How will secularism fare after the election?

Posted: Mon, 17th Jun 2024 by Megan Manson

Megan Manson summarises the policies of the main nationwide players in the General Election 2024 and where they stand on secularist issues.

Photo credits from top left: Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street; Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0; Richard Townshend, CC BY 3.0; Bristol Green Party, CC0; Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0; UK Parliament, CC BY 3.0

Before the General Election was called, six UK-wide parties had seats in parliament: the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Reform UK and the Workers Party of Britain.

All six parties have a good chance of winning at least one seat on July 4th. We therefore looked at all their manifestos to see how secularism would fare under these parties.

We'll look at the parties running solely in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales later.

Religion and state

All parties apart from the Conservatives agree: the House of Lords needs reform.

However, none of them specifically referred to the deeply anti-secular 'bishops' bench'. The omission of the bishops was particularly noticeable in Labour's proposals, which did mention the hereditary peers; there's more detail here.

The Lib Dems said the House of Lords needs "a proper democratic mandate" and the Greens would replace them with "an elected second chamber". Retaining the bishops' bench would be incompatible with these proposals.

Reform UK and the Workers Party of Britain also support reform to the House of Lords. Clearly, a lack of confidence in the second chamber is widespread.

The Workers Party would hold a referendum on the future of the monarchy. As the monarch is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, this could have dramatic implications for the established Church, to say the least.

Labour's attempts to appeal to faith groups are concerning as they may further entrench ties between religion and state. Their manifesto says government is "at its best" when working in partnership with "faith groups" in addition to businesses, trade unions and civil society, and they said they would work with "faith organisations" in their strategy to reduce child poverty. Keir Starmer has also told religious leaders that Labour would encourage local authorities to work with faith groups.

Education and children

The Conservatives' pledges on schools are disappointing but not surprising: their manifesto confirmed that they would proceed with scrapping the 50% cap on faith-based admissions at free schools. To add insult to injury, elsewhere in the manifesto the Tories say, "discrimination based on religion is unacceptable". The hypocrisy is almost beyond belief.

Labour have said they would improve "inclusivity" in schools and "make sure admissions decisions account for the needs of communities". We argue this should mean an end to state-funded faith schools, religious discrimination in state school admissions, and compulsory collective worship. But none of these feature in Labour's plans; indeed, last year Keir Starmer said Labour would be "even more supportive" of faith schools than the Tories.

While the Lib Dems' manifesto doesn't directly reference the issue of religion in school, it does commit to incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into UK law. This could have significant implications for education: both faith-based admissions and collective worship have been criticised by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Both Lib Dems and Conservatives pledged to bring forward a register for children not in school, which would help to tackle the serious problem of illegal unregistered schools.

The Lib Dems says their "national financial inclusion strategy" would require delivering "Sharia-compliant student finance", which could raise concerns about preserving secularist principles.

The Tories are the only party which committed to bringing in mandatory reporting for child sexual abuse and a redress scheme for victims and survivors in their manifesto. However, the mandatory reporting provisions in the Criminal Justice Bill brought forward by the current government have been described as "toothless" by one expert.

The Conservatives have also pledged to continue their campaigns against "child marriage and FGM". Interestingly, their manifesto also speaks of a "new licensing scheme and age limits for non-surgical cosmetic procedures, ensuring services are administered by suitably qualified and trained professionals". It's hard to see how ritual circumcision of boys would be compatible with such a scheme.

Free speech

The Conservatives say they will "support teachers to uphold and promote fundamental British values and ensure they are protected from accusations of blasphemy". The NSS has been calling for such a policy since the Batley Grammar affair, in which a teacher was forced into hiding for showing a picture of Muhammad in a religious studies class.

The Tories would also bring forward additional restrictions on protests and demonstrations. On the one hand, this could help tackle harmful extremism; on the other, it could present concerns for freedom of expression.

The Lib Dems and the Greens would conversely scrap the Conservatives' "anti-protest laws". The Lib Dems would also introduce a "Digital Bill of Rights" including a right to free expression online.

The Lib Dems , Greens and Labour all make reference to tackling 'Islamophobia' in their manifestos. This is a concern as all three parties have adopted the highly contentious All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims' 'Islamophobia' definition, which could restrict speech critical of Islam. More reassuringly, the Conservatives use the term "anti-Muslim hatred" instead.

The two 'anti establishment' parties – Reform UK and the Workers Party – have both dedicated significant space in their manifestos to free speech. While some of their policies on free speech are dubious, it is welcome to see both mainstream and minor parties recognising free speech as an essential issue to the public.


We are happy to see reformed wedding law, an issue we've been helping to shape policy on for years, make it into the Lib Dem's manifesto. They said they would implement the Law Commission's proposals to reform wedding laws, "giving couples more choice over how and where their wedding takes place". This is just what we've been asking for to make weddings fairer and freer for all, whatever your religion or belief.

