lead to closer bonds, trust and social networks.

Putnam praised the rise of megachurches in the US for bringing local communities together for a wide variety of pursuits, and Catholic Priest Andrew Greely argued that religious organisations accounted for a large amount of the volunteering, and therefore social capital, in America. The first person to study social capital in the UK, Peter Hall, worried about the decline in religiosity because it might mean people would interact less, and even David Miliband has argued that new types of groups are needed in the UK to supplant the decline in church-going.

This religions-as-organisations finding is the major conclusion of the Demos report, but it also goes further than other studies – it suggests that the reason religious people are more active in their communities and politics is because they hold progressive views. This argument formed the headline when the report was picked up by a handful of media, who focused on the finding ‘Religious people are more likely to be leftwing’ (see the stories in the Guardian and Daily Mail).

The authors use responses to the European Values Study to argue that religious individuals tend to have progressive and not conservative views, and that these are linked to their activism. This is despite admitting that there is a ‘body of research’ arguing activism is all about an individual’s social context and networks and not about beliefs. Their ideological position is made clear when they suggest that the decline in civicness in the UK is down to reductions in religious participation, and claim:

“Many argue that without religion’s ultimate sanction, social mores would break down and amoral chaos would reign.”

There seems to be some selective use of data in order to suggest that it is the progressive values of the religious are holding society together. In fact, the data analysis only finds evidence that religious people are progressive after religious respondents are separated into two types – ‘exclusivists’, who believe there is only one true religion, and ‘pluralists’ who are willing to accept other religions contain some basic truths. In the analysis, only the views of the more progressive and activist pluralists are taken into account. The exclusivists are less engaged in politics, and more conservative, but they are ignored in the headline findings of the report.

Furthermore, many questions which might be thought to measure ‘progressive’ views are ignored in the analysis, and only a few are discussed. We find out what these religious pluralists feel about living next to immigrants, but though the survey asks about living next to other groups, including people of different religions and homosexuals, the analysis does not cover these questions. A majority – 55% – of UK religious respondents described themselves as left-wing, but this is compared with 60% of non-religious respondents. Across Western Europe, the religious were less likely to be left-wing than the non-religious. On whether competition was good or harmful, and on weighing up individual responsibility and state responsibility, there is little difference between the religious and non-religious. However, those surveyed also answered questions about their views towards women’s rights, relationships, homosexuals, morality, the needy in society, and there is even a question attempting to discover whether a respondent is generally conservative or progressive. None of these results are addressed.

This is a partial analysis, at best, and it certainly does not prove that religious people are more progressive activists, just what we already knew – that they are more likely to be engaged in their communities and politics. There have been thoughtful theories of how values and activism are related. For example, Eric Uslaner argues that a core characteristic of activism is optimism, which can be bred from moral values. This pamphlet woefully fails to look at the relationship between religious values and progressive values or activism. It twists survey results to fit its argument, without explaining why this might be the case. It is true that belonging to an organisation, religious or not, fosters activism, but this says nothing about the values or politics of the people involved, and how these might interact with their engagement.


Setting the agenda in local politics

Localism is a popular trend at the moment, but in many ways we’re still learning how to transfer all aspects of power away from the centre. An insightful article by Adrian Bua in Politics journal sets out what I think is a very plausible idea – that a major flaw in local democracy has been the lack of any agenda-setting function.

Attempts at local democracy tend to focus on direct forms of democracy – elections, referenda, citizens’ juries. What they miss is the need for democratic involvement in the setting of what sort of local issues should be discussed, in what areas policy should intervene, and what decisions should be taken.

At a national level, it is understood that the way referendum questions are set is likely to influence the result. Groups wanting to impact on government decision-making often complain of the limitations set by the questions in government consultations. It is often assumed, however, that when engaging community groups and locals, a pre-determined set of issues and questions is needed.

Bua’s paper looks at the Sustainable Communities Act of 2007, which encouraged local councils to engage the public in putting forward and deciding proposals for public policy. Only a few really made an effort to engage locals in the process, but there are some interesting examples cited, and the approach is an interesting one. If we had the power to set the agenda and frame the issues, we would surely have more of an interest in the policy-making process.

The Big Society – New Labour’s achievement?

Image from the
Conservative manifesto

Some good news today on the Big Society for voluntary organisations in need of capital. Although many of David Cameron’s proposals don’t look like they’ll have a big effect, the Big Society bank sounds like a very good thing – using money in dormant bank accounts to capitalise the sector. Seen as part of this government’s wider agenda, it is being argued that the whole Big Society idea is simply a cover for the government’s desire to cut spending. The cuts should be opposed – they will put the continued growth of the voluntary sector at risk. But Cameron seemed quite keen today for us to see community development, not cutting back the state, as his passion.

