Even before the official launch of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s campaign, Catholic and secular friends and fellow journalists had mentioned to me that they expected the smears against her to rely heavily on anti-Catholicism. Sexism and classism are easy, but also easy to see through. Attacking a politician’s religion is easier, especially when it remains a minority in the United Kingdom, with the Church of England the dominant branch of Christianity (and inexplicably with the Queen continuing to serve as the head of the church).
But in the past week, as Long-Bailey has risen in the polls, the attacks on her religion have ramped up. First, with the grossly unreliable gossip rag the Red Roar deliberately misframing her answers to questions from bishops in Salford. In her responses, Long-Bailey stated that she had no desire to change or extend abortion time limits and that any abortion law changes would only come about after public consultation. She spoke of how she believed it was wrong that women who seek out their own abortions outside of the medical system are criminalized, as they are often extremely vulnerable. She copied and pasted Labour policy on abortion and said she agreed with it, but expressed her personal agreement with the view expressed by the Disability Rights Commission, that permitting later-term abortions in cases of likely disability is worrying. Again, a personal view, but one shared by many, not just Catholics — especially disabled people and the parents of disabled children. As with euthanasia, there is an understandable unease with the idea of differentiating the value of particular lives.
The backlash against her deliberately misrepresented comments has been swift: she has been called a misogynist, weak-minded, and anti-women. But most pathetic, and worrying, is the distinct anti-Catholicism that comes with arguing that Long-Bailey is merely a puppet of the Pope who repeats whatever the Vatican tells her to.
I am a practicing Catholic, and opinions on myriad issues within my parish alone are as disparate as they are within the fractious Left. Implying that Long-Bailey is controlled by the Pope and that policy will be “dictated by the Vatican” is appallingly bigoted. In her comments, she sought to maintain her commitment to Labour policy while explaining her faith, and the majority of her answers were pasted directly from the Labour manifesto. For supporters of Keir Starmer to go heavily on the attack over the fact that she is Catholic — and an obviously liberal Catholic with a commitment to upholding Labour policy — is reprehensible.
By attacking Long-Bailey with the comment: “I don’t want Labour’s policy on reproductive rights dictated by the Vatican,” Paul Mason has shown not only that he has poor reading comprehension — since Long-Bailey, again, backs Labour policy — but that he thinks all Catholics are more loyal to the Holy See than to whichever political party they belong to. These may be dirty tricks from an increasingly irrelevant pundit, but they also show how a desperate Starmer campaign will continue to whip up anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish bigotry if they think it can harm Long-Bailey’s campaign.
The problem for them is that their attacks are so transparent, and the people joining these campaigns are so transparent in their motives, that they are seen through from the start.