We love the diversity of backgrounds and views that make up Christians on the Left. Often we find topics where we wholeheartedly agree with one another. But sometimes we don't.
Thoughts from Ray Gaston
As I was presiding at the 8am BCP Holy Communion yesterday morning I stumbled across a short phrase from the gospels that has recently entered mainstream political discourse.
In the story of the Good Samaritan we are told in the King James version that a ‘Levite’ and a ‘Priest’ ‘passed by on the other side’ as they avoided the man in distress; one of Jeremy Corbyn’s favourite sayings for summing up the vision of the society he would like to see us build is that ‘we should not pass by on the other side’ a direct reference to the gospel story.
Corbyn’s vision is firmly rooted in what might be called the radical ethical socialist tradition that correlates well with the social gospel. If one listens to his speeches closely, his politics often appear to owe more to the Golden Rule than to Leon Trotsky, the tenor of the argument is often about the responsibility we have for and how we relate to each other, the need to ensure an inclusive economy where ‘no one is left behind’; a strong counter argument to the often selfish individualism of the Tories and the sometimes individualist social mobility aspirationism of the Labour right. These are not vague slogans but a serious attempt to offer an alternative ethic to a rampant individualism that has dominated our neoliberal political discourse since Thatcherism and is currently in question.
In an interview with the Christian Third Way Magazine last year Corbyn expanded on the influences upon his life including the role that scripture played in forming his politics in a bible reading agnostic household. He also demonstrated a real interest in how religion motivates people for social action. His own consciously simple lifestyle – vegetarianism, use of public transport, ensuring time for leisure, cycling and growing his own food certainly appears to be more in tune with a Gandhian ethic to ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ than traditional Marxist practice. His anti-imperialist and international peacemaking policies are rooted in a particular reading of Keir Hardie’s far sighted resistance to war and empire based upon the importance in Hardie’s life of a pacifism rooted in an evangelical faith. The ten pledges Corbyn made at the beginning of the campaign translate this ethical socialism into concrete policy goals fit for government. Corbyn has reinvigorated the radical ethical socialist tradition of the British Labour movement that Christian Socialists can affirm and brought it centre stage. This tradition has often gone unacknowledged in recent history, has been overshadowed by the post 1917 traditions on the left and by the appropriation of the ethical socialist label by the right, including early Blairism. But it is a deeply rooted radical tradition in the British socialist movement with roots in the early Independent Labour Party (ILP) and with fine advocates including Caroline Martyn, Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Tony Benn. That’s the first reason I will be voting for Corbyn – the man - a principled and radical ethical socialist.
The second reason is the movement that has grown up surprisingly after his candidacy in last years’ leadership election and swept him to victory. This movement, represented in the group Momentum, has drawn together an amazingly intergenerational, culturally and ethnically diverse group of people; either into party politics for the first time or returning after years of neoliberal imposed exile. In less than a year it has been able to radically shift the debate on austerity and create a space for alternative economic policies - that is an amazing achievement.
Accusations of Trotskyism are an absurd misinterpretation of the reality on the ground and the movements significance as a serious departure from this form of politics on the left. Some of those drawn into Momentum activity and the party are those who have engaged with the more directly ethical and radically democratically organised protest traditions of the anti-road and anti-capitalist movements of the nineties and noughties - a very different kind of organising to the caucusing and ‘resolutionary’ politics of Labourism left and right. Rather than Trotskyist, Momentum is more likely a 21st century manifestation of the type of dynamism, creativity and activism present in the early ILP.
Similarly, the movement’s impact on social media shows a new departure influenced by the youthful innovation present in Momentum at national and local levels, one which challenges both ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Labour cultures that stifle radical democracy.
The accusation that a movement of protest is not a movement for government is a false dichotomy. Many of the activists are people who have not voted in the past. A Corbyn led Labour Party has the ability to galvanise the 40% of the electorate who failed to engage with the last election because of the domination of ‘business as usual’. Austerity has been exposed as a political choice rather than a necessity, the strategy of always appealing to a shrinking group of ‘floating voters’ in marginal seats to win elections, will be the second shibboleth of the neoliberal political elite to fall foul of this movement for change one that can galvanise amongst others those left behind by years of neoliberalism- one that can lead to electoral victory!
The radical ethical socialism that Jeremy Corbyn represents and the grassroots movement that has grown around this vision are a real opportunity to change the nature of our politics and economics in the coming period, a defeat for Corbyn would be a defeat for this potential for change. Those who have been beaten and robbed of dignity and the little they had and been left forgotten by years of neoliberalism require us not to pass by on the other side.
