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Anti-Catholic sentiment has no place in the Labour leadership contest

Anti-Catholic sentiment has no place in the Labour leadership contest
3 min read

Rebecca Long-Bailey's comments on abortion have highlighted anti-Catholic sentiment which should have no place in Labour's leadership race, say MPs Mike Kane and Conor McGinn.

To tweak a famous quote from the late, great Harold Wilson: The Labour Party owes more to Catholicism than Communism.

For over one hundred years Catholics across the United Kingdom have formed the backbone of Labour’s vote. 

The formation of the party itself takes its roots from Catholicism through the actions of Cardinal Manning. In August 1889 London’s dock workers went on strike, in a protest which destabilised the country. Manning was struck by the peaceful nature of the protest and actively sought resolution. Within a month his efforts ensured the dockers’ demands were largely met, and the strike ended.

This was a devout Catholic leader, inspired by his faith to improve working conditions for some of the most vulnerable in Victorian society. A year later, taking inspiration from this, the Labour Party
was founded.

Fast-forward just over 130 years and times have changed. Catholics have abandoned what was once considered their political home, especially in Scotland where over half have given their vote to the

The reasons for this are many and have been scrutinised in other places, but ultimately as Catholic Labour MPs we take our share of the responsibility for not showing Catholic voters they had a place
in our party. That’s why just over two years ago we formed Catholics for Labour. To show Catholics that they belong in the Labour movement and to give them the confidence to speak with pride about how their faith and membership are inextricably linked.

We are Labour because of our Catholic values, not despite them.  And we were making progress. Establishing an annual Mass at our party conference, hosting policy seminars and building a strong online following.

But in the past few days that progress has stalled. It began with a sensationalised article regarding Rebecca Long-Bailey’s views on abortion and ended with age-old anti-Catholic bigotry - claims that all Catholics' first-loyalty is to Rome. Smears that have been used to marginalise and persecute Catholics in this country and elsewhere for centuries.

Labour’s Catholic supporters, members and MPs are a pretty diverse bunch – a broad church if you like. We disagree and hold opposing views on many issues, including abortion and equal marriage.
But those views are our own, not the Pope’s.

To be clear, there are no vested interests here. Neither of us have nominated Rebecca for the leadership or even backed the same candidate (perhaps the Vatican lost our number?). But we will not stand idle while her faith is being used to smear her or tolerate blatant sectarianism and anti-Catholic tropes. 

What’s most deflating of all is that this row has erupted in the crucible of a leadership election where Labour must seek to become an inclusive movement once again if it is serious about challenging at the next general election and beyond.  Alienating the Catholic vote is not the way to do this.

We started this piece with our take on a famous quote, so let’s finish with one we don’t need to be clever with. Lyndon B Johnson once famously said that the first rule of politics is to know how to
count. The bottom line here is that there are millions of Catholics in the UK and Labour should ignore them at their peril.

* Conor McGinn MP and Mike Kane MP, founding members of Catholics for Labour

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