Assisted dying

We've also campaigned to reform the law on assisted dying for many years, so again it's positive to see this brought up by three parties.

The Greens would support legalising assisted dying. The Lib Dems would give Parliament time to "fully debate and vote on legislation on assisted dying," subject to a free vote.

The Conservatives "maintain the position that assisted dying is a matter of conscience and will respect the will of Parliament". Rishi Sunak has previously committed to allowing time for the next parliament to consider assisted dying, as has Keir Starmer – although assisted dying did not get a mention in the Labour manifesto.


The Conservatives' manifesto says the party will "ensure our elected representatives get the protection needed to represent their constituents without fear". This is no doubt in response to serious extremist attacks on MPs in recent years, not least Conservative MP David Amess who was murdered by an Islamist in 2021. For this election, Labour MP Rosie Duffield has spent £2,000 on bodyguards and said she would not attend hustings.

Labour says it will "update the rules around counter-extremism, including online, to stop people being radicalised and drawn towards hateful ideologies".

The Lib Dems would fund "protective security measures to places of worship, schools and community centres that are vulnerable to hate crime and terror attacks". It would also make it a "national security priority to protect the UK's democratic processes from any threats or interference".

The Green Party would scrap the Prevent programme. Reform would stop "Sharia law being used in the UK". It's unclear what this means, but it could refer to sharia 'tribunals'.

Reproductive rights

The Lib Dems' manifesto says they will protect "everyone's right to make independent decisions over their reproductive health without interference by the state" and "ensure access to high-quality reproductive healthcare, including enforcing safe access zones around abortion clinics and hospitals".

The Conservatives' manifesto has less to say on reproductive rights at home, although it would expand its international campaigns "on girls' education, women's rights and reproductive health". It would also include contraception in its plans to expand its Pharmacy First programme.

Human rights and equality

The Lib Dems says it will "champion the UK's Human Rights Act" and uphold both the Equality Act 2010. Both Labour and the Lib Dems pledge to keep the UK a member of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Tories are less committed. Their manifesto says: "If we are forced to choose between our security and the jurisdiction of a foreign court, including the ECtHR, we will always choose our security". The ECtHR (European Court of Human Rights) interprets the European Convention.

Reform would oversee a bonfire of existing human rights law. They would have the UK leave the European Convention and replace the Equality Act. In their place, Reform would establish a "British Bill of Rights", which sounds similar to the Tories' "bill of rights" scrapped last year following concerns that it would erode human rights.

On LGBT rights, both Labour and Lib Dems commit to banning 'conversion therapy' in their manifestos. The Conservatives are more cautious, calling conversion therapy "abhorrent" but saying legislation around it is "a very complex issue". The Lib Dems will also commit to "ending the culture of disbelief for LGBT+ asylum seekers, and never refusing an LGBT+ applicant on the basis that they could be discreet".

The Conservatives say they will "protect those persecuted for their ethnicity, political views, faith or sexuality". On freedom of religion or belief, they will "stand up for those persecuted for their faith and put the existing role of Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief on a statutory footing". While this sounds good in principle, there's a concern that upholding "religious freedom" will ignore those without a religion, and even undermine other freedoms and rights where these clash with religion. The previous FoRB special envoy, Fiona Bruce, is an evangelical Christian who has opposed reproductive rights and same-sex marriage.

Non-stun slaughter

Although no parties have committed to ending the exemption which permits animals to be slaughtered without stunning to meet religious dietary preferences, the Lib Dems say they would prevent "unnecessarily painful practices in farming". Certainly, non-stun slaughter could be categorised as such.

The Lib Dems would also introduce "robust and clear-to-understand food labelling". As long as non-stun slaughter remains legal, we're campaigning to ensure meat from animals killed in this way is clearly labelled as such so consumers can avoid it if they wish. Unfortunately, the current government has continually back tracked on plans to do this.

As is often the case, the parties competing at this General Election are mixed bags when it comes to secularism, and no party has explicitly advocated for separation of church and state. But it is positive that some issues, including free speech and democratic reform, are cutting across the political spectrum and resonate both with major and minor parties. Our job as secularists is to continue to stress that secularism is a unifying force, and the only sensible model for our largely irreligious and religiously-diverse nation.

General Election 2024: Ask your candidates to stand up for secularism

The country goes to the polls on 4 July. We want to make sure the people who will make up the next Parliament know their constituents want to see a secular democracy where everyone is treated equally, regardless of religion or belief. Will you help us?

Tags: AD, Abuse, Bishops, Extremism, Faith schools, FoRB, Free speech, Genital cutting, Head of State, LGBT, Marriage, Public services, Reproductive rights, School admissions, Slaughter, Unregistered schools, Women