Blue Labour: stories of the Common Good

The American Theologian Stanley Hauerwas cites the story Watership Down to demonstrate the ‘…moral significance of narrative for construing the Christian life’.[1] In an essay in which he thoughtfully unpacks this point we are instructed that ‘…Watership Down is mean’t to teach us the importance of stories for social and political life’.

In many ways ‘Blue Labour:forging a new politics’ published in February is a collection of stories in essay form situated in the broader story known as ‘Blue Labour’.  Blue Labour offers a social and political narrative that speaks of the primacy of faith and family life: those anchors that give working people meaning and belonging, including also the value and dignity of good and meaningful work. It also honours a sense of ‘place’ in undergirding the attachment ordinary people have to their local community. A disposition that has been degraded and tested in the modern world but still holds true for many people. It is these stories and traditions which constitute Blue Labour. Blue Labour allows these stories to be articulated and therefore offers a real opportunity for Labour to re-connect with ordinary people. Allowing those stories which secular modernity resists or disowns to be fully expressed implicitly recognises the importance of the people who can articulate and identify with these stories.

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Why Christians should be involved in politics - and on the Left

Christians should be more involved in politics, and on the Left. That was the theme of my Portsmouth Cathedral Lent lecture last month, when I spoke to the title 'A faith based manifesto?'.

In the lecture, to a mainly church audience and including both theological and practical perspectives, I talked about how an appreciation of the whole Gospel should lead us into greater political involvement. I noted that, at the least, politicians 'show up' to make decisions and if we think we can do better, we should show up too. I looked at some of the pitfalls of getting involved. I also argued that the challenge of inequality should be something that encourages Christians to get more involved in politics. Finally I discussed the need for vision and hope in politics today.

The lecture text can be found here.

 

Stephen Beer

www.stephenbeer.com

@stephen_beer

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Book Review: Religion in Britain – A Persistent Paradox by Grace Davie

book_review.jpgProfessor Davie’s long-awaited second edition to her original 1994 book, Religion in Britain since 1945, should not be a disappointment to those who believe that religion still continues to play an important role in the fabric of the United Kingdom, despite the onward march of secularization. The central theme of the original book was the contradiction between religious belief and practice which manifested itself in the subtitle of Believing without Belonging, a theme which was quickly taken up during subsequent sociological discussions or studies into religion. This follow-up book deals with another central paradox; that half way into the second decade of the twenty-first century, and despite diminishing church attendances and increasing secularism within mainstream society, religion still commands a growing influence in public life and debate, hence the Persistent Paradox of the title.

As a friend of the Theos Thinktank, I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the book’s launch at their Westminster offices, where in front of an audience of academics, politicians, clergy and other interested parties, Prof Davie outlined her findings from a period covering the end of a long succession of Conservative Governments in 1997, through the rise of New Labour under Tony Blair and its thirteen years in office, until replaced in 2010 by the current Tory/Lib Dem Coalition headed by David Cameron, right up to the present day. (On page 28 however, it incorrectly describes David Cameron as becoming Conservative Party Leader in 2003 when it was in fact 2005, replacing Michael Howard after the General Election that year). In the preface, she outlines how the debate about the high public profile given to the churches has become much sharper since the mid-1990’s leaving a nation which she says, still has a deeply embedded Christian heritage, but which is now both increasingly secular in outlook and more diverse with regards to its religious profile. In this second edition only 10% of the original text has been retained, such has been the dramatic change in the last two decades it has necessitated a comprehensive re-write.

The book is divided into five distinct parts covering eleven chapters, with the introduction in part one setting out the framework of factors which need to be taken into account when discussing religion in modern Britain. These include the cultural heritage that Christianity has bestowed both physically with its buildings, but also in terms of the calendar cycle; the role of the historic churches in influencing morality which although diminished in recent decades, still occupies a place in the national psyche at certain times; how Christian religious practice has been marketed in a switch from obligation to attend to one of attendance by choice; the impact of immigration and in particular the introduction of new religious practices in the public arena; and how the presence of religion in the public debate impacts on the secular elite and the framing of parliamentary legislation. The findings for each are discussed in concise detail in the subsequent chapters, each of which is clearly structured to provide an overview of the subject, the specific arguments and counter-arguments involved, before drawing the various threads together in conclusion.

