Lessons in how change happens from Selma

If you take nothing else from this post. Go see the movie Selma.

I promise you its the most powerful film you’ll see this year, and a ‘must watch’ for anyone interested in how change happens.

Much has been written about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, but walking out from seeing Selma I was struck by a few lessons that should resonate for all campaigners;

n-SELMA-TO-MONTGOMERY-large570.jpg1 – You can’t go alone – The film centres on the leadership of Martin Luther King, played brilliant by David Oyelowo, but throughout the film you see the importance of the role of the other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC). When wrestling over strategy, training the movement or negotiating with those in power, your reminded that although Luther King led the movement, he was ably supported by individuals like Abernathy, Lewis and Young. He need these companions to support him both strategically and spiritually as leader.

2 – You need to build your movement – In preparation for seeing the film I’ve been enjoying Taylor Branch’s ‘Pillar of Fire’, its a brilliant history of the Civil Rights Movement, and while the film touches on the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the book is reminder of the work that happened in places like Selma, Greenville, and elsewhere across the south, it was SNCC and others who worked to register voters and build consciousness amongst black communities. For movements to have moments like the marches in Selma you need to be committed to the hard work of organising before them.

3 – Have your second (and third) act planned – The film shows what strategic mastermind that King was, as he prepares for the Selma to Montgomery marches, he knew that his presence would draw nationwide media coverage. While the film doesn’t shed light on if the outcome of the Bloody Sunday march, where marches were viciously attacked by the local Police and State Troopers, could have been predicted, it’s clear that King was aware that he would need to call a second march (known as Turnaround Thursday) to increase the pressure on President Johnson and show the resolve of the movement. To often campaigns plan for the bigm-2339.jpg moment but don’t think what they’ll do next.

4 – Capitalise on your opponents mistakes – As King explains why he’s moved the campaign to Selma, their is an interesting dialogue about why the campaign had ‘failed’ in Albany, Georgia, because local Police Chief, Laurie Pritchett, had studied the non-violent principles and developed a strategy to response which had muted the effectiveness of the movement, and the expected response of Selma Sheriff, Jim Clark, who they anticipated would respond in the violent way he did, helping to gain attention for the campaign. Throughout the film you see how Luther King sought to understand his opponents and exploit their weaknesses. Like a Judoka, he skilfully ‘throws’ his opponents using their power/strength.

5 – Use all the tactics available to you – While the film centres on the marches in Selma as part of the push to get the Voting Rights Act, through the film you also see how Dr King and the SCLC used a range of tactics available to them to put pressure on President Johnson to push the Act through Congress, from legal challenges, media, use of celebrities, to building diverse coalitions, although the SCLC focused on mass mobilisation, it sought to use all the approaches available to it.


This was originally posted at www.thoughtfulcampaigner.org. Tom Baker is Head of Campaigns and Engagement at Bond, co-founder Campaign Bootcamp, and blogs about campaigning because he's passionate about seeing more campaigns win. An election geek (and Labour Party activist), interested in monitoring and evaluation. This blogpost is all his own views.

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Together we can

More than thirty years ago I was invited to join the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM), principally because I was a journalist on the left of things, and I was editing a trade union sponsored newspaper called ‘East End News’. I was a tabloid journalist and the ‘The Christian Socialist’ newspaper needed a makeover of an extreme kind! Unbeknownst to me at that point, was that the CSM itself also needed a makeover.

There were people who had the vision to broaden the reach of CSM. I produced a tabloid looking A4 magazine version of The Christian Socialist. The focus was on the here and now, about real people tackling the challenge of the real world with a real faith. It signalled a new direction for the movement.

Another challenge we had in the early 1980s was about whether we were really going to be ‘Christians for Labour’ as a main approach. People like Ken Leech felt it should be wider than that and the Jubilee Group reflected that; ‘on the left/radical’, but unaligned. But others felt getting into membership the likes of Jack Straw and other MPs who could be identified as ’Christian’ was the way forward, the breakthrough to the mainstream. This led to some controversy!

Alongside this, radical Christians formed a new organisation arising from a conference in 1980. Called COSPEC (Christian Organisations for Social, Political and Economic Change), it was an umbrella under which all kinds of radical groups gathered and who would not necessarily go along with Labour or CSM. CSM was also a member. One of the achievements of this was the Mining Communities Fund in 1985, during the Miners Strike, which channeled funds raised in the usual ways from public donation directly to suffering mining families through church and health service contacts in Barnsley and elsewhere, with the then Bishop of Durham acting as Patron.

These are tensions we continue to wrestle with, and maybe we can never quite resolve it all, and maybe we don’t need to. Like many things inside Labour, we have to find the most connecting points and get on with it together.

So it’s still the same story – if Labour and the church want to be a vehicle of communal and individual expression then both are going to have to find new ways (and maybe re-discover some older ways) to get onto the wavelengths of ‘ordinary folks’ and to be a force which does change things for them. The foodbank saga is an example where this has happened involving leading church people like Justin Welby and John Sentamu in actually criticising the Government and getting some good headlines.