 See Jeremy Corbyn ‘International Peace: A Legacy for the Peace Movement’ in Pauline Bryan (Ed) What Would Keir Hardie Say? Exploring Hardie’s Vision and Relevance to 21st Century Politics (Luath Press 2015)
(1) See https://thirdway.hymnsam.co.uk/editions/july-2015/high-profile/far-sighted.aspx
(2) See Jeremy Corbyn ‘International Peace: A Legacy for the Peace Movement’ in Pauline Bryan (Ed) What Would Keir Hardie Say? Exploring Hardie’s Vision and Relevance to 21st Century Politics (Luath Press 2015)
Thoughts from Rachel Burgin
“Get behind the democratically elected leader: he has a mandate”. I’ve heard those words so many times, I often regurgitate them in my sleep. I get it: we are a team, greater than the sum of our parts. We need to be “singing from the same hymnsheet”. I am instinctively loyal and could have been wholeheartedly loyal to every Labour leader during my lifetime – including the great Michael Foot.
But events over the last 12 months have reminded me of other words – those of Martin Luther King:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter”.
There are times we have to speak up. And for me, that time is now. I write this as a Christian, stripped bare of every ulterior motive and political ambition, knowing that whatever the Labour party can throw at me, it is only God who I should fear. In the words of Christ Himself:
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell”. Matthew 10:28
These words resonate most when talking about the persecution of Christians in other countries.
How much more, therefore, must we speak out when we hear Chairman Mao quoted from the dispatch box - albeit in jest? Or when our party leader is found to have defended Leon Trotsky? Or recruits people to his team who have defended Stalinism (Seamus Milne) or when he has served as Chair of an organisation that has passed a motion in support of North Korea? (Stop the War Coalition). In this context, we should be less concerned about perceived incompetence than about a pattern of behaviour indicative of a shared ideology. Neither is it the desire to redistribute wealth or seek peaceful resolutions to world conflicts that should worry us but the tell-tale signs of Marxist Leninism – Democratic Centralism - the MP deselection threats, the petitions calling on dissident MPs to resign, the calls to “go join the Tories”. As Christians, we have a God-given mandate to speak truth to power, to challenge and question. But this mandate is at risk of being crushed by Democratic Centralism as we are forced into unyielding loyalty to the party and leader.
Our current leader’s Anti Imperialism should also raise alarm bells for Christians. Jeremy Corbyn is no George Lansbury whose Christian Pacifism has a noble tradition both within our faith and our politics. Nor does Corbyn hold to the Just War Theory which also has a noble tradition and is well expressed in Owen Smith’s War Powers Act. Corbyn’s Anti Imperialism is something very different: it is a belief that seeks to defend violence by oppressed peoples – even if it deliberately targets civilians. Like my parents who got married in Londonderry in 1972 and whose wedding service was targeted by the IRA. Our God-given mandate includes securing justice for the oppressed. But that should not involve oppressing others. Instead, the Jesus we worship broke down barriers. He treated Roman citizens with just as much humanity as His fellow Jews. We follow in His footsteps.
If we are to be a voice to the voiceless, we must listen to the voices of those we are speaking up for. They aren’t interested in the depth of our anger at their injustice: they are interested in what we can do to secure justice. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a sobering reminder that pious words are not enough: we must cross the road to offer practical help to those in need. The Prophet Isaiah talks about loosening the chains of injustice and untying the cords of the yoke. We are called to more than protest: but to deliver real change that can transform lives. So for us, electability is not about compromising our principles but the fulfilment of them. Owen Smith offers a policy platform that is remarkably similar to that of Jeremy Corbyn’s – particularly in relation to the poor and vulnerable. But more people are likely to vote for him as Prime Minister. And that should matter to us.
Some harsh facts are that:
• According to opinion polls, Jeremy Corbyn is significantly more unpopular even than Michael Foot so is our most unpopular leader in modern times.
• Contrary to popular belief, we were not ahead in the polls before the coup. The truth is, we have only been ahead of the Tories in three opinion polls under Corbyn’s leadership. It is true that the Tories have extended their lead since the European Referendum and Theresa May became leader.
• The European Referendum result was a real “canary in the coalmine” moment for the Labour party. While 70% of Labour voters voted Remain, two thirds of Labour-held constituencies voted Leave.
• And we should be honest about what has been happening within the Palaces of Westminster. Read the accounts given by Lilian Greenwood, Thangham Debbonnaire and Heidi Alexander and – wherever you are on Labour’s political spectrum, ask yourself whether these tell the story of a man who has the skills and aptitude to be leader of the Labour party.
And finally, we must call out idolatry. We cannot allow our party to be about one man but about our collective mission. Our only Saviour is Jesus Christ: he is the only perfect person who ever lived. That is why He could be the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world". Every leader the Labour party has ever had has fallen short of the glory of God. None have been perfect. And none are innocent of the situation they find themselves in. We must take a stand against cult-like attitudes and behaviour that, if left unchecked, will destroy the Labour movement.
So my husband and I will be voting for Owen Smith in the forthcoming leadership election. We believe him to be a man of principle who has a strong platform to build a fair economy and society and believe he will uphold the principles of socialism and solidarity. But we also know that he will stand up against the forces of darkness that are at risk of consuming our party.
We do so with a very heavy heart knowing that the future of our party hangs in the balance. But also knowing that we are accountable to God for how we vote – and for speaking up in His name.
Rachel Burgin was the Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate in the Hitchin & Harpenden constituency. She is a member of Christians on the Left.