The primary focus of the book is on the Church of England, which as the established church has its own special place within the constitutional settlement of the country. Interestingly Davie makes several observations in the book about the future of the Church in particular her assertion – although not a unique one – that the current structure of the church cannot be sustained financially in the long term, and like any institution facing such a severe crisis, far-reaching and sometimes painful changes may have to be made in addition to those which may already be taking place. The advantages of having a weak established church are also explored in some depth and may be the cause of further debate within the church, in particular what some may regard as an unacceptable reduction in influencing areas of public policy where the church has a special interest, such as end of life care, marriage, rights of the embryo etc.

This takes us back to the central theme of the book. That despite the increasing secularization within a multi-cultural and multi-faith society, when it comes to influence and profile, religion whether Christian and other faith varieties, still manages to make its presence felt in the public arena together with the challenges such a presence brings. Although this book is targeted at a primarily academic/theological audience, it sets out in clear precise language the findings of much detailed research drawing not only on Davie’s thinking and previous work, but also referencing the work of academics, theologians and other experts in their fields, to support or challenge where appropriate, the arguments made.

I found this an absorbing book, easy to read and to digest and one which could and should be read by anyone who professes an interest in the place of religion and religious belief in public life. In her final conclusion, Prof Davie expresses the hope that her book will improve the religious literacy of those that read it.

In my view, this is something that is certainly achievable.

Michael Cronogue is the West Midlands delegate to the national executive.  He previously campaigned on behalf of people living with Motor Neurone Disease and other neurological conditions with various responsibilities for PR and media including editing newsletters, blogging and creation of social media presence.

 

 

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These are the days of Elijah…and Obadiah too

images_(1).jpgAs the General Election approaches many churches in the United Kingdom will rightly want to take seriously this important national political moment.  Churches will pray for the election and the candidates. They might perhaps hold ‘hustings’ debates to facilitate a serious discussion of the key issues. A key driver will be a sincere desire to be ‘salt and light’ and an influence for good as the election proceeds.

The Church of England recently made a positive and welcome contribution to debate, seeking a ‘..call for the new direction that we believe our political life ought to take’. In a letter aptly entitled ‘Who is my neighbour?’[1] The House of Bishops stressed that the key election issues highlight the need for ‘..a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be’. Given the challenges we face, we need more not less emphasis upon a common good approach to political life.

Of course engagement and interest may vary and Christians are not immune from the culture we live in and attitudes that prevail. As the election draws near we will be reminded (very swiftly I expect) that we are in the midst of a time of deep disenchantment with politics and politicians.  The reasons for this are complex and this perception will filter down to Christians. In response ‘Those who show up’, a positive Christian initiative is attempting to highlight the positive need for Christian engagement in public life up to the election and beyond.  Such endeavours are vitally important particularly when there will be a lot of anti-political ‘noise’.

However my specific concern is this: How do we uphold the good that is done in politics and not lose sight of the central purposes of God’s Kingdom and the significant place of the church? How can we be political and not lose our prophetic edge?

In seeking to unpack this question I find 1 Kings 18 and the story of Elijah and Obadiah a helpful starting point. It reminds us of the need to remain faithful to the Kingdom and also to be wisely and thoughtfully engaged in politics.

This passage suggests a dynamic interaction between Obadiah who works within the ‘system’ and Elijah who challenges the ‘system’ and the powers in his role as a prophet. Both are valid, but not equally. I would submit that Elijah is the fulcrum of the story. We see the value of Obadiah’s faithfulness but it is Elijah who confronts Ahab and the pagan prophets.

Through the account of Elijah and Obadiah we learn that good can be achieved within the system, that revelation shapes prophetic action and that the Kingdom is the ultimate source of authority and is not subject to the temporal powers.

In the passage in question we see that Obadiah who faithfully serves King Ahab has achieved good whilst in that role. We are told in verse (4) that he had protected one hundred prophets from death at the hands of Jezebel and in verses five (5) and six (6) he is sent to see if grass can be found to feed the animals as a famine was besetting Samaria.   Crucially we see that he is an active believer, his faith is not nominal. In verse twelve (12) he pleads with Elijah that he has ‘..worshipped the Lord since my youth’. Thus godly devotion and political service are not incompatible. Discipleship and spiritual formation makes for good politics.

