Tom Carty on cynicism in politics

I'm currently re-watching the 'The West Wing'. I know it's soft-centred, both in its underlying assumptions about America, and its portrayal of folksy liberal virtue in the too good to be true shape of President Josh Bartlett. This also applies to the way his ideological opponents are played, but I can live with that, since they tend to be our opponents too. That is anyway part of the attraction. It reminds us, if we are old enough, of the time when it was possible to be idealistic about politics, not to mention politicians. However, the series’ main fascination lies in its detailed picture of a candidate's campaign team developing into a president's staff. Tensions between principle and expediency are common to both situations, but the sheer pressure of competing priorities makes the White House the more challenging environment.

Among the questions it implicitly raises is whether a degree of cynicism is inevitable in politics. And if it is, does that make it acceptable? Asking those questions risks making you sound trite and pious, not to mention naive. Even worse, it could be taken as reflecting the currently prevalent and dangerous anti-political mood. Nonetheless, not least from a Christian standpoint, the question needs posing. In doing so, I must confess to having been involved in some cynical, knockabout local campaigns in the past. If we thought at all about it, I suppose we would have justified what we were doing as giving the Liberal Democrats a taste of their own medicine. It was also great fun.

I’m not talking about straightforward lying here. Lies are of course a feature of the cynical attitude to politics, as we saw in the media interventions of ministers during the run-up to the Iraq war. As a Christian writing for a largely Christian audience, I assume that I don't have to make out a case for regarding lying as simply wrong. It’s the more subtle dishonesties routinely involved in normal political discourse which most of those actively involved in politics no doubt regard as necessary and in no way problematic that interest me.

To take a recent example, why does Ed Balls' policy, launched in his recent conference speech, of freezing child benefit for the first two years of a Labour government make one feel so uncomfortable? It's not just that the policy stinks. It is also not based on any principles or policy priorities concerning the benefits system. The fact is it's not even about what level of child benefit the country should or could afford (the resulting savings will be tiny), It is designed to demonstrate (to whom?) that a Labour government will not spare welfare, that it will not be a soft touch. It is an example (admittedly a relatively mild one) of the recent trend to draw a line between welfare recipients and 'hard-working families'. Labour seems to have embraced the rhetoric behind this policy of exclusion. I will at least pay the leadership the compliment of not believing that they really think in these terms, but that's what makes it cynical. They would no doubt see it as prudent positioning … .

What would President Bartlett say? Or Jesus Christ?

Tom Carty is the author of ‘The Jesus Reader. The Teaching and Identity of Jesus Christ’ Columba Press 2013

Access his blog ‘SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM’ via his website






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Labour values in a 10/40 window

1040window.jpgEvangelicals use the term 10/40 Window to describe the part of the world where the Church’s influence is weakest. It refers to the area between 10 degrees to 40 degree north of the Equator. This region includes North Africa, the Near East the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent and South East Asia.


Running a church in this part of the world is very different from elsewhere. A church that meets in someone’s basement under cover of darkness doesn’t need to worry about the colour of the carpet or the pews being pulled out. A church characterised by the accapella singing of hymns learnt in the oral tradition won’t have arguments over whether to be accompanied by a historic organ or a “worship band”.  And theological debates over the comparative use of wine or grape juice probably seem somewhat academic in a place where managing to feed your children is a major achievement.


Since my selection as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in the Tory stronghold of Hitchin & Harpenden I have often found encouragement from the lives of Christians who live in the 10/40 window. Their challenges are much, much greater than mine but there are similarities that I draw on.


Hitchin & Harpenden Labour Party’s challenges are different from those in South Shields and East Ham, or even Harlow and Stevenage. We do not run the local council – or County Council – so we are not burdened by the trappings and responsibilities of public office. We do, however, have heated debates over how our five councillors (twelve across North Hertfordshire) can best wearelabour.jpgchallenge the governing administration. We don’t argue over which Shadow Minister we want at our next branch meeting but we do find encouragement in the fact that many of our members (due to our proximity to London, and perversely, our high house prices) are leaders in their chosen field across a range of industries and sectors.  I do not have a regular column in the local paper – and I haven’t (yet) appeared on Newsnight - but I have had measurable success getting into the local press – perhaps even because I help to diversify the local Tory hegemony.