I find some comfort in Ed Miliband’s 2014 Conference speech which tackled a far deeper malaise than a budget deficit with the theme - ‘You’re not on your own’ because the Tories and others want us to believe their tired old message that we are on our own, ‘look after number one, no-one else will’. But divided we don’t stand, or as Ed put it – “Because together we can - and on our own we can’t”. Loneliness is growing, more and more people of all ages are living on their own, feeling on their own because they don’t know their neighbourhood. We need to do something about it. The media are divisively hitting on people on benefits as somehow ‘outcasts’ and on their own, compared to the rest of ‘us’. There is a growing disconnect with volunteering and general community involvement dropping alarmingly.

Our message, our antidote to this poison, is that as human beings we are community – we belong together. It’s the message of Acts 2: 44  – ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common’. Sounds really dangerous doesn’t it.

I recently pointed out to a tweating UKIP supporter that Jesus would not be recommending ‘vote UKIP’ because the message of Jesus is in direct contradiction to UKIP. It includes the Good Samaritan, championing the despised person as the one who loved the stranger and was merciful to him. Jesus himself was in turns homeless, a refugee, an immigrant, an asylum seeker.

And we know that ‘all are one in Christ’ and when we get to heaven there we will all be -  ‘a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne’ [Rev 10:9] and if we are about bringing heaven to earth, then there can be no distinctions. We will all be together.

We struggled years ago to broaden the movement and make it more politically relevant to ‘ordinary folk’.  Christians on the Left looks like a further development of that move towards welding faith and policy, strategy and action, to bring about a lasting transformation in our society. Hopefully, a new direction.

Meanwhile, this Government has proven to be not good news to the poor. And God loves the poor. So they have to go.

Ian Rathbone is a Pastor in Newham, and a local Labour councillor in Hackney.

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Voter Registration - Don't lose your vote


Today is Voter registration day.  Not only is it a celebration of our democracy but every face book user will be receiving a reminder to vote, and many campaigns across the country will be pushing awareness to the electorate to register. This year it is more important than ever that we remind each other to register, and register ourselves.

In July the voting system, in an effort to meet 21st century expectations, moved to an individual registration system. Previously, it was under the household system which meant that the head of each household could register everyone in the home. Although the new system counters the issue of voter fraud (of which there have only been 10 proven cases) and is a move toward modernisation there are fears that it is alienating groups of society who may not be made aware of the change or are simply less likely to register if they have to do it themselves.

The electoral commission put forward that 40% of people are not aware they can register online in about 5 minutes. Considering that millions of people will now have to individually register this figure is concerning. It is crucial that people are made aware of first, the fact they need to register, and second how easy it is to do. Groups of particular concern are students, renters and young adults.

Focusing on students as an example: before the system change it was possible for halls of residence to register everyone within the hall. This now needs to be done individually by every student. The lowest turnout of all age groups in 2010 was 18-24 year olds at only 51%, and only 56% are registered compared to 94% of those aged over 65. Surely this statistic will only be lower now that millions more students now have to register themselves individually? The alienation of this group from the electorate must be tackled, and it is clearly extremely important that responsibility is taken to make them more aware of what they need to do to register and why it is so important to vote.

We recently launched the ‘Show up’ campaign. Decisions are made by those who show up. But what if you show up, and you find yourself disenfranchised? If we want to make a difference at this election and have our voices heard we must vote. We also must take the opportunity we have until the 20th April to inform others that they need to register, and spread the word that registration has changed. Everyone would agree that every single person should have the chance to vote and registration shouldn’t stop them, especially when it is so easy. The election is clearly going to be close, so every vote counts! In the United States (2012) the higher turnout of minority groups, notably the first time 10% representation of Hispanics, made a crucial difference to the outcome – proving again the importance of showing up and encouraging others to do so also. In addition, even before this registration change research showed that 7.5 million people eligible to vote were not registered. That’s the equivalent of almost the entire population of London not turning up to vote, a number that has to be cut down.

You can register to vote here with just a few details.

Andy's book ‘Those who show up’ and other resources are available here and can be extremely useful in enabling efforts to get people involved in politics. This voter registration issue is just another reason on top of so many more highlighting why we need to focus on showing up on the 7th May 2015!


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3-parent embryos: 5 big questions


Three-parent embryos – five big questions for MPs to consider ahead of todays's vote


Today MPs in the House of Commons will be asked to vote to make Britain the first country in the world to offer controversial ‘three-parent’ fertility treatments to families who want to avoid passing on mitochondrial diseases to their children. This is final crunch time.
Last week forty scientists from 14 countries urged the British legislature to approve the new laws allowing mitochondrial DNA transfer.
The stance of scientists creates huge pressure for MPs who risk being labelled ‘ignorant’ or uncaring for objecting. But the question is not nearly as simple as it looks on first appearance. These new regulations are dangerous. No other country has officially legalised the techniques and no one can predict what the consequences for future children will be.
The Department of Health is brazenly claiming widespread public support for the measure – despite its own consultation showing a majority (62%) actually oppose the plans. In addition a ComRes poll conducted in August 2014 found that only 18% of people support a change in the law to permit the creation of three-parent children through genetic modification.
There are about 50 known mitochondrial diseases (MCDs), which are passed on in genes coded by mitochondrial (as opposed to nuclear) DNA. They range hugely in severity, but for most there is presently no cure and little other than supportive treatment (see CMF briefing paper here and previous articles on the issue here).

