Hard Evidence: will same-sex marriage drive voters to UKIP?

Addressing the faithful. John Stillwell/PA

UKIP has helped to put religion higher up the political agenda than usual in recent weeks – but not for reasons that will have pleased the party leadership. The now former UKIP councillor David Silvester’s suggestion that there was a link between legislation on gay marriage and the current floods caused a great deal of discussion about religious beliefs in politics, as well as spawning the UkipWeather twitter handle. But does religion really matter for party competition in the UK – and does it affect voting behaviour?

Religion (in particular Christian denominations) was the main fault-line underpinning party and electoral alignments in 19th and early-20th century Britain, before being superseded by social class. There were strong traditional associations between denominations and political parties in Britain: Anglicans and the Conservatives, Catholics and Labour, non-conformists (or the “free churches”) and the Liberal Party.

Although scholars commonly argue that traditional social divisions such as religion and class have much less impact on voting behaviour nowadays, the traditional denominational-party alignments have some contemporary relevance. This is despite the country’s overall secularisation.

Evidence from the British Election Study surveys, the best data source on voting decisions at post-war UK general elections, shows Anglicans are still more likely to express a preference for the Conservative Party compared to Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Data on party vote share among Anglicans for the 1959-2010 general elections are shown below.

Social conservatism and the Tories

The traditional association between Anglicanism and the Conservative Party was in part underpinned by the Conservatives’ image as the party of “family values”. This image was burnished by the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s, a period often labelled as one of socially conservative “moral authoritarianism”.

Under David Cameron’s leadership, however, the party has tried hard to modernise its image by becoming more socially liberal in its policies and rhetoric. This was most recently demonstrated by the leadership’s support for same-sex marriage legislation. The Tories’ differences over this may have reinforced an existing socially liberal-versus-socially conservative ideological division within the parliamentary party, and also caused significant disgruntlement in the party grassroots.

Some within the party have argued that the leadership’s support for same-sex marriage amounts to a betrayal of family values. When the debate was in full swing in 2012, it was sometimes suggested that, given the moral or religious convictions as stake, this issue would drive some “True Blues” away from the Conservative Party in the run-up to the 2015 general election. If such vote-switching were to occur, we might think the most likely beneficiary would be UKIP. It has supposedly occupied political ground vacated by the Tory Party under David Cameron, being more staunchly Eurosceptic and hard-line on immigration, and they opposed the same-sex marriage legislation (while supporting the civil partnership legislation).

Given these claims, what is the prospect of UKIP drawing religiously-motivated socially conservative voters away from the Tories and securing its electoral support?

The available polling evidence suggests there is little chance of this happening. Surveys show both parties’ declared supporters have broadly similar compositions in terms of religious belonging; around three-fifths of Conservative and UKIP supporters declare some form of Christian affiliation (predominantly Anglican), with around 30% saying they have no religious identity. This is different for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, whose voters are more likely to have no religious affiliation, or in the case of Labour, to belong to a non-Christian tradition.

While Conservative and UKIP supporters have broadly similar patterns of religious affiliation, opposition to same sex marriage appears higher among UKIP than Conservative supporters, based on data from the January 2013 Westminster Faith Debates survey.

As table three shows, a large proportion of Tory supporters and a majority of UKIP voters were against the policy. The differences between support and opposition are much smaller among Conservatives than UKIP voters.

Still, these voters remain rather different from Labour and Lib Dem voters, of whom only around 25% and 20% took a stance against same-sex marriage. These findings tally with a YouGov survey carried out during 2009 European elections, which included more than 4,000 UKIP supporters. That survey showed opposition to civil partnerships was also higher among UKIP voters than Conservatives. Around 40.6% of UKIP voters compared to 28.9% of Conservatives disagreed with the tested statement: “It is a good thing that gay and lesbian couples are able to enter into ‘civil partnership’ and have rights similar to married couples.”

The long-term survey evidence – from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys – on opinion towards same-sex marriage shows that support has increased substantially in the past 25 years among supporters of all parties.

But some groups have become liberalised much more than others, so that the variation in opinion is much wider in 2012. For example, the BSA survey shows 48.2% of Conservative supporters agree that gay and lesbian couples should be able to marry, compared to 58.5% of Labour and 74.9% of Lib Dem supporters. In 1989, agreement with this proposition was considerably lower with much less variation evident between party groups (support was highest at 16.9% for Labour supporters).

The limited polling that has probed prospective voting behaviour in relation to same-sex marriage indicates the issue is likely to make little impact on the 2015 general election.

A ComRes CPanel survey of practising Christians from various denominations conducted in June 2012, found that, when asked if the government’s intentions on same-sex marriage made them more or less likely to vote for UKIP, 14% said “more likely” – which was cancelled out by 14% responding “less likely” among all survey respondents. Around half (51%) said it would make no difference as they would not vote for UKIP anyway, and just 4% said it would make no difference for the opposite reason.

It is worth recalling that moral issues generally seem to have little traction at British general elections. It is principally the “bread-and-butter” issues –- in relation to their personal circumstances and the state of the country as a whole – that tend to resonate with voters. And the vote share of Anglicans obtained by UKIP at the 2010 general election was just 2.1%, compared to the roughly 50% who voted for the Conservative Party.

Still, it seems UKIP’s opposition to gay marriage chimes with a majority of its supporters and with many Conservatives. Even if most UKIP voters don’t think the weather will change as a result of the same-sex marriage legislation, many of them clearly disagree with Cameron on it, as on many other things. But the likelihood of UKIP gaining more supporters from Conservatives specifically because of the Tories’ apparent liberalisation on this issue seems small.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.