Obadiah underlines the fact that good can be achieved in politics, even though any earthly system of governance is flawed. Politics reflects God’s rule albeit in a limited and constrained manner. God by his grace is at work through the gospel message of his incarnated son who came to redeem all things.  God’s plan is to restore all things (Acts 3v21) and that means he is interested in every human activity and institution.  Therefore, politics cannot be immune from the reach of God’s amazing love, indescribable grace and the extension of his Kingdom.

It must be possible to appreciate God’s plan of ultimate redemption and respect where through political action and struggle justice and righteousness have prevailed. Political action in the United Kingdom has seen health care established, minimum standards in the labour market, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and the foundation of the welfare state following years of destitution in parts of the country. Those who criticise politics in a blanket and cynical way should reflect on their lazy thinking when they overlook these important achievements. Prophetic engagement by the church should not inadvertently endorse this attitude (which feeds populist politics) and in some respect is generated by the parts of the press interested in sensation and excessive negativity.  Many politicians in all parties enter the profession with some measure of good motives, however defined.  Again this does not mean that they are perfect or indeed the system cannot be improved but our assessment of politics must be clear and balanced. MPs and local councillors work long hours serving their community and constituents, helping people who have no voice and little resources. This is barely mentioned in the national discourse. There are many Obadiah’s in the UK, serving their local community through politics and achieving good. This might be limited and temporary but it should be acknowledged.  

Of course the Obadiah analogy is not confined to politics, good can be realised in all manners of public life and community work such as being a school governor, journalist, business person, classroom assistant or road sweeper. My concern, experience and reflection is focussed on the political realm. If we can appreciate the virtue of pragmatism, then we can understand how Obadiah saved the lives of the prophets and how Wilberforce was single minded in challenging the slave trade. Obadiah is a pragmatist, he has the ability to gets things done.

What we don’t know is the things that Obadiah didn’t do, perhaps the things he did because he had to do but would rather not have wanted to and things he did that might look dubious to our ‘modern eyes’. We don’t know. All Christian politicians will need to know that there is a time to comply and a time to defy the established political order. This is not a straightforward matter. It calls for discernment and grace.

And now to Elijah. I would submit that if Obadiah signifies legitimate political service as mission, then perhaps Elijah is representative of the Kingdom of God. We see that from verse one (1) it is the word of God, his prophetic revelation which sets the scene for the activity: ‘…the word of the Lord came to Elijah’. Could this be an encouragement and corrective to all of us? We need to seek God’s guidance and word in all our activity. Without it the scene is set by humanistic and secular assumptions and well-meaning liberalism dressed up as Christianity. We are not here to endorse the liberal social, political and economic order. Engagement with the political culture should not mean we become assimilated to its presuppositions.

We see that Elijah carries God’s authority and Obadiah recognises this, in verse seven (7) he bows down at the sight of Elijah and calls him ‘..my lord’. Elijah then instructs Obadiah to tell Ahab that he is here. Elijah is confident, aware of his mission and unbeholden to the powers. This is why we must never conflate the temporary, important work of politics with the Kingdom or see the Kingdom and church as somehow ‘marginal’.  Politics is important and can make a difference, but it is imperfect and imperfectible, limited, hollow and it cannot save, transform and redeem. Of course much of political discourse acts to mask and conceal this fact. Like Elijah the church is to know its mission, to be clear on its role and speak truth to power and not ‘baptise’ and sacralise earthly powers. There will be tension and there should be. I heard the American preacher Louis Giglio preach in 2013 and say that the world thinks that the church is marginal to it when in reality the world is marginal to the church. This may sound arrogant but I would submit that it is true. We need to be absolutely clear on this. We cannot do politics without theology and unless we get our theology right our politics will be wonky.