If we take him on his word, this is an interesting development. Is it not possible, then, that the Big Society will be seen as the success of New Labour’s attempts to promote community and the voluntary sector? Ideologically, Labour’s reinvention in the 1990s involved rejecting socialism and adopting a brand of Communitarianism, including the idea of social capital. My PhD research looks at how social capital (the idea that working together and building relationships leads to individual benefits and further cooperation), was a major inspiration behind New Labour policies on active citizenship and social exclusion.

Now, it seems, the coalition has adopted this Communitarianism and rebranded it. Ed Miliband and Eric Pickles, talking on the World at One today, both agreed that these policies started under Labour. Miliband couldn’t disagree with the rhetoric – David Cameron used ideas of community empowerment, decentralisation and social investment, all very popular with New Labour. Many of the techniques were similar too – the previous government wanted to find better ways of ensuring investment for social enterprises, open up the provision of public services to other organisations, and encourage local activism.

The new government has made some changes so that it can appear to be doing something new. They are scrapping the popular Futurebuilders fund, which supported voluntary organisations with loans and grants, and using the money to pay for the training of community organisers. However, barring initial problems with cash flow, the new Big society bank will provide about the same amount of money. The use of dormant assets in this way wasn’t even their idea, it was originally planned by Gordon Brown, who has prepared the way by getting the necessary legislation through parliament.

This is still the Conservatives, of course, and the voluntary sector is right to be concerned that the new funding might not offset the government’s desire to reduce the state. I’d still contend (along with the main theorist behind social capital) that civil society doesn’t just spring up when the state is reduced. Almost all the successful examples I’ve seen show that resources and government support are needed for the sector to grow.

We’ll have to see how much the state is rolled back, but those in favour of strengthening communities and promoting voluntarism have cause to be optimistic. Labour and the Conservatives will each continue to exaggerate the other’s over-reliance on the state or on the market, but they are often now talking the same language. Rather than dying along with New Labour, the Third Way has become the most popular route.

A post-ideological politics?

   Politics is about conflict,
   not compromise

So, the votes for change were heeded, we now have a ‘new politics’, and we’ve had a new language to match. Cameron said today that differences between the parties have been ‘confronted and resolved’, not hidden. Clegg added that they had a ‘common purpose’, they both agreed that the coalition would act in the ‘national interest’. There’s even talk of changing the adversarial nature of debates in the House of Commons. Everyone is ‘putting party politics aside’; consensus is the word of the day.

It does seems that the election has heralded a more moderate government than a Conservative majority would have done – the income tax threshold will be raised instead of cutting inheritance tax and the £6bn of cuts will go ahead, but some of the money will go into job creation. The modern conservatism that Cameron was trying to get may have been forced upon the party by this coalition – the big steps proposed on civil liberties today, if they come about, point to a less authoritarian government than New Labour. The Tories may finally adopt political liberalism to match the economic liberalism that has dominated their party for the last few decades. A move to the centre, no doubt, but does this mean the new government can really represent all the people – the national interest, the general will?

Go back a bit and in fact the old tribalism between Left and Right seemed to re-appear for a while in response to the debt crisis – with Labour opposing Conservative cuts and even for a while proposing greater investment in public services. Though electoral campaigns inevitably bring about conflict between parties, the rhetoric made way for manifesto pledges that actually varied by very little. They were all broadly agreed on many things, including the localism that was a feature of the campaign. This graph, from the IFS, shows that even on tax and spend, the three main parties’ plans were very close.

Indeed, over the past twenty years, the range of political debate in this country has narrowed a good deal, with conflicts more likely to be about who could be trusted with power or which individuals would be best at managing the economy. Even worse, it is sometimes reduced to personality and appearance. New Labour called themselves a party of the ‘radical centre’. They thought it was possible to put forward a positive agenda for change that included everyone. Sociologists such as Anthony Giddens have argued that politics is now about rational consensus, that we vote as individuals and that the age of ideology is over. But have voters really abandoned their political identities to simply vote in their rational self-interest, or are passion and conflict still part of politics? Many Lib Dem voters thought they were voting for a centre-left alternative to Labour, often to try to keep the Conservatives out of government. Can political disagreements between parties really be overcome by a good personal relationship, a few jokes and a promise to provide stable government?

