Rachel Burgin selected as parliamentary candidate in Hitchin & Harpenden
On 29th March 2014, Rachel Burgin was selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Hitchin & Harpenden constituency. She is tasked with taking on Peter Lilley MP at the next General Election. This is her story.
There is a school of thought that says Christians shouldn’t get involved in social action: they should simply preach the gospel. That’s right: no foodbanks, homelessness shelters, debt advice services, no rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan after the wars, no feeding the hungry in Africa. Just tell people about Jesus: pure and simple.
My life over the last ten years has a different message. I’m not a “career politician”: I didn’t plan to come this way. I just set out to serve God in the best way I could.
I moved to West Cumbria in 2004. It was a “divine appointment” of sorts. I was from a proper “red blooded” West Cumberland coalmining family who had probably been in Cumbria since the time of the Border Reivers. My Great Great Great grandfather moved to the small pit village of Lowca in the 1870s and his descendants - my relatives – still live there today.
It meant a lot to me to serve the church where my grandparents and great grandparents are buried. I became a Sunday School teacher and Youth Leader, joined the Parochial Church Council, became Missionary Secretary, joined the social committee and visiting team. The church was my life and my life was church.
But after a few years I became a bit frustrated. I could see that I was making a difference in church but I wanted to see the church make a bigger impact on the local community. An opportunity arose to be a school governor of the parochial school – and I grabbed it with both hands. I was then asked to join the parish council. The parish council were dealing with flooding issues as the village had flooded a few years back. The problem was that the privatized water companies were failing to take responsibility for repairing outdated infrastructure. The Flood and Water Management Bill was making its way through Parliament and sought to deal with these accountability failures. We helped to shape its contents.
In church, people often talked about political issues but there was not much talk of flooding – at least not before the “Great Flood” which ravaged Cumbria in November 2009. Some church members got regular updates from Christian organisations and we were often asked to lobby our local MP on various issues – religious freedom, LGBT issues, abortion etc. As Missionary Secretary, I made some effort to encourage people to campaign on Climate Change and International Development. Meanwhile, I was out in our local community working with our local MP to protect our parish from flooding. We were working hard to protect the homes – and the livelihoods of our neighbours. Living out the second “Great Commandment” in a very tangible way. The Great Flood in 2009 cemented in my mind the importance of having policies that were able to mitigate the devastating consequences of flooding on communities
Then the BNP turned up. I had been involved in politics at university so I knew how to run campaigns. I had to make a stand – I couldn’t stay silent. This proved to be my “damascene conversion” to politics. The poverty and hopelessness I confronted – and communities being torn apart by poisonous politics – compelled me to step forward. People forgotten by Westminster needed a voice.
Being out on the doorstep in 2010 took on a life of its own. Talking to people, learning about their lives and their struggles is a deeply spiritual experience. There were times when I learnt more about God on the doorstep than I did in church.
The most important lesson I learned was that when you serve other people sacrificially – whether in the community or through politics – people will listen to what you have to say. This is both a general principle and a biblical one. Politicians know that if they want voters to listen to them, they must serve their electorate. Indeed, organisations such Movement for Change are built on this principle, but Jesus said so too:
Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:42-45
So to those Christians who moan that they are being side-lined in the public square, my challenge is this: “Go, serve, do so sacrificially, make a difference to the lives of other people and your community”. And in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. Isaiah 58-12
I want to be a “Repairer of Broken Walls, a Restorer of Streets with Dwellings”. That is why I am in politics – and that is why I am standing in Hitchin and Harpenden. Having moved to Hertfordshire in 2010, I see broken dreams and aspirations all around me. People working long hours, having long commutes, unable to spend quality time with their families and who are still unable to make ends meet, afford a home of their own or make their way in life. Others are struggling even more. A foodbank has opened in Harpenden – of all places – one of the wealthiest towns in England. A fifth of people don’t even earn the Living Wage – and that is compounded by zero hours and short hours contracts that rob people of financial security and stability. There are nearly 7000 private rental properties in North Hertfordshire. Many of these households will want to buy but have no hope of doing so and under the current legislative framework, have precious little security of tenure. Here, deep in the “Tory Shires” are thousands of people whose voices aren’t being heard – and who haven’t been heard for a very long time. I intend to be that voice. In the wise words of King Solomon:
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy Proverbs 3:8-10
My second “damascene” moment was on 2nd June 2010 when a gunman went on the rampage killing 12 people before committing suicide in a remote corner of the Lake District. That day ravaged the hearts and souls of every West Cumbrian but it also revealed in us a fixed set of values that could withstand the international media invasion. ‘You cannot buy a West Cumbrian with £50,000 of chequebook journalism: the sense of solidarity with neighbours runs far too deep – and in some cases has run for centuries. Solidarity is a value and a virtue that we have long lost sight of in this country. I believe it is my mission in life to reclaim it. At the time I wrote these words,
These values: community cohesion, social justice, compassion, common decency, solidarity - are very precious. They are worth protecting, fighting for and dedicating a life of service to. They are values that the Labour Party ought to be rooted in and they are values that challenge the lie that the Conservative Party are somehow the guardians of moral virtue.
I still believe those words. And they are as true today here in Hitchin & Harpenden as they are on the old West Cumberland coalfield. We are, after all, One Nation.
Rachel Burgin tweets at @MrsBurgin. Her website is www.rachelburgin.org.uk.