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22 January 2015

Will marriage still be an issue at the general election?

In the latest Evangelical Alliance survey on politics, to be published on 19 February, there is evidence that the government's redefinition of marriage remains an important factor influencing evangelicals' votes.

A letter to the Daily Telegraph of 12 January picks up on Prime Minister David Cameron's weekend statement that during his time in office he remains most proud of having introduced same-sex marriage legislation. The correspondent touches on a popular note in pointing out that regardless of whether one supports that particular legislation or not, the fact remains that it has lost the Conservative Party huge support and could even serve as a precursor to disestablishment of the Church of England.

It is interesting that David Cameron chose the outset of the general election campaign to make such a statement because the reality for large numbers of people – not least Christians – is that they feel deeply let down by the Conservative Party as well as other parties on this issue. I know from contact with thousands of Christians that it has caused large numbers to decide at the next election to desert those parties that advocated redefinition of marriage. Indeed, many are even insisting they are so disillusioned with the political system that they may not vote at all.

Given the spectacular rise of a protest party like UKIP that could prevent his return to Downing Street, it could have been expected that the Prime Minister might sound a more conciliatory note towards those who feel let down in an endeavour to gently encourage them to return to the fold. However, it appears that he has decided to make a virtue of his actions, even though the anticipated strong electoral support for the Conservatives he presumably calculated would be generated as a result of the same-sex marriage legislation has certainly not been evident.

It would be wise for the Prime Minister not to underestimate the real sense of grievance felt by many regarding this issue which is enhanced, more importantly, by a deep-seated sense of disenfranchisement. When added to a pervasive disillusionment with politicians in general this is a potent mix.

One of the largest responses to a public consultation in recent times was received when the government consulted about redefining marriage in 2012. When the results were announced the government apparently decided that it had to show that the majority of the public supported the proposed legislation if it was to proceed. Accordingly they indicated that 52 per cent were in favour. What they failed to take account of though (a crucial point they only admitted to in an obscure footnote reference) was that 500,000 members of the public had signed a petition opposing the redefinition of marriage. Despite the petition being delivered to Downing Street these 'no'votes were deliberately ignored by the consultation process despite prior official assurances that each signature would be counted separately. If they had been counted the true public response would have been 84 per cent against. Of course, to many this represented blatant gerrymandering and abuse of the democratic process.

Ultimately the Coalition for Marriage petition against redefining marriage would reach an almost unprecedented 670,000. When the sense of disenfranchisement was added to anger that the legislation was not even mentioned in the formal Conservative manifesto and that the parliamentary process was strongly whipped behind the scenes despite the promise of a free vote, then it is easy to understand the frustration felt by large numbers of erstwhile Conservative supporters and others. Local association membership dropped like a stone, led in many cases by constituency association chairs. Feelings still run deep on the issue and have not been forgotten despite the passage of time since the legislation was 'pushed through'- as many people view it - in 2013. They will have been stirred up yet further by David Cameron's recent remarks.

Yet despite all this, however disillusioned we may feel about politics for whatever reason, and however much we might sympathise with those who may feel let down, it is vitally important that Christians show up to vote in May and do not simply opt out. Large swathes of the population at large have become frustrated with the political scene and increasing millions of eligible voters are simply not turning up to vote at elections. They are refusing to participate in the democratic process – some because they feel elections are fixed, some because they think their vote will not count, some from sheer fatigue with what they consider to be a flawed political system, some because they do not respect politicians or parties.

However, if we fail to engage through inaction, if we fail to hold our elected representatives to account or fail to support them where they may have made a brave stand in the face of pressure, then in fact we are only likely to be exacerbating the situation and arguably risking our nation's future. As history confirms, opting out of the democratic process can be dangerous. If, for example, only those who are persuaded by the promises of extremists and demagogues vote, then we will soon find ourselves in trouble far deeper than any that we have previously experienced.

We each of us need to take an active role in seeking to change the course of our nation if we believe in liberty and justice for all. This includes not opting out but making sure we are adequately informed before deciding wisely where to place our vote – even if we may decide we primarily want our vote to be seen as a statement of protest - perhaps concerning the status quo or the system itself. Such a decision should however involve careful consideration, in the light of our priority values, of the voting records and the promises of our own electoral candidates and the manifesto promises of the parties they represent.

We all have differing priorities. But don't stay at home. Do show up. Do vote!