Finally, Elijah is simply not beholden to the powers. Obadiah who works within the system fears for his life (the powers like all Empires rule through fear and as feeble humans this will impact us) but Elijah won’t have any of it. He must present himself to Ahab. See verse fifteen ’…As the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today’. See the operative principles: God lives, we serve him and we must surely do his will. Everything else is commentary. Walter Brueggemann describes Elijah as someone on a ‘…rampage of transformative action, confronting and challenging the power of the throne and creating, beyond royal control, zones of new life that defy any normal explanation’.[2]  

How can we operate in the community, politics, commercial and social sphere and create these ‘zones of new life’? This election is important for many reasons but there is a bigger, deeper and richer story of God’s politics, his rule and reign which is life giving.

The last twenty years has seen a growing appreciation that evangelism and social action are integrated activities. Flowing from this Christian engagement in politics has taken a fresh, more positive tone within the mainstream. Yet, my sense is that there is much more to do in our engagement and crucially in our theology.

I believe that we need both an affirmation of the legitimacy of political service and a more mature understanding of the political dimensions of the church in an eschatological sense. We also need a wise understanding of the powers. In these endeavours a reflection on the example of Obadiah and Elijah is a helpful starting point from which to set our compass.

Ian Geary, Executive Member, Christians on the Left

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1]Who is my neighbour? A letter from the House of Bishops to the People and Parishes of the Church of England for the General Election 2015’, The Church of England, 5 February 2015, https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2170230/whoismyneighbour-pages.pdf

 

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Truth speaks to power – the counter-cultural nature of scripture, (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2013), p. 84.

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BEING POSITIVE ABOUT COALITION

download.jpgTom Carty argues that Labour must explore the scope for an anti-Tory coalition including the SNP and the Liberal Democrats

Close your eyes and imagine the scene outside 10 Downing Street on 8 May as David Cameron returns from the Palace, confirmed in office. It is such a distressing thought that you have probably avoided (or suppressed) it. However, the most recent polling evidence suggests we had better turn our minds to it. Once you get over the nausea, what this painful exercise does is bring home what is at stake on 7 May.

A choice of society

For the first time since the elections of the 1980s, 2015 involves a choice of society. It puts you in mind of Neil Kinnock’s prophetic warning in 1983, that if the Thatcher government were returned to power, then it would be better not to be old, poor or sick. The consequences of a Tory victory, both domestically (for example: under the cover of austerity, a continuing radical attack on benefits and on services provided by local government, along with tax cuts favouring the rich) and internationally (for example: a Eurosceptic-driven referendum on continuing membership of the EU), mean that we have an overriding duty to prevent it. If Labour fails to obtain an overall majority it must therefore be prepared to enter a coalition or other arrangement reflecting the anti-Tory majority in the country. To do so will involve unlearning expectations and reflexes which belong to what is for the foreseeable future, whether we like it or not, the lost age of majority governments, and embracing the new political landscape with humility as expressing the will of the people.

Facing up to the implications

Coalition politics is still unfamiliar territory for the electorate, as it is for politicians, but we are probably going to have to get used to it, so the sooner Labour does think practically and speak honestly about the implications the better.

To spell out a couple of those implications:

• If Labour falls short of a majority in the next Parliament, it will almost certainly mean it will have to enter into some sort of agreement, if not a formal coalition, with the SNP (which certainly counts as anti-Tory, and which has already stated that it would not in any circumstances sustain a Conservative government in power, but that it is ready to lend its support to a progressive alliance). This will be very hard for many in the party to accept, as the strength of the SNP will be in direct proportion to the scale of its victory over Labour in Scotland.

• It's likely the Liberal Democrats will be much diminished in the next Parliament. While permitting them for the first time since the Second World War to demonstrate that they are more than a party of protest, coalition with the Tories has been a bruising experience. Many would welcome the chance of demonstrating their independence of the Tories and Labour should be prepared to accept that as party they have a natural place in an anti-Tory constellation. Again, this will be difficult for most Labour supporters (not to mention the wider electorate) to accept.

Advantages and priorities of a progressive coalition

A Labour-led 'big tent’ coalition, which would also naturally include the Greens and Plaid Cymru, has the additional advantage of isolating the Tories, leaving them with only UKIP and the DUP as potential partners. We also need to remember that they did not win in 2010 (in fact they have not won a majority since 1992), and a further defeat involving loss of power would lead to a change of leadership, with factionalism and more extreme policies crippling them in opposition. Boris Johnson is waiting in the wings.