It is therefore understandable that scientists and affected families want research into these two related ‘three-parent embryo’ techniques (pronuclear transfer (PNT) and maternal spindle transfer (MST)), to go ahead. But there are good reasons for caution.
Here are five big questions for MPs to consider.
Is it necessary?

This is not about finding a cure. It is about preventing people with MCD being born. We need first to be clear that these new technologies, even if they are eventually shown to work, will do nothing for the thousands of people already suffering from mitochondrial disease or for those who will be born with it in the future. Parents will generally not even know that they run a risk of producing an affected baby until after the birth of the first. And it is very difficult to predict the severity of the disease in a given case. There is huge variation even within affected families.
Mitochondrial disorders are also relatively rare. Perhaps 1 in 200 children are born each year with abnormal mtDNA but only 1 in 10,000 are severely affected. It was suggested in 2001 that the proposed techniques, if they work, could 'save' around ten lives each year. 

Last week however a JME article upped these numbers to 150.  I'm not in a position to seriously dispute these figures as I don't have access to the patient data on which they are based.  

Nevertheless, to jump from 10 to 150 (via 20 and 80) is quite a jump and raises serious questions about creative accounting.  How were their original estimates so off the mark, if the new estimates are supposedly more reliable?  Moreover, there is a fair bit of extrapolation involved and the validity of this depends on the distribution of people with mutant mitochondrial DNA being evenly spread throughout the UK and also the USA.
Either way we are not talking about huge numbers here. There are also already some alternative solutions available for affected couples including adoption and IVF with egg donation.

Is it safe?

This is far from established. Each technique involves experimental reproductive cloning techniques (cell nuclear transfer) and germline genetic engineering, both highly controversial and potentially very dangerous. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California has argued  in an piece titled ‘A slippery slope to germline modification’ that were the United Kingdom to grant a regulatory go-ahead, it would unilaterally cross ‘a legal and ethical line’ observed by the entire international community that ‘genetic-engineering tools’ should not be used ‘to modify gametes or early embryos and so manipulate the characteristics of future children’.
Cloning by nuclear transfer has so far proved ineffective in humans and unsafe in other mammals with a large number of cloned individuals spontaneously aborting and many others suffering from physical abnormalities or limited lifespans. Also, any changes, or unpredicted genetic problems (mutations) will be passed to future generations. In general, the more manipulation needed, the higher the severity and frequency of problems in resulting embryos and fetuses.
Will it work?
There are reasons to be deeply sceptical about the grandiose claims being made by scientists and patient interest groups with vested interests. This technology uses similar ‘nuclear transfer’ techniques to those used in ‘therapeutic cloning’ for embryonic stem cells (which has thus far failed to deliver) and animal-human cytoplasmic hybrids (‘cybrids’). The wild claims made about the therapeutic properties of ‘cybrids’ by the biotechnology industry, research scientists, patient interest groups and science journalists duped parliament into legalising and licensing animal human hybrid research in 2008.
Few now will remember Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s empty promises in the Guardianon 18 May that year of ‘cybrids’ offering 'a profound opportunity to save and transform millions of lives' and his commitment to this research as 'an inherently moral endeavour that can save and improve the lives of thousands and over time millions of people'. That measure was supported in a heavily whipped vote as part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, now the HFE Act. But ‘cybrids’ are now a farcical footnote in history. They have not worked and investors have voted with their feet. Ironically, it was in that same Act of Parliament, that provision for this new research was also made.
In In early 2009 it was said that there was no funding for cybrids in the UK and ironically only three research licences were granted: to Dr S Minger of King’s College London (R0180), to Prof Lyle Armstrong of University of Newcastle Upon Tyne (R179) and to Dr Justin St. John of the University of Warwick (R183).
What happened? Basically zilch! Dr St John emigrated to Australia (where such work is prohibited), Lyle Armstrong eventually switched to working with iPS cells (a more fruitful ethical alternative) and Stephen Minger left academia to work for GE Healthcare (where he promotes work with hES cells for drug screening but definitely does not work with interspecies combinations). 
This is hugely relevant for the three-parent embryo debate as 223 charities, egged on by the false promises of the scientific community, wrote to the Prime Minister in 2008 to get him to reverse his decision on hybrids and not stand in the way of disease treatments. Déjà vu?
Is it ethical?
No, there are actually huge ethical issues. A large number of human eggs will be needed for the research, involving ‘harvesting’ that is both risky and invasive for women donors. How many debt-laden students or desperate infertile women will be exploited and incentivised by being offered money or free IVF treatment in return for their eggs?
Egg donation is neither straightforward nor harmless. It involves using drugs to shut down the woman’s own ovaries, then stimulating them to produce multiple follicles then surgically extracting the resulting eggs. This all has significant health and ethical implications for the donor, including health risk to the donor from powerful hormonal treatments, injections, invasive surgery, and yet it is not for her own benefit.
study at the Newcastle Fertility Centre, reported in Human Fertility, found that more than 20 eggs were collected from at least one in seven patients, that 14.5% of these women were subsequently admitted to hospital and nearly all reported symptoms consistent with ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS). We do know from a recent report that just under half of 864 reported clinical incidents between 2010-2012 were due to OHSS. And: ‘Each year approximately 60 instances of severe OHSS and 150 cases of moderate OHSS are reported to the HFEA.’
How many thousands of human embryos will be destroyed? If it ever works, what issues of identity confusion will arise in children with effectively three biological parents? What does preventing those with mitochondrial disease being born say about how we value people already living with the condition? Where will this selection end? Some mitochondrial diseases are much less serious than others. Once we have judged some affected babies not worthy of being conceived, where do we draw the line, and who should draw it?

