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25 October 2013

29-point swing against heaven

29-point swing against heaven

So screamed the headline earlier this week as the pollster ComRes looked at attitudes to the supernatural in the UK. Perhaps the most stark finding was that belief in heaven has more than halved since 2008, dropping from 55 per cent of the population to just 26 per cent.

In Westminster, where I work, polls matter. Leadership approval figures, trends and demographic shifts are pored over. Dropping to ‘core vote’ territory can mean curtains for a party leader.

Fracturing the electorate into groups that can be targeted by specific policy or language is the black art of the psephologist (one who studies elections). There are reasons why the Labour party’s top practitioner of the art, a rather humble and very agreeable man called Greg Cooke, is known in hushed tones as ‘Mystic Greg’. ‘Drilling down into the numbers’ and looking for a ‘promise pool’ leads in each election cycle to a series of imaginatively termed groups.

Who can remember ‘Mondeo man’ - the mythical beast who shifted his allegiances from blue to red, sweeping Tony Blair into government in the process? Or ‘Worcester woman’ – a median working class voter in her 30s with a young family that helped decide the 2001 general election? Indeed, who can forget the US located ‘Soccer mom’, a middle class suburban woman who was relentlessly targeted by both Republicans and Democrats in the hope of bringing them over to their cause. To the best of my knowledge, they never found her.

Breaking down society into easy-to-target chunks has its benefits ­– you can start to change the maths. Polling poorly with women? Start pushing family-friendly policies on childcare. Struggling with ‘Middle England’? Talk about how you’ll support the side in the World Cup (even if you’re Scottish!). Need to attract voters with environmental concerns? Hug a Huskie.

A whole industry – and a political science – has emerged to help politicians find the elusive votes that can get them over the line in an election. This targeting has also found its way into other areas of life. The Church isn’t immune. We, quite legitimately, want to attract those who otherwise would harbour misgivings, to look again.

A pollster would encourage church leaders to identify a group who are open to its message – and to target it; to re-examine unpopular policy and practice; and examine their tone and how they get their message out. As every politician knows, the plum seat on a weekday morning isn’t Radio 4’s Today programme; it’s Daybreak or BBC Breakfast. Not all this advice is unhelpful.

But at the same time, the example of politics is an important one. As we have got better at winning elections, we’ve got worse at setting out a vision that inspires people for change.

Jesus’s radical message is a call to a life laid down in service. It doesn’t fit the consumer age we live in. It would poll poorly. And yet, for 2,000 years, and today, people still choose to embrace it.

A Church that is trusted, and that inspires people to a vision of radical service, should embrace it too.

Gavin Shuker is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Luton South and vice-chair of Christians in Parliament.