It is a great relief to me that we don’t have arguments over whether or not we have hit our voter contact rate for the month but, paradoxically, that is also a great sadness. Sometimes it is difficult to articulate to my Inner London friends exactly how low a base we start from. A good way to think of it is a huddled group of believers meeting in a basement somewhere in Uzbekistan. Forget the pews, the red carpet, the organ and the choir robes and imagine us singing “Kumbaya” by candlelight. [My Hitchin and Harpenden comrades will hate this analogy, but I do think it’s very apt!]


As a candidate, I often find myself being my own Campaign Manager,  Press Officer, Branch Secretary and Membership Officer. I fold leaflets into the small hours, I put in my own orders for materials off Membersnet and I spend an awful lot of time on the Ballot_papers.jpgphone and email to members. My number one priority is “Capacity Building”. How much we can achieve is directly proportional to how many people I can recruit to do things. After all, there is only one of me – and I routinely find that this is a major limitation.


This challenge is made greater by the fact that one of my roles as a candidate in a non-target seat is to mobilise members to campaign in our “twin seat” of Stevenage. So, on a “Super Saturday” I am expected to turn up with an army of activists from the Hitchin and Harpenden constituency to help us win a key marginal so as to form a Labour Government in 2015. This is a bit like asking the Vicar of Tashkent to get together a delegation of Christians to support the work at Canterbury Cathedral. The difference in manpower ought to be obvious – even to the untrained eye. Please don’t misunderstand me: I understand the theory – getting a Labour Government involves winning Stevenage - but in practice, this can be an extraordinarily tall order.


If I have learnt anything over the last few months it is that I have learnt to appreciate people for what they can DO rather than what they think or say. Even when someone offers to deliver 200 leaflets, I become filled with gratitude. It make me want to listen to their opinions and allow them to have influence. Making a difference in politics isn’t Rocket Science: it starts with a willingness to serve.


“whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”


Rachel Burgin is the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hitchin & Harpenden and is a member of Christians on the Left. If you are interested in delivering 200 leaflets for her or being part of a vast army of activists that she can take to Stevenage to campaign ( you can contact her on


You are also welcome to attend the Hitchin Stand Up For Labour event on 7th November


You can find out more about her campaign at

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He that plays with fire will get burned

euro_rights.pngChristabel McCooey looks at why replacing the European Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights would be a bad idea. 

How naïve yet strangely right, people are for thinking that getting rid of the Human Rights Act will give the UK government greater freedom: yes, greater freedom to trammel over peoples' lives without consequence.

'Well, why not just have a tailor-made UK Bill of Rights?'

Because the whole point of the Human Rights Act is to ensure that there is always an objective, external way to review how a government treats individual people. With a UK Bill, the highest place to go to challenge the actions of the government would be the UK Supreme Court. But this court is already extremely deferential to the UK government, despite the impression the Daily Mail might give you. It all too often lets the government get on with what it wants and avoids causing a fuss. One of the only few counterbalances to that is human rights.

Also, Britain itself was instrumental in creating and pushing for the European Convention on Human Rights after Hitler was defeated because, it, like the rest of Europe, saw first-hand how seemingly civilized people could massacre their own neighbours. It realized that you need 'universal values' ie basic minimum standards for living as a dignified human being, 'human rights', but also that you needed a separate, independent power to keep every country accountable to these values which they signed up to. Otherwise, if it were just left to the countries to monitor themselves they'd say, 'of course we're human rights compliant, mind your own business', and get on with the policies they wanted, avoiding the inconvenience of respecting peoples' voices.

The UK is trying to say, 'we helped develop human rights, of course we don’t need help from Europe' but is basically ignoring the founding principle it realised 60 years ago, which is that even a 'progressive' government will readily begin to encroach on peoples' freedoms when it suits their interests if there are not strong external barriers to them doing so, ie. the ECHR and Human Rights Act.

'Christabel is training to be a barrister specialising in human rights and international criminal law. She has spent time assisting capital defence lawyers in New Orleans and working with campaigners to end the death penalty in Louisiana. She also writes for the Justice Gap.

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The militant, violent non-violence of love

Reflection on Jesus' call to jihadists and us: the militant, violent non-violence of love

News of jihadist brutalities in establishing an Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria has impacted me deeply.  Beheadings of American and British prisoners, reports of violence against Kurds, Christians and even fellow Muslims with differing views is appalling and invites response.  How do we respond to the current climate of terror and unrest in the Middle East that is in alignment with Jesus’ teaching and example of suffering, saving love?