It seems to me that there are two potential long-term outcomes of this Liberal Conservative government. Firstly, it could become a new ‘radical centre’ based on the ‘progressive partnership’ that Cameron spoke about today, protecting its own electoral destiny and denying the legitimacy of alternative positions. This could lead to the disappearance of the Labour party as a major electoral force. It would mean that those who feel excluded by this supposedly inclusive government, who don’t feel that politics can be reduced to management, may refuse to vote. Apathy will rise, participation will slump, and worse, many may turn to more extreme politics.

The second possibility is that this government simply becomes one of traditional conservativism – either the liberals becoming subsumed into the larger party or the coalition breaking up under pressure from party members, leaving a Conservative minority government, representing its core voters. Despite the optimism and harmony that many feel today, and the positive changes that this government is promising, it may be better in the long term if disagreements are revealed. Political participation and inclusion is best encouraged by appealing to the passions of the people and bringing their partisan positions into the official debates, to be battled out in the open. Politics must be about conflict, it will only turn people off if we try to reduce it to consensus.

Voluntary sector growing

Society is growing, and it’s down to state support rather than a big increase in civic duty.

Data released today shows that the size and number of voluntary organisations is increasing – good news for all of us who want to see a burgeoning civil society. This is good news too for the three main political parties, all of whom seem to want a larger role for the sector, especially in the delivery of public sector services.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ Almanac is based on extensive research, and is worth checking out. It shows that the sector’s workforce is up and organisations have gained financial stability through greater ownership of assets and independent income streams. A large chunk of the increased money coming into the sector is from the government, which has been increasing by around a billion pounds per year over the last few years.

Although the last year of increasing unemployment has meant that volunteering is up, the NCVO’s latest figures from 2008/2009 show that levels of participation have generally stayed steady at around 41% of the population formally volunteering each year. Philanthropy is not increasing, and is not likely to increase this year. The British people haven’t suddenly become gripped by their civic duty; they are not contributing more of their time and their money. The only income stream that has been increasing a good deal each year is that from statutory sources, both grants and public sector contracts.

Civil society is growing, but mainly because of government. This has meant changing the structure of the state to pay other providers and fund effective work that is already being done. Nonetheless, as I mentioned in my discussion of the Conservative manifesto, it also means a relatively large state, with enough resources to support a Big Society. ‘There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state’ might be a good sound bite, but it isn’t entirely true, there is large overlap between the two. Reducing the state is unlikely to increase the size of civil society. 25,000 voluntary organisations are heavily reliant on government income, and today’s figures have already led to warnings that the crucial services delivered by civil society are at risk from public sector cuts.

Creating the Big Society

Image from the
Conservative manifesto

Despite Labour’s odd choice of cover, the Conservative manifesto looked the most unusual this week. It was presented as an invitation to ‘join the government’ – to set up our own schools, to elect local police chiefs, to run the local post office, and to form co-operatives to deliver local public services. An attempt by the Opposition to offer something different without extra spending, perhaps, but it’s not just them. Although each party wants to paint the other as returning to their big or small state roots, there is now a consensus in British politics around the agenda of localism.

Partly, the roots of this lie in Thatcherite individualism and Blair’s ‘choice’ agenda. But New Labour, influenced in the 1990s by Think Tank Demos, also introduced the idea that creating connected communities was the answer to many of the problems of our increasingly individualistic society. Social capital was Blair’s ‘magic ingredient’. Increased funding for community organisations, Local Strategic Partnerships and teaching schoolchildren to be ‘active citizens’ were all meant to empower communities. Let us not forget that inviting co-operatives and social enterprises to run health services, and individuals and businesses to resurrect failing schools as Academies were all Labour policies.

Now thinkers such as Philip Blonde are arguing that such a vision is new and unique to the Tories. At this election, Cameron’s is certainly the most dramatic and ideological version of this idea. There are many problems with localism, from its potentially damaging effects on democracy and equal and universal services to a bias towards certain groups becoming more involved. But the most obvious issue at the moment is its workability: how do you create empowered local communities without greater state intervention or expenditure? Crucially, research suggests that civil society has to be built up over time in order for it to have a positive impact on politics. It is not created simply through reductions in the size of the state, something that Cameron, despite some of the rhetoric, does seem to have realised. He says that ‘collaborative democracy’ and an army of community organisers can march us into a new era of localism. For this to happen, he needs all of us to start volunteering, but what could possibly provoke this kind of change?

Throughout their manifesto and broader campaign, the Conservatives keep repeating one word, responsibility. They have been involved in research into the moral development of character and say they want a ‘cultural change’. Though they don’t go into detail, they even say they’ll use ‘the latest insights from behavioural economics’, whatever that means, to foster participation. If this is what the manifesto has shown to be the intellectual thread running through their policies, we might question the logic. In a time when our respect for politicians has been damaged, are we really likely to listen to such orders from the top?