Is the debate being handled responsibly?
No. The research scientists involved have huge financial, ideological and research-based vested interests and getting the regulatory changes and research grants to continue and extend their work is dependent on them being able to sell their case to funders, the public and decision-makers. Hence their desire for attention-grabbing media headlines and heart rending (but highly extreme and unusual) human interest stories that are often selective about what facts they present.

It must be tempting for politicians to make promises of ‘miracle cures’ in years to come which no one may remember. But I suspect it is much more about media hype than real hope.

This new push is being driven as much by prestige for government, research grants for scientists and profits for biotechnology company shareholders as anything else.
Cool heads required

MPs know there is widespread public opposition to growing genetically modified (GM) crops in the UK. How much more cautious should they be about allowing GM babies to be created?
These techniques are highly experimental, unproven, known to be very unsafe (bear in mind that children’s lives will be the experiment), ineffective, costly, a waste of public money, insufficiently understood, unnecessary (only potentially helping 10-20 families a year) and will require large numbers of eggs to proceed, even for just a few families.
Genuine concerns about this new mitochondrial technology have been swept aside in Britain in the headlong rush to push the scientific boundaries.
Furthermore in many countries around and the world, and by commentators from both secular and faith based scientific backgrounds, Britain is viewed as a rogue state in this area of research.
This move is both premature and ill-conceived.
Fiona Bruce MP yesterday laid a motion opposing the approval of the regulations which cuts to the chase.

“That this House declines to approve the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (Mitochondrial Donation) Regulations 2015 because many of the safety tests recommended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority Expert Panel have yet to be performed and peer-reviewed and their results made public; because no other country in the world has legalised the proposed techniques for ethical reasons; because major international bodies including the United States Food and Drug Administration have expressed the view that not enough preclinical work has been done to ensure that the proposals are safe; because they permit the genetic modification of human embryos and oocytes; because these regulations permit human embryos to be created only to be destroyed; because there are unanswered questions regarding the legality of the regulations at both domestic and international level; and because this House should not be asked to approve regulations of such ethical significance without a fully informed debate and before the results of the above safety tests are available for consideration.”
Let’s keep cool heads and instead concentrate on finding real treatments and providing better support for affected individuals and their families rather than spending limited health resources on unethical, risky and highly uncertain high tech solutions that will most likely never deliver. 



Peter Saunders is Director of the Christian Medical Fellowship, and an ethicist. 

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images.jpgTom Carty urges Labour to draw inspiration from the anti-austerity victory in Greece

Could the election in Greece turn out to be an emperor's new clothes moment for austerity? It may be the product of despair, but the result represents real hope, and not just for the Greek people. While there were factors specific to Greece behind the disaster which overtook the country, throughout Europe austerity has become an idol and is doing immense damage. This repetition of the central error of the 1930s is the most shocking element of the present crisis. The degree to which the amnesia is wilful is debatable but the consequences are clear enough and are visited most savagely on the poor and disabled but also much more widely (think for example of the scale of youth unemployment in Greece or Spain). The evidence is that austerity has deepened and prolonged the crisis it was supposed to resolve.

The message from Greece is that there is an alternative to neoliberalism, the ideology which lies behind austerity. An alternative to the driving-down of earnings, the dismantling of workers' rights and job security, to the insistence that decent levels of welfare provision and health care are unaffordable, and any increased taxation of the rich simply unthinkable. We need to rediscover Keynes, and the role of the state. In fact, a proactive state is a precondition for protecting the poor, the sick, and the low paid, for ensuring the availability of affordable housing, and of training for young people with jobs afterwards.  Intervention and investment on the scale required cannot be left to the market. Neoliberals, even those with the best intentions, are philosophically incapable of taking the necessary steps.images_(1).jpg

Far from the anti-EU and anti-immigrant nationalism which characterises the right-wing parties of protest across Europe, such as UKIP, and despite its origin and formal identity on the far left, Syrize represents a variety of the same new populist, progressive politics as that articulated by the SNP during the independence referendum campaign. There is a warning for Labour in its success the collapse and near-wipe-out of the once mighty PASOK, the Greek Socialist Party, until recently one of the two parties alternating in power, but perceived as representing its own self-interest rather than the interests of its traditional supporters.

