GREEK LESSONS

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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Safety

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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Happy New Year

Well, here we are. 2015. It's going to be a busy one! Lots to do and say and many miles to walk. We want to see Christians show up and to keep showing up, playing our part in the politics of our nation. Here's Gavin Shuker talking about the importance of the coming election.

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It's a wonderful life

Whether we are celebrating Christmas for reasons of faith or otherwise we could all do a alot worse that watch the Frank Capra classic ‘Its a wonderful life’ . Whilst some see an All-American saccharine story, it contains themes that are relevant and inspirational. As a Christian Socialist I see the story as powerful and inspiring.

 

The film focuses on a man, George Bailey, who gets to see what life would be like in his home town had he not been born. Through supernatural help, God sends an angel, Clarence to show him what life would have been like in Bedford Falls, had he never lived.

 

In essence, we see that without Bailey, a virtuous family man and communitarian owner of a building and loan company, Bedford Falls becomes corrupted at the hands of a nihilistic, cynical tyrant called Potter. Many other negative things happen because Bailey simply wasn’t there to prevent them or be influential. A lovely story, but is it just a lovely story? For me, as this time, when we can might be more open to reflection it contains some powerful messages.

 

Firstly, the film reminds me that no life is worthless, Capra intentionally wanted to communicate this. We see that one life can, overtime have immense impact, without the impact of that life, who knows what can happen? What would life be like in the UK had Keir Hardie, Clem Attlee, Barbara Castle or Nye Bevan never been born?

 

Furthermore, we are to hold onto hope and reject cynicism. George Bailey is a hopeful person, but he is perhaps not hugely successful. Yet, he is a man of character, a man of virtue, who loves his family and is respected in the community. He is hopeful, he is a dreamer, he is a romantic rather than a rationalist and I believe Labour needs its romantics.

 

In addition, the Capra epic reminds us what success really is. Our hero is not a careerist, in the film, Bailey never quite achieves all he wants to do. He is forced to stay at home and tend the family business when he would rather travel the world. He faces personal disappointment and has broken dreams. Through this painful process his real success is born, but it is not apparent. What is success for Labour? What is success for us? Is it winning or achievement or is it more than that but less perhaps obvious? Similarly, if our political purpose becomes only orientated towards winning and achievement at all cost then we loss something of value. As the film ends Clarence sends Bailey a note saying ‘No man is a failure, who has friends’This reminds me that relationships should trump achievements.

 

The business and community ethos of Bailey is one of compassion and communitarianism. It is not one of naked individualism, or a nihilistic, predatory capitalism. His business provides people with decent homes so they can remain decent citizens.

 

The opportunity Bailey is given; of seeing what life would have been like had he not lived is something none of us will get. He sees his town become a soulless, chaotic, dog-eat-dog place of disenchantment. Compared to a decent town with some semblance of community and where he is held in high regard. This powerfully re-inforces the truth that no life is worthless, no-one should be overlooked or put down. Politics can too often focus on the big picture and the abstract and ignore or crush the individual and his or her worth.

 

We see that in the end, there is no wealth, but life, family and friends. At Christmas time, I like to be reminded that my worth is not defined by my economic utility or achievement but has been forever changed because an extraordinary event occurred to very ordinary people two thousand years ago and that has changed my life.

 

Happy Christmas and best wishes for 2015, it really is a wonderful life.

 

 

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Faith and Politics: Words from the Chair

Stephen Timms MP with Rob Flello MP Stephen Timms MP gave a speech in Stoke-on-Trent about the growing grassroots movement of faith-based social activism and the need for more partnership between politics and faith-based organisations and churches.

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ADVENT THOUGHTS ON ELECTION YEAR

Tom Carty argues that, as we enter election year, the Labour Party is better placed than is generally assumed. It needs to show the courage of its convictions (and some Advent spirit).

The publication this week of the Smith Commission's report was a reminder of the Labour Party's loss of nerve and direction since the latter stages of the Scottish referendum campaign. Hopelessly wrong-footed first by the progressive tenor of the 'Yes' campaign, and then by Cameron's ruthless exploitation of its electoral fears and instinctive constitutional conservatism, Labour has threatened melt down at times.            

This was most dramatically evident in the sudden upsurge of dissatisfaction with the leader (and it was personal, especially when the right-wing press pitched in). In the event, the immediate panic subsided, but the fact that people were apparently seriously prepared to consider dumping  the leader just six months before a general election testifies to the level of volatility. The leadership's overreaction to the 'white van' tweet was one more expression of this malaise.

The uncertainty also shows signs of affecting policy. After articulating a post-New Labour social democratic approach, which reflects the leader's own instincts, the party has recently seemed unsure of its direction. There is talk once more of focus groups. Ed Balls' embrace of the Tories' self-imposed austerity straitjacket, coupled with the ‘symbolic’ freezing of child benefit (far from symbolic to the mothers who will lose out) are not encouraging.

More worrying still, some in the leadership clearly want the party to respond to the rise of UKIP by echoing its rhetoric and aping some of its policies, as demonstrated by the party’s distinctly muted reaction to the government’s announcement of a four-year qualification period for EU migrants' entitlement to in-work benefits, and deportation for those arriving without a job who do not find one within six months. Apart from being morally repulsive and cynical, accepting the logic of UKIP, as the Tories have, is a blind alley for Labour, as we cannot (I hope) compete with them on their ground. The same applies to going along with Cameron's reckless promise of a referendum on continuing membership of the EU.

Anyway, the situation is less threatening than it seems:

First of all and this explains the increasingly desperate tone of the attacks on Labour in the Tory press, the fact is that in England it is the Conservatives who have the greater problems going into election year. Despite the spin put on recent by-election results, Labour retained its seat, while the Tories lost both theirs. UKIP is more of a threat to the Tories than to Labour. Not only will it take seats directly off them, it will hand seats to Labour by splitting the right-wing vote. A UKIP presence in Parliament will encourage Eurosceptic Tories, probably leading to a split in the Conservative Party. 

The prospect of 'English votes' depriving Labour of an effective majority after the election depends on getting legislation through, or at least into the Queen's Speech However, only the Tories want a minimal quick fix which does not address the matter of how England should be governed and how the different parts of the UK are to relate to one another. The Liberal Democrats have long favoured a federal solution. If we are bold we can call the Tories' bluff. Nothing is decided yet.

That leaves the likely loss of seats in Scotland to the SNP. We have to accept that Labour has seemed to many of its voters in Scotland to take them for granted.  Apart from its complacency, the poor performance of Labour-dominated local government, the perceived abandonment of its distinctive values, and the Iraq war are among the factors behind the disenchantment with Labour. If the new leader in Scotland gets off to a good start by recognising and beginning to address failings, the losses next May could turn out to be less dramatic than feared.

If the Labour Party has the courage to go to the people with a programme which addresses the issues which they recognise as needing urgent action, they will respond positively. Above all, this means dealing with the consequences of the systematic assault on the poor and on the fabric of social provision in the name of austerity. We have to be united and focused on winning the election to remedy these injustices. As we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ, we should renew our faith in the light of his unequivocal requirement to serve the poor and the cause of justice.

Tom Carty is the author of' 'The Jesus Reader. The Teaching and Identity of Jesus Christ' (Columba Press, Dublin 2013). He blogs at 'Seek First the Kingdom’’.

 

 

 

 

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