Indeed, is imposing one set of values on the population ever a good idea? ASBOs and the New Deal have already attempted to enforce certain behaviour, but most people are unlikely to voluntarily respond to Cameron’s invitation unless there is a clear benefit for them. It’s not only about a lack of time (as the Guardian’s Jackie Ashley has argued), which can be bit of an excuse, but about the situation people find themselves in – during the recession, volunteering has increased, but without resources and support these people will stop when they can find jobs.

The Big Society has to exist before you remove the state, and it takes time, money, and recognition to build. If people don’t feel part of communities or engaged with their local area, they will not be encouraged to do so by being given a ‘right to bid’ and run services or a ‘right to buy’ the local pub. What is needed is reform alongside funding. In their manifesto the Tories acknowledge that this means an ‘active role for the state’. We need more of this, and fewer claims that society is broken, to help it grow.

Do donations buy votes?

Not only do the Tories have more money, thanks to Ashcroft and others, their campaign spending also counts for more than Labour’s. But the Lib Dems are getting the best deal…

Images by Gagilas and psd

Update 4 March 2010: Lord Ashcroft’s donations to the Conservatives are legal, but leading Tories are still stating that although he runs a unit in the Conservative central office targeting marginal seats, the money he donates no longer dominates in the way it once did. But how much do donations matter to elections anyway?

Indeed the Tories’ funding is now much more stable. It comes from many different sources, and in the last three months of 2009 they raised double the money that Labour managed (over £10 million to Labour’s £5 million and the Liberal Democrats’ £1 million). Labour have lost much ground in recent years –five years ago they were spending more than the Conservatives on elections, but this year they’ll be lucky to have £10 million to spend whilst David Cameron’s party apparently expect to spend £25 million (with a large chunk of that having to be funnelled through local Conservative associations to avoid going over the legal limit on election expenditure). With questions over whether the potential effects of recent expensive Conservative advertising campaigns have been diminished by parodies and negative press (they certainly haven’t stopped the poll ratings declining), how much do donations matter to electoral success?

On the face of it, it seems that more funding and more votes often go along together. During the 1980s the Conservatives were widely perceived as having access to a lot more money, but Labour seemed to catch up and in the early 2000s were winning elections on the back of more funding than their opponents. The point in early 2006 at which the Conservatives started consistently polling better than Labour is the same period during which they started getting more in donations. They’ve had consistently more money since then, especially during election periods.

If we assume that donations help to win votes, the real winners are the Lib Dems, who have only received 8% of all donations to parties since 2001 but consistently receive more than double that in terms of the popular vote1. However, at least in recent years their largest share of the vote also coincided with a period of much higher donations – the first quarter of 2005. These correlations are interesting, but without any obvious time lapse it is very difficult to establish causality – it is probably more likely that more donations are the result of greater party support.

Political scientists have modelled the relationship to try to gain more insights. They have usually found that extra spending does generally help electoral success, but that it primarily helps the challenging party rather than the incumbents2. The landslide of 1997 is a good example – even though the Conservatives spent £20 million to Labour’s £13 million, provoking Blair to curb election spending and make donations transparent, the novelty of the New Labour brand meant their campaigning dwarfed any advertising budget promoting ‘more of the same’ from the Conservatives.

This time, of course, the tables are turned. The Tories have argued, as every challenger tends to, that the incumbent government’s use of the civil service and government budgets means campaign funding is not a true reflection of expenditure. This could be true, but there is little evidence that it is significant, and of course this money cannot be channelled on such a grand scale into marginal seats or negative campaigning.

If Labour not only have less to spend, but also each of their pounds spent count for less than each Tory pound, their MPs and activists should be worried. There will be a great deal more money being channelled into marginal campaigns by Ashcroft’s unit, and the effects of spending up to now may not yet have been seen. The current downwards trend in Conservative support could easily be turned around, and they stand to gain much from promoting their brand if they can show they are a novel choice.

1: Despite their low funding levels, the Liberal Democrats received 18.3% in the 2001 general election, 22.1% in 2005. In comparison, over the last 9 years Labour and the Conservatives have received 43% and 42% of all donations to political parties, with their poll ratings usually between 30 and 40% – so if campaign spending does buy support, Lib Dem donors get more votes for their money.

2: See the research by Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie here and here, as well as Woojin Moon‘s work.

I’ve used the Electoral Commission’s data on funding and the BBC’s poll tracker throughout this post.