Faith groups want more say in secular Britain. Labour should tell them to go to hell

An organisation called “The Muslim Vote” has invited Labour to satisfy 18 “demands” if the party wants to win back UK Muslim support it has lost over the war in Gaza. “There’s more,” it tweets, “but that’ll do for starters.”

Already, however, Labour is evidently expected to do more to woo this body, which includes the Muslim Association of Britain, than correct its initial response to Gaza and adopt a more hostile stance towards Israel. TMV’s list of demands doubles as its guidelines for a better world, with some proposals uncontroversial: “deliver alternative student finance”; “ensure insurance quotes don’t cost more for someone called ‘Muhammad’ ”; “increase council and public health funding for the 10% most deprived areas”.

But a better Britain for the authors of this list is also, clearly, a more overtly religious one. For any party to fulfil TMV’s faith demands would be to generate immediate concern within what is yet formally to organise as “the Secular Vote”: a significant UK community that welcomes any growing separation of religion from public life, and devoutly hopes for a complete rupture, featuring an end to compulsory worship in schools, to faith schools, to appointed clerics in the House of Lords, to daily prayers in the Commons, even to – impossible dream – the last ghastly homily on the BBC’s Thought for the Day. Had it not been for Mr Bates, it seems a certainty that the C of E’s favourite CEO, the Rev Paula Vennells, would be regularly explaining God to Radio 4 listeners.

Even allowing for a surge of conversions following the transmogrification of Russell Brand, who has miraculously found himself purified by filthy water, secular goals do not seem out of step with the trajectory of British religious belief. A 2023 Kings College survey placed the UK, globally, in the bottom five countries where people see themselves as religious. TMV, to judge by some of its demands, wishes to move in the opposite direction.

Demand six is “Issue guidance that Muslims are allowed to pray at school”. This effectively defies the recent court judgment in the case of the strictly secular, “outstanding” Michaela school, which affirmed, following a student’s legal challenge, the right of all state-funded, non-religious schools to decide whether or not to accommodate children who want to pray (separately from the still compulsory act of collective worship).

The court heard that the Muslim student’s demand to be allowed to pray at lunchtimes had led, as others joined her in the Michaela playground, to conflict and intimidation in a school that attributes its success in large part to “minimising the distinctions and divisions between the children”.

Since the Michaela judgment, which distinguishes between the absolute right to freedom of religion and the qualified one to manifest it, does not appear to have undermined interest in the school from Muslim parents (including, so far as we know, those of the protesting child), any political party considering the TMV demand for prayers, frequency unspecified, might reasonably conclude that legislating an end to religious rituals in non-religious state schools might be a simpler and ultimately more harmonious alternative. There is existing majority support, figures indicate, for non-enforcement of the law on collective worship.

Last on its list of demands, TMV enjoins Labour to “remove the archaic ‘spiritual influence’ offence from statute”. In fact the wording of this statute, originally a deterrent to coercive 19th-century clergy, was clarified only two years ago to distinguish religious “influence” from improper “pressure”. Archaic or not, the offence of putting voters under undue religious pressure to vote in a certain direction has been alleged well within living memory: in 2017, the Lib Dems alerted police to a text instructing Muslims not to vote Ukip (“Labour says it doesn’t know who sent the text suggesting voters could go to hell…”).

In 2015, an election court found Lutfur Rahman, the current mayor of Tower Hamlets, guilty of corrupt and illegal practices prior to his first, subsequently voided, election as mayor. Campaign irregularities included a newspaper’s publication of a pro-Rahman letter in Bengali signed by 101 clerics. “At a relatively early stage,” the presiding commissioner, Richard Mawrey KC, concluded, “Mr Rahman decided to run his campaign on the basis that it was the religious duty of faithful Muslims to vote for him.”

Although the offence could be portrayed as a “historical anomaly”, Mawrey said, it was arguably “even more necessary in a country which prides itself on being a secular democracy than it might be in a state where there is a universal and dominant religion which is part of the fabric of society”. Other democratic countries, he noted, also had such rules.

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Why is its repeal among TMV’s demands? The possibility of undue spiritual pressure has not vanished merely because it has lately appeared dormant. As for public attitudes: the occasionally brutal reaction to the Scotland deputy first minister Kate Forbes’s openness about her faith, even after she promised never to foist it on others, suggests anything but enthusiasm for enhanced religious presence in politics. More than 60% of adults oppose automatic Lords seats for religious leaders. So, unless a political group actively hoped to use spiritual pressure to advance its interests, it is hard to see why it would, at a moment of maximum leverage, make its legitimacy a priority.

Labour, rebuilding relations with disaffected Muslims, will presumably discover how many, if any, of the TMV demands are negotiable. It might be in a stronger position, faithwise, had it responded to, for instance, warnings from the UN committee on the rights of the child about the impact of religious segregation in schools, and, better still, to the abundant evidence that most of the UK population is now non-observant.

Instead, it has backed faith schools, U-turned on the Lords, appointed “faith champions”. Ambitious worshippers can hardly be blamed for taking advantage.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

The Guardian