Steven Saxby is a CotL member, a Vicar at St Barnabas Church in Walthamstow, and chairs the Unite Union Faithworkers group. Here, he shares with us how his faith in God and his calling to politics began at exactly the same time - and why the two are so importantly entwined.
My first day trip with the church was to lobby Parliament. As I began to read the Bible, I was also learning about early Labour. As I was inspired by the life of Jesus, I was also inspired by how he influenced many of the pioneers of the Party. I especially identified with George Lansbury who shared my heritage as an East Londoner and an Anglican. Like Lansbury and others in the Church Socialist League, my passion for justice and peace was motivated by the teachings of Christ. I knew then I was a Christian Socialist and have remained so for the last thirty years.
Faith and politics have shaped my ministry as a priest. These are not so much twin passions, but rather a common vocation. This vocation has manifested itself in various ways: through social action projects, through engagement in community organising, through seeking to influence the structures of the Church; I now feel the next stage of this vocation is leading me towards full-time elected politics. I’ve come to the conviction that God is urging me to move from faith-work engaged with politics towards political-work guided by my faith.
There’s a danger in the way faith is regarded in modern Britain, including within the modern Labour Party. Often faith is seen as an area of specialist knowledge. As those who engage in law, economics or science are seen as experts in those fields, so people of faith are regarded as people concerned with ‘religious’ issues. But people of faith do not tend to regard religion as a specialist area of human knowledge, but as something which informs the way they see the whole of life and which has something to say about the ordering of society.
Faith is not the only motivator for social change but it is a key motivator for many, and faith values often have a wider appeal and influence beyond those who are engaged with faith institutions. Faith was key to the formation of the Labour Party, a party which formed as a coalition of social movements and was made up of Marxists and Methodists, Anglicans and Social Democrats, Catholics and trade unionists, feminists and environmentalists, co-operativists and internationalists. A number of strands worked together to make the UK a better place, not just for the few but for the many. The contribution of people of faith was part of the success that led to securing votes for all, full employment, housing for everyone, a safety net for the poorest, and a National Health Service - all of which are under attack today.
Though I remained a Christian Socialist, it took me a long time to join the Labour Party. I joined just before the last General Election because I felt I needed to work more vigorously for change in my country, a nation I believe is being deeply wounded by Conservative policy and ideology. I felt compelled to add my experience of grass-roots, faith-inspired politics – especially my work on supporting migrants, as well as on challenging poverty and discrimination – to help secure political change for the common good of all, particularly the most vulnerable in society.
My experience is that politics is as its best when it is social movement politics. Let me give an example from my work as a priest in Walthamstow. The name itself means ‘welcome-place’. It has excellent traditions of different communities working together and welcoming newcomers. My own congregation, like many in London and the UK, is majority-migrant. When we listened to each other’s experiences, we discovered many face huge challenges with the immigrations system, with accessing health care, and are acutely affected by the negative portrayal of migrants by politicians and the media. So we formed a Migrants’ Action Group and we were joined by many in the wider community, not least from other churches, from mosques and from trades unions. We were some of the 5000 who peacefully opposed the EDL when they marched in our streets. When immigration officers set up aggressive stop-and-search at our tube station, we turned up with ‘Welcome to Walthamstow’ balloons. We’ve set up a drop-in centre with free legal advice, and we are now working on supporting the Borough in its plans to resettle refugees.
That is just one example of social movement politics, where faith is playing its part, and where others appreciate the power of faith values in showing compassion and solidarity with the marginalised in society. Walthamstow is buzzing with campaigns, with prominent engagement from people of faith and Labour members, alongside others, in protecting the Health Service, challenging the operation of Prevent, defending those with housing problems and much more. The local Party has been re-energised by hundreds of new members, many of them seasoned campaigners who have returned to Labour or joined for the first time. There is a real sense of hope that Labour is now offering an alternative and that social movement politics will play an important part in securing the election of a Labour government.
On a personal level, I am more excited about politics than at any point since my teenage years. As then, I am hopeful that people of faith and what they can contribute to politics will once again be a key part in the success of Labour and the building of a just and compassionate society.
Steven Saxby is a Vicar in Walthamstow and Chair of Unite’s Faithworkers Branch @StevenSaxby