LABOUR'S attempts to woo faith voters backfired spectacularly last night when the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland condemned the party for an "unrelenting attack on family values" during its time in government.
• Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the leader of Scotland's Catholics, talking to Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy at St Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh yesterday. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
In an stinging rebuke that could significantly damage Labour's prospects in Scotland at the forthcoming general election, Cardinal Keith O'Brien said he could not think of a "tangible example" of the party embracing the views of the Catholic Church in the past decade.
Instead, he argued Labour and Prime Minister Gordon Brown had consistently undermined religious freedom by ignoring objections to new laws permitting experimentation on embryos, civil partnerships and same-sex adoption.
He spoke out in response to a speech by Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy – reported in yesterday's Scotsman – in which he said Labour was the natural party for religious voters to support.
Mr Murphy, a Catholic, quoted the Bible and said Christian values had given the Labour movement much of its "intellectual legitimacy". Ironically, he said: "When the Chief Rabbi, or the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Cardinal speak, men and women of all faiths and none listen."
In his carefully scripted retort, Cardinal O'Brien said: "Any recognition of the role played by faith and religion in society is to be welcomed. However, a tangible example by the government over the last decade that it acknowledged or endorsed religious values would also have been welcomed. Instead we have witnessed this government undertake a systematic and unrelenting attack on family values."
He added he was personally disappointed Mr Brown had ignored his concerns about this when he put them to him in 2008. Outlining his grievances, the leader of Scotland's 750,000 Catholics said: "When introducing legislation to permit experimentation on and destruction of human embryos, the objections of the Church and other faiths were ignored.
"When introducing legislation to permit civil partnerships and same-sex adoption, the objections of the Church and other faiths were ignored. In refusing to tackle the soaring toll of abortions, the views of the Church and other faiths were ignored. Most recently, in advancing legislation which would completely and permanently undermine religious freedom, this government has taken no note whatsoever of the concerns of people of faith."
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said Mr Murphy had taken the Labour Party into "dangerous territory" in the speech. He said: "It is no longer the case that clerics can dictate the way their congregations vote. People are too independent-minded now to be herded into the voting booth by religious considerations alone."
Mr Murphy's speech has been seen as a recognition that Labour has allowed some of its core support among religious groups, especially Catholics and Muslims, to slip. In Scotland, this has allowed the SNP to eat into Labour's traditional Catholic support.
Across the UK, the Conservatives have also attempted to attract the faith vote by portraying themselves as the party of family values, with a tax break for married couples.
Mr Murphy's speech contrasted with one of the golden rules of Tony Blair's administration. His communications chief, Alastair Campbell, famously said in office, "We don't do God", while Mr Blair was reticent about discussing his faith while prime minister.
But in his address yesterday, Mr Murphy made it clear he was staking a claim for his party's tacticians to consider the religious vote as being larger and more important than traditional target groups such as "Worcester Woman" or "Motorway Man".
Last night, a spokesman for the Scottish Secretary pointed out that the cardinal had welcomed Mr Murphy's support for the role "religion should play a role in British politics".
He went on: "Mr Murphy said that the voices of religious leaders should be heard in political debate and that is what is happening."
But there were attacks from political opponents over what many saw as an attempt to monopolise God for Labour.
Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie described the speech as "distasteful". She added: "It is very disappointing that Jim Murphy has decided to use religion to try to bolster his personal campaign to win East Renfrewshire and Labour's campaign to remain in office."
A spokesman for First Minister Alex Salmond argued religion was not the preserve of one party. He said: "Politicians are fully entitled to declare their personal testament, as the First Minister has done and, indeed, would encourage others to do so.
"However, it is quite a different matter to make any suggestion that a political party should seek to corner the market regarding people's faith. To do so would be absurd, unreal and bear the hallmarks of crude electioneering, which would backfire rather badly."
Contentious 'family values' issues that have driven wedge between Labour and Catholic Church