While it is understandable that conservative parties should exploit the opportunity to cut back on welfare (although the scale and virulence of the Tory attack on claimants and their ideologically-driven assault upon the state are truly shocking), it is dispiriting to see Labour and Social Democratic parties timidly accepting the need for austerity, and treading carefully so as not to alarm people who will never vote for them. We can only welcome the victory of Syrize and hope that it will embolden others to follow its lead. In the election campaign which has just begun, for example, wouldn't it be good if the Labour Party had the courage to speak the truth about austerity's nakedness? 

Tom Carty (www.tomcartysite.co.uk) is the author of 'The Jesus Reader. The Teaching and Identity of Jesus Christ' (Columba Press, Dublin) 2013.


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Why we should care about Christians in Gaza

As Labour launches its internationalist vision, One Nation One World, Stephen Tunstall (@SCTunstall) writes from Gaza about how local Christians are responding to the humanitarian crisis following last year’s war, and why we must act to bring an end to occupation and blockade. Stephen is Programmes Manager for Palestine and Israel at Embrace the Middle East.

GAZA.jpgVisiting Gaza provokes mixed emotions. On the one hand there is outrage, helplessness, and despair at the humanitarian situation and the global complicity which permits it to endure. You know things are bad when Palestinians tell you the situation has really deteriorated “these last two months”, as if the war last summer which killed over 1,500 civilians, including 519 children, is already a footnote in history.

Although the bombings have stopped, for now, there is very little shalom in this discarded corner of the world. Many families have returned to live on the site where their home once stood, making do amid mountains of rubble, with little or no protection against the wintery elements. Three babies died of exposure in the first two weeks of the year.

The usually reliable public sector salaries froze in December, a result of Israel punitively withholding tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for the latter’s moves to join the International Criminal Court. Given that these revenues account for around 70% of the PA’s budget, this is having a disastrous effect on the local economy.

Cash, electricity, food, shelter, water – the essentials for human survival – you name it, there isn’t nearly enough of it here to support Gaza’s rapidly growing population. If we discount the city-state playgrounds of the global elite, Gaza is the most densely populated territory on earth. Half of its residents are children.

To make matters worse, the word on the street and among NGO security wonks is that Islamic State sympathisers are gaining grassroots support. They made a rare public showing in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo affair, protesting outside the French Cultural Institute and inviting a low level clash with Hamas security forces, who quickly dispersed this affront to their authority. Nevertheless, it was a frightening test of the status quo. The nightmare scenario people are beginning to fear is an IS movement confident enough to provoke all out civil conflict. When Hamas start looking like the moderate good guys, it’s another sign that things are really bad.

Saving lives

On the other hand, visiting Gaza confronts you with the strength of the human spirit: compassion, admiration, and love erupt just as often as negative emotions. I have the privilege of working closely with some of Gaza’s 1,300 Christians, a little known community of immeasurable courage and resilience. As well as contending with the violence, hardship, and imprisonment that the rest of the population has to deal with, they are increasingly concerned about the threat posed by IS copycats.

One might be forgiven for assuming the remaining Christians in Gaza are lying low and focused inwardly on mere survival; far from it. For many years this has been an outward looking community, committed to the welfare of wider society. There is a Christian hospital, five schools, four health clinics, three churches, two community centres, and a number of other small ministries.

It is this Christ-inspired service that earns Christians the respect of many neighbours and authorities. Their presence has a moderating effect on society, a reminder that religious diversity and tolerance must remain a tenet of Palestinian identity.  Recently, a Christian community centre was asked to act as the host venue for a Fatah-Hamas table tennis tournament because the organisers couldn’t find a neutral alternative.

During last summer’s war, the Christian hospital remained open 24/7 with staff risking their lives to save others, and churches opened their doors to displaced families. This commitment and sacrifice raised the profile of the Christians’ contribution to society and reinvigorated their own missional impulse to love and care for their neighbours. The hospital’s director spoke to me passionately about the hospital’s role in witnessing Christian values and earning respect for their faith in a sometimes suspicious society.

The collective contribution of the various Christian institutions is saving lives and providing thousands of people with a better chance to prosper than they would otherwise have. They are reducing the number of malnourished children, increasing the number of young people with employable skills, and healing the psychological damage that war inflicts on the minds of children. For these reasons alone it would be a travesty if the Christian population declined to a point that these ministries could no longer be sustained.

The common good

However, the crippling blockade is making life unliveable and the absence of hope is causing more to look for a way out. It is one reason why we, as Christians on the left, must take political action to address the abominable situation in Gaza. We have brothers and sisters in faith imploring us to do just that for the sake of them and their Muslim neighbours – let us not ignore their cry for help.