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Referendums, re-engaged voters and the demise of the spin doctors

Alan Staff takes a look at the political landscape post the Scottish referendum and asks "is honesty the new pragmatism?"

From whatever political starting point you come from in Scotland there is no doubt that the overwhelming sentiment expressed at referendum was for some sort of change, whether within or without the Union.

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How to vote on air strikes - a brief guide

Once again, Parliament is to debate military action in the Middle East. MPs (and peers) will debate the case for action in Iraq against ISIL. The government’s position on military action and its motion before Parliament outline its case for action in Iraq. They emphasise the nature and activities of ISIL. The government has ruled out action in Syria without additional debate in Parliament.

In contrast to the Syria debate last year, there appears to be more support for action by the UK. Nevertheless, the government’s case for action still needs to be assessed. MPs should use Just War criteria to do so. Here is a brief guide.

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A More Just Scotland, In A More Just World


It would appear from newspaper adverts that there is a Christian view on the Scottish independence referendum.  A group of Church of Scotland Ministers signed an advert supporting a yes vote and only this week a group of Catholics have also put their names to an advert.  Are they right and is theirs the only voice which should be heard? 

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Belle - standing together

Dr_G_Giles.jpgCoalitions of Conscience

As the second reading of the 0.7% Aid Bill takes place, Dr. Graham Giles MBE encourages us to stand together seeing international development as a "hot issue" not a "hot potato". 

Labour Affiliates can punch above their weight on matters of moral responsibility by standing together, not least on the future aid budget.   ‘Christians on the Left’ are providing resources to help local church groups up and down the country to become more active in local and national politics.  ‘Labour Campaign for International Development’ has launched its door-step guide to give PPCs a really positive narrative about the values of British aid.  In his ‘CotL’ blog Rev Graham Hunter reminded that our historic heroes built coalitions of conscience to speak up for the interests of the downtrodden, marginalised and powerless.   We seek, he wrote, ‘to build a broad coalition to campaign for the goals of historic Christian Socialism, namely, equality, justice, the fight against poverty, and the battle for human dignity’.  On this LCID and CotL stand shoulder to shoulder.

I took two hours out recently to watch the movie “Belle”.  Dido Belle was the 18th  Century illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield's nephew Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an African slave Maria Belle. Set at a time of legal significance when a court case is heard on what became known as the Zong massacre.  Children, women and men were thrown overboard from a slave ship and the owner filed with his insurance company for ‘cargo’ losses. Lord Mansfield ruled on this case in England's Court of King's Bench in a decision which contributed to the abolition of slavery in the British Colonies.  After the first trial, freed slave Olaudah Equiano brought news of the massacre to the attention of anti-slavery campaigners, who worked unsuccessfully to have the ship's crew prosecuted for murder.

An 1839 book on coalitions of conscience that achieved the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, included an account of the Zong killings.  This influenced the artist Turner, who displayed a painting The Slave Ship at the Royal Academy 1840 summer exhibition.  Turner depicted a vessel from which slaves had been thrown into the sea to be devoured by sharks. Details in the painting, such as shackles worn by the slaves, were influenced by illustrations in the book.  Gilded frames in English galleries contain uncomfortable truths.  Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Dido Belle with her white cousin Lady Elizabeth, and Turner’s ‘The Slave Ship’ both demonstrate that progress in social behavior and international convention have not been easy voyages for Britain.  The fight goes on, not least to stem the tide of human trafficking, racial intolerance and social isolationism.

Dido Belle was obliged to dine alone in a mansion to avoid offending guests at the Earl’s table.  We still need vocal alliances for social justice, to challenge conscience, humble hubris, and energise international economic ethics.  Nationalism and white-supremacy are not quite silent yet.  An English Boadicea was caught on the evening news declaring ‘they should remember who puts food on their tables’. Our political messengers cannot preserve public favor by means of ambiguity.  International Development is a hot issue it’s not a hot potato.  Overseas aid and enlightened internationalism require coherent collaboration between Labour movement affiliates to guarantee that our leaders do not stand silently by.  Boat people and victims of exploitation in 2014 need our British better conscience to behave generously.  When good people remain tight-lipped evil euphemisms triumph.

Graham Giles is a member of LCID Executive Committee


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Writing on the Scottish referendum, Tom Carty looks at the broader question of the UK as a recent construction and the changing nature of the political landscape.

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Child Benefit - A Christian Social Policy

Why is it so important as Christians that we defend Child Benefit?

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