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The Political Pulse

Latest opinion research and analysis

The Knowledge: Mods and Ruckus

With Labour well placed in the polls, Tory modernising is stalling, writes Mark Gettleson






WORDS: MARK GETTLESON




Were we not once all told that if we want an easy life, don’t talk about sex, politics or religion? Of course it’s because these topics are so rooted in values, emotions and identity that they have such power and are so intertwined. The gay marriage discussion has at times seemed as heated and at the same time irrelevant as the debate in The Name of the Rose as to whether Christ owned his own clothes.

The events of the past few weeks are a timely reminder that our emotions towards seemingly niche issues can guide politics as much as the public’s top-of-mind concerns.

Indeed, roughly half of the public had firm views on gay marriage, with 26% telling YouGov they strongly supported the move and 22% strongly opposed. It’s tempting to ask where the former were in the parliamentary lobbying, with the ‘pro’ petition receiving just 65,864 signatories compared to a whopping 636,602 for the ‘antis’.

Much of the answer comes from age. While 48% of 18-24s strongly supported equal marriage with just 6% strongly opposed, the figures for over 60s were entirely flipped, with 42% strongly opposed and 11% strongly supportive. This generational shift was seen in the parliamentary voting patterns, with Prof Philip Cowley’s excellent statistics showing that Conservatives born before 1970 opposed that bill 55% to 45%, while Conservatives born since backed it 58% to 42%.

Of course, older people are far more engaged with the levers of civic life: whether it’s voting in elections or writing to their MP. Not only are they more likely to be religious, as shown by recent census releases, but they are more likely to be members of organised networks like churches, who have the ability to mobilise others. It is exactly this ability that enabled the Republican Right in America to mobilise millions of Christian voters on ‘values ‘ issues. Indeed, the organising model of the Obama campaign was aimed at recreating these networks among younger and minority groups.

The difficulty for Mr Cameron is perhaps that those younger voters supportive of his gay marriage plans have little or no habit of voicing that opinion. However, all studies show that voters under 40 are less wedded to a given political party than older voters, and thus make up a disproportionately large proportion of real swing voters.

The gay marriage issue goes to the heart of the Cameron Project, its attempts to widen the Conservative appeal and ensure its long-term survival. The Project looks extraordinarily weakened by the gay marriage debate – but it would be wrong to blame the issue out of context. As a paper produced by Dr Richard Hayton of Sheffield University said in the heady days of 2008, “it has been these auspicious circumstances (a weakened Labour Party) and accompanying poll leads that have muted criticism from traditionalists and allowed Cameron to maintain his modernising course.” With Labour holding a regular poll lead, the rockers have run out of time for the mods.