Just as our faith inspires us to work for the common good domestically, we must also ensure our government promotes the common good abroad. This is perhaps nowhere more important than in the Middle East, and Palestine in particular.Douglas-Alexander-014.jpg

I was proud when Douglas Alexander spearheaded parliament’s recognition of Palestine last October, but our party has a far bigger opportunity ahead. We must ensure the next Labour government acts to bring about justice in the Holy Land, ensuring that Israelis and Palestinians are afforded the same dignity, liberty, and security to live abundant lives. Palestinian political leaders are by no means exempt from blame for bickering while their people suffer, but let us not be under any illusion that the root of the present crisis is the 48 year illegal occupation of Palestine by Israel.

Christian theology has played an unwelcome role in establishing and perpetuating the occupation, so as Christian socialists we have a responsibility to make amends. Using all the diplomatic and economic levers available, the next Labour government must compel Israel to end the occupation and lift the barbaric blockade of Gaza, for everyone’s sake.

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Labour to defend religious freedom

The last ten days or so have meant that 2015 has gotten off, as far as freedom is concerned, to a fairly horrific start. On 7th January, terrorists claiming to be Islamic attacked and murdered 17 people in Paris. At the same time in Baga, a Nigerian town near the border with Chad and Cameroon, two thousand people are suspected to have been killed by Boko Haram. 

Those two events understandably took up many column inches and many hours on our 24-hour rolling news channels. (The 17 deaths more than the 2000, but that's for another blogpost.) 

What that meant, beyond the devastation and grief felt globally, is that a key announcement from Douglas Alexander - and a highly relevant one in the circumstances - didn't get as much attention as it probably should have.

That announcement should have come after a peaceful Christmas break where people had a time for reflection. You don't need to be a practicing Christian, after all, to understand the enduring power of the Christmas story of a baby born in the lowliest of conditions.

But today there seems to be no room at the inn for the faith that began with a stable birth. Indeed the past year was dominated by headlines of violent anti-Christian persecution.

In Nigeria, where Boko Haram, as well as razing entire towns, is abducting Christian women and condemning them to a life of sexual slavery, to ISIL-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq, where forced conversions are often a tragic precursor to a violent and brutal death.

I should point out no-one is claiming a monopoly on victimhood. Atrocities have been carried out by all faiths at some point. But not only has this last year seen the biggest rise in people being persecuted for their faith, but the Pew Forum has pointed out that religious hostility is at a 6 year high and Open Doors have shown through their world watch list that Christians are currently the most persecuted of the major faiths.

In the face of growing anti-Christian persecution, neither ignorance nor fear of offence can be an excuse for standing by on the other side in silence. Just like anti-semitism or Islamaphobia, anti-Christian persecution must be named for the evil that it is, and challenged systematically by people of faith and of no faith.

I know that town halls and community centres, church groups and Christian leaders across the country are seeking ways to translate prayers for peace into action for justice. 

So I believe that the Government should be doing more to harness the concern and expertise of those church leaders across the UK, and beyond.

That is why I'm delighted that Labour has announced that they will establish a multi-faith advisory council on religious freedom within the Foreign Office, and a new Global Envoy for Religious Freedom.

Because in this 21st Century, as the authors of Article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights knew in 1948, we should be supporting the building of societies that respect human rights and the rule of law, and make clear that freedom of religion or belief is a universal concern. 

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Analysing the Falconer Bill

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill has its second day of Committee Stage in the House of Lords on Friday 16 January. It seeks to legalise assisted suicide (but not euthanasia) for mentally competent adults (aged over 18) with less than six months to live, subject to ‘safeguards’ under a two doctors’ signature model similar to the Abortion Act 1967. 

Opponents to the Bill had tactical choices: either to try to kill the bill dead at second reading on 18 July – as they did with a similar bill from Lord Joffe in 2006 – or to strangle it slowly in committee by amending it, if necessary with ‘wrecking’ devices. They have opted for the latter, which means clear arguments against will form part of the official record of the debate. This will effectively stop Falconer complaining that ‘we have not yet had the debate’. Peers will instead literally do it to death.

And so the House of Lords are now debating the bill line by line and considering amendments. Over175 amendments to the bill have been tabled and collated into over 40 groups. Only four of these groups were considered on the first day of committee (7 November) so there is still a long way to go (you can read last that debate here). There have even been extra amendments laid for pure comedy value!

House of Lords protocol requires that each proposed amendment has to receive the offer of debating time so given that there are only three more possible committee days this year to consider it, and none of these days have yet been allocated to it by the government whips, the bill is fast running out of time.

It may not even reach the report and third reading stages necessary for it to clear the House of Lords. And even if it does those on both sides agree that there is no time for it to go through the House of Commons before the general election on 7 May 2015.

This means almost inevitably that the bill will fall and that Lord Falconer will have to start all over again next summer – which he no doubt will do.

