Catholic MPs have warned of a resurgence of sectarianism and “anti-Catholic bigotry” in Westminster after Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey was attacked over her views on abortion.
In an interview with representatives of Salford Cathedral ahead of last year’s General Election Ms Long-Bailey, a Catholic, said that she opposes the provision of abortion up to full term in the case of disability, the position held by the Disability Rights Commission. She said that a future Labour Government would consult on new abortion law and that Catholic voices would be heard.
Her comments, which were picked up and widely reported last week, caused an immediate backlash, with the political journalist and left-wing author Paul Mason commenting: “I don't want Labour's policy on reproductive rights dictated by the Vatican, thanks.”
In a follow up message on Twitter he wrote: “I went to a Catholic grammar school in 1970s, taught by ultra-violent priests, and spent my early years in the Labour Party fighting the anti-abortionists on exactly this issue. There's no place for the misogynistic thugs of the Vatican in Labour politics.”
His comments were echoed by the journalist and The Times leader writer Oliver Kamm, who said: “These are extraordinary & grotesque opinions. Catholic priests have no right whatever to have their views heard as priests but only as citizens. Their hostility to legal abortion is morally reprehensible & rejected by more than 90 per cent of voters.”
In an article for the website PoliticsHome Mike Kane MP and Conor McGinn MP, founding members of the group Catholics for Labour, said that the response to Long-Bailey’s comments began with sensationalism “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 [...] we will not stand idle while her faith is being used to smear her or tolerate blatant sectarianism and anti-Catholic tropes.”
Writing for The Tablet this week Mr McGinn said: “It’s a bit of a cliche, but the Labour Party is a broad church. The views we take on these matters reflect our individual background, our experience, our location, our constituencies, and our politics as well as our faith. But whatever our views, they’re demonstrably our own. I hope everyone in the Labour Party will confront the ugly trope that has re-emerged during the current contest for leadership that Catholic politicians are slavish to the Vatican in how they fulfil their public duties, and that the Church's view on any matter before them is pre-eminent.”
Writing in The Daily Telegraph Katherine O’Brien, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said Labour MPs had described Long-Bailey’s views as "absolutely toxic", and Jess Phillips MP, also a candidate for Labour leadership, said: “I don’t agree with [Long-Bailey’s] position. I think the decisions about abortion should only ever be made between the woman and her clinician, who should only ever act not on opinion but what is best for the health of the woman.”
Ms Long-Bailey has subsequently said that, if elected, she would oppose any attempts to reduce the abortion time limit. She has signed a pledge circulated to and signed by all the Labour leadership candidates, that commits them to decriminalising abortion, to support the introduction of anti-protest buffer zones around abortion clinics, and to “support making misogyny a hate crime to tackle the harassment of women by anti choice groups”.
In backing the pledge she wrote: “For the avoidance of doubt I unequivocally support this. Some pretty grubby attempts over the last 24 hours to deliberately misrepresent my position.”
The row comes just a month after the former Liberal Democrat candidate Rob Flello announced he was suing the party for religious discrimination. Mr Flello was deselected during the General Election campaign in November over his views on abortion and gay marriage, which the party said were not in line with Liberal values.
In a statement Mr Flello said: “Not only do I feel betrayed by the false promises of the Lib Dems but I am profoundly concerned that people of faith who adhere to their religious beliefs are not welcome in their party."