Any coalition will have to be carefully prepared and presented because neither the party nor the electorate understand coalition politics. Securing acceptance will depend above all on the content of the coalition agreement. There must be no hint of secret deals or quid pro quos. The parties must demonstrate their willingness to work together, that they are prepared to compromise on treasured policies. They must address the issues raised in the pastoral letter of the Anglican bishops and positively articulate the genuine common commitment of the coalition partners to social justice and public services, as well as to EU membership. We can also assume that the presence of the other parties will strengthen Labour's resolve to entrust to a broad-based national constitutional convention urgent, and related, questions such as electoral reform (in the light of the changed party landscape), the future shape of the Union, parliamentary reform (including the representation of England, and the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected upper house).

If you have any lingering doubts, just consider the virulence with which the right-wing press attacks the prospect of a Labour/SNP alliance. So scared are the Tories of the threat this poses to their continuing grip on power that, like former party chairman Kenneth Baker, they are even willing to consider a German-style Grand Coalition of the two main parties. But London is not Berlin, and Merkel's CDU is a very different creature from the Tory party, which like UKIP, is simply not koalitionsfähig (suitable for or capable of coalition), to use a neat German term. Fortunately, all the other parties are.

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

 

 

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Liberty, equality, fraternity

George Orwell said that 'in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act'.  Inspired by his comment, I'd like to leave you with three revolutionary words, words that in light of the Baga and Paris attacks of last month, we must hold on to more dearly than ever.  These words are: liberty, equality, fraternity. 

First, liberty.  We must not take our freedoms for granted, freedoms that allow us to meet here tonight unhindered.  In fact, we must cherish our freedom and delight in our democracy, even when it frustrates us.  But that freedom is not an excuse for rampant individualism.  Rather, it is in the service of others that our freedom finds fulfilment: in community; for community.  And so we reject the Tea Party types who reduce and individualise the complexity of life and the entire mission of God to the erroneous equation of personal salvation + GDP alone.  Or, put another way, saving²  - financial and spiritual.   We reject their libertarian market society and market theology.  We choose liberty to serve: to serve our God, to serve each other, to serve our world.

Second, equality.  In this we look to the very beginning, when God created our species in His image and gave us the privilege and responsibility of looking after His planet, our home.  The Greek word for home, oikos, gives us both ecology – which sustains and inspires us – and economy – which also sustains and inspires us.  But we affirm the economy as the servant of society and not the master, a means to a just and flourishing world, and not the end.  So we reject the failed neoliberal policies that with one hand take good jobs from good people and outsource them, and then with the other hand, take away the social securities that these same people have been left to depend on.  Is it just me, or does the nasty party just keep on getting nastier?  We also hold to account the Church when it becomes too cosy with Capital, when this ecclesiastical capture gags it from speaking out against inequality and injustice.  We choose equality: before God, with each other, in our world. 

Thirdly, finally, fraternity.  The visionaries who coined these three revolutionary words knew that there would always be a tension between liberty and equality.  So they added another word to mediate the strain: fraternity, or love.  Not a cushy, mushy sort but a fierce love that is graceful and true.  A love that, as Andy Flanagan, Director of Christians on the Left, sings, 'equals sacrifice.'  For in the end, what matters most in life is not how much we earned or spent, but how much we loved.  And if relationships are the currency of life, then love is the glue that binds it all together.  I don't know how often love is mentioned in these hallowed halls but, let me tell you, we need a whole lot more of it.  The question, therefore, isn't should love underpin our politics and policies, but how?  So we reject plutocratic pharisaism in this province, that sucks all the love out of life.  Honestly, I've seen more grace in graveyards!  We choose fraternity: with God, with each other, with our world.

Three revolutionary words: liberty, equality, fraternity.  But I finish with some even more powerful prose from the greatest revolutionary who ever lived, words of faith that must inform our beloved democracy in a new Northern Ireland and beyond:

The Spirit of the Lord us upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.

This is our vision.  This is our mandate.  This is Christians on the Left.  We invite you to join us.

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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

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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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