The debate now however is still very important as it will form part of the parliamentary record and will influence future discussions.

One development on 7 November was the ‘acceptance’ of an amendment that judges, not doctors, should take final decisions about whether someone should be given the go-ahead to take their own life. Or at least that is how it was spun by the media. In fact, Lord Pannick (a strong supporter of Falconer), who moved the amendment, was reminded by other peers of the convention not to vote on amendments before report stage, but he pushed it to a vote regardless at a time when his supporters (many of whom left soon afterwards) were present in good numbers.

Those opposed to him then simply sat on their hands and abstained meaning that a formal division was not called for. So in effect the ‘acceptance’ means very little.  No amendment stands anyway if the bill falls at third reading and more can be moved at report stage before that.

Lords Pannick’s amendment puts a fearsome onus on judges but also demonstrates one of the weaknesses of Falconer’s bill – the fact that someone on his own side felt moved to tighten his ‘safeguards’ further is further evidence that they are not safe. A fuller analysis of the bill and a paper giving warnings from Oregon where similar legislation was passed are both available on the Care Not Killing website.

These concerns about safety are further confirmed by a new Comres poll which showed that a clear majority of public says there is no safe system of assisted suicide and that more than four in ten believe assisted suicide will be extended beyond the terminally ill if the current law is changed.

Andrew Hawkins, Chairman of ComRes, has commented:

'The obvious conclusion is that while the public are broadly sympathetic to the rights-based argument in favour of ending lives at the time of a person's choice, there is widespread concern about the abuse to which any system is likely to be open. These concerns are apparent across three areas - by the medical profession... by unscrupulous relatives, and in terms of pressure to end lives prematurely and on diminishing palliative and other health care resources.'

This latest series of events has all the hallmarks of a phoney war. Regardless, Falconer and his allies will undoubtedly not let the matter rest. The first shots have indeed been fired but this battle will run and run. 

We don’t need this bill.

Any change in the law to allow assisted suicide will place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden upon others. This will especially affect people who are disabled, elderly, sick or depressed. The right to die can so easily become the duty to die.

The law we have at present does not need changing. The stiff penalties it holds in reserve provide an effective bulwark against exploitation and abuse, but in so doing it still allows judges to act with mercy in hard cases. It also protects vulnerable relatives from being subtly coerced into assisting a suicide against their better judgement.

The pressure people will feel to end their lives if assisted suicide is legalised will be greatly accentuated at this time of economic recession with families and health budgets under pressure. Elder abuse and neglect by families, carers and institutions are real and dangerous and this is why strong laws are necessary. Where there is a will, there is an anxious relative.

Furthermore experience in other jurisdictions, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and the US American states of Oregon and Washington, shows that any change in the law will lead to ‘incremental extension’ and ‘mission creep’ as some doctors will actively extend the categories of those to be included (from mentally competent to incompetent, from terminal to chronic illness, from adults to children, from assisted suicide to euthanasia). This process will be almost impossible to police.

Peter Saunders is Chief Executive of Christian Medical Fellowship and Campaign Director of the Care Not Killing Alliance

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And so 2015 has dawned. If anything, it feels quite a lot like 2014 so far, only a mite less hopeful. Perhaps that’s my state of mind. Perhaps it’s redolent of a wider cultural malaise. The news provides very little respite. Very few people in the public eye truly appear as if they have the best interests of others at heart, preferring instead point-scoring and sometimes petty, sometimes deadly, squabbling. We all want to feel better than someone else, to feel superior to someone, or some group of people, perhaps a race, an ideology, a creed, that we feel like we can look down upon from our ivory tower. All the while we seek, above all else, I believe, one simple thing in the headlong rush and panic of Western twenty-first century living: we are desperate to be safe.

Recently, it’s dawned on me (ok, I’m a bit slow on the uptake) that the General Election is not too far away. Having discharged my civic duty in telling my Christmas morning congregation to vote for the (present in said congregation) Labour candidate for our constituency, I’ve been stretching my brain and my conscience to see what it is that we look for when choosing which candidate to support and trust. Perhaps it’s the one who promises to work the hardest, to promote economic growth, or equality, or education, or health. Perhaps we seek to support the candidate who appears to live with integrity. I used to vote Liberal Democrat on the basis that it always seemed to me they came the closest to telling the truth. How naïve I was (and probably remain). Perhaps we vote for the candidate or party who promises to boost Britain’s position in Europe or on the World stage. Perhaps it’s the one who will do the most to make the world smaller for us as we come to terms with living in an ever more compact, yet individualized global village. Whatever the reason, I would contend that somewhere, underneath it all, the natural human desire for self-preservation and safety will play a role somewhere.

