Catholic Voters to Snub Labour over Moral Standards

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Byline: EDDIE BARNES

THE Labour Party in Scotland fears the loss of thousands of votes from its traditional Catholic support in next month's General Election, it emerged last night.

A report commissioned by a senior Minister says the party needs to act urgently to prevent Catholic voters deserting Labour.

Scotland's 700,000 Catholics have traditionally made up the core of Labour's vote north of the Border and party strategists are concerned that their support is dwindling.

First Minister Henry McLeish has led a charm offensive to win back the support of senior Catholic churchmen since coming to power last year. And it appears that Labour has finally taken to heart the findings of the report, which was written by a prominent Labour activist in 1998.

The paper urges Ministers to step up efforts to woo Scottish Catholic leaders in an effort to rekindle their relationship, eroded recently by rows over moral issues.

That relationship sank to an all-time low after the Scottish Executive pushed through the repeal of Section 28 last year, which lifted the ban on homosexuality being openly discussed in schools.

Labour Ministers, led by Mr McLeish, now appear to have heeded the report.

Mr McLeish visited the Pope in Rome in December to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Scots Catholic College and later entertained church leaders at his official Bute House residence.

Earlier this month, Education Minister Jack McConnell addressed Catholic head-teachers and stressed that he backed their schools. Mr McConnell is also credited with smoothing over the Section 28 row.

Church insiders say the change in Labour's approach is like 'night and day' compared with the previous regime headed by the late Donald Dewar. They say Labour has acted following polls which showed more Catholics were voting SNP.

Former SNP leader Alex Salmond is known to be close to Cardinal Thomas Winning, who himself has shown clear leanings towards the Nationalists in recent years and has openly criticised New Labour policy. The Cardinal has also hit out at Labour over its policy on moral issues, calling Tony Blair's refusal to vote against abortion 'a sham'.

The report says Labour MPs should find as many opportunities as possible to speak to Christian organisations and to participate in debates on church affairs.

Harry Conroy, editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer, said: 'This just shows Labour is waking up to the fact that many more Catholics are now voting SNP. …