There’s lots of talk about tough choices, hard work, hard working families, real people, continuing on a journey. It’s all there. The language is of a firm hand, of power and authority being exerted and maintained, even extended. Which party, which local politicians, which national leader, do we trust? I am more and more convinced, and equally more and more concerned that there is a deep-seated societal fear at play in the early part of 2015. We are a scared people. Attacked from without and within, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. We long for the justice and the peace which was promised to us through the death of Jesus Christ on a hill in Palestine, and rubber-stamped in his miraculous resurrection and in the sending of his spirit to be our guide and our companion at Pentecost. The trouble is that we are seeking the security and the safety we need, most often, not from him, but from politicians and political parties and systems which are as weak and fallible as any of the rest of us. When you come to vote in May, don’t place too heavy a burden of expectation or responsibility for yours, your family’s or your community’s safety on the shoulders of one person. Instead, trust God, the only one who can truly give us the safety we crave in the deepest parts of our being, whose perfect love casts out all fear. Most of all pray, earnestly pray, that those elected to serve and lead us might, in turn, look to God, and the example of Jesus Christ’s life of sacrificial service as the model for how they take the next steps in the history of our great nation. The perfect love of Jesus casts out all fear. Might we be brave in 2015.

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We can end European extreme poverty

OneVote2014: Europe-wide anti-poverty campaign

By Michelle Appeah, UK ONE Youth Ambassador

ONE.jpgEarlier this year, the ONE Campaign launched its very first European-wide anti-poverty campaign. Co-founded by Bono, ONE is a non-partisan campaigning and advocacy organisation of around 6 million members worldwide taking action to end extreme poverty, particularly in Africa. ONE raises public awareness and work with political leaders to combat AIDS and preventable diseases, increase investments in agriculture and nutrition, and demand greater transparency so that governments are accountable to their citizens.

The Youth Ambassador scheme aimed to target MEPs, asking them to sign the OneVote2014 pledge which demonstrates their commitment to ending extreme poverty by 2030.

The pledge reads:

“Ending extreme poverty is in our hands. Together, we can make sure it is virtually eliminated by 2030. In the next 5 years, we need to build support for the poorest countries, especially through investments in agriculture, healthcare and access to energy, and to make governments and businesses transparent and accountable. As a representative of the British people, I will make sure we keep our promises in the fight against extreme poverty, and help ensure that our laws make it easier for the world’s poor to lift themselves out of poverty."

The aim was to get over half of the European Parliament committed to the pledge.


Including myself, over 120 were selected for the scheme across Europe. The UK ambassadors received training on different aspects of campaigning, went on a tour of Downing Street, and to the DFID headquarters in London. Meetings were held with a range of influential people, such as International Development minister Lynne Featherstone, who said:

“I am particularly pleased they are focusing on some of my priority areas such as health, access to energy and governance. I’m sure in the future international development will benefit from their exceptional talents.”

The UK ambassadors also met with Shadow Secretary of State Jim Murphy at an event arranged by ONE, where he set out his vision for the future of international development. Some of the UK ambassadors also met Nick Clegg, and heard his views on development aid, whilst the French ambassadors met with Bill Gates at the launch in Paris. He said:

Those of us who see the phenomenal results of aid have a responsibility to speak up to ensure this work continues despite tough economic times. That is why I am excited to see the young people…stepping up as “factivists” to help spread the truth. With continued focus and investment, I believe this can be the generation to end extreme poverty”.

After working autonomously and in groups to get MEPs signed up through face to face meetings, tweets, calls, emails, local campaigns, and lobbying, all the European ambassadors came together for the One Summit in Brussels in June. All the ambassadors received motivational speaking and talks by various entrepreneurs, ONE members, and MPs. On the last day, the ambassadors went to the European Parliament and met with a range of MEPs who delivered motivational talks, question and answer sessions, and signed the pledge. The images and inspirational quotes received throughout the ambassador scheme were tweeted constantly with the trending hashtag ‘#onevote2014’.

However, the ambassadors didn’t stop after the summit. The UK ambassadors campaigned to get at least 100 MPs to attend the Second Reading of the International Development Bill in September 2014, which was successful, and also campaigned about the Trillion Dollar scandal at the Conservative Party Conference. The French, German, Italian, Belgian, and Dutch ambassadors also continued to meet with MEPs, as well as campaign on a range of issues such as the Trillion Dollar scandal.

The support of the public was gained through urging them to sign a petition which would in turn persuade MEPs to sign the pledge. Some ambassadors even got the support of musicians. However, there is now no need to add to the 70,000+ signatures gained as over half of the European Parliament has committed to the pledge – the target has been met! Despite this, the more MEPs signed up, the greater the chance of getting the conditions of the pledge met. Therefore, I am asking you to urge the remaining of the MEPs to sign the pledge. You can see who has and hasn’t signed through the OneVote2014 Tracker.

You can tweet, call, email, or write a letter to any of the MEPs. Working together, with the Millennium Development Goals, we have achieved the following:

  • 18.3 million children under the age of one have been immunised against measles
  • 13.7 million more children are benefiting from primary education
  • 24.5 million people have access to sanitation facilities
  • 46.5 million people assisted through social transfers for food security

Extreme poverty has roughly halved in the last 20 years from 46% to 21%, we can get it to 0% with your help. Thank you.     

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