Setting out on a political pilgrimage

GettyImages-490417636.jpgBarton Creeth shares his experience of the Brighton Labour conference.

Setting out on a political pilgrimage: after my first Labour conference, the real work has just begun.

On the Saturday afternoon before the start of this year’s Labour Party conference, worn down from a long work week and sitting in my London flat, a thought ran through my head: I won’t really know anybody down in Brighton, and really, what difference will it make if I just stay home? I only recently got involved with Labour back in April, when I moved to London from Belfast for work. While I’ve been involved in politics for some years, the culture and machinery of the Labour movement in Britain is all very new to me. When an email went around asking if I wanted to volunteer with Christians on the Left at conference fringe events, I said yes, but now that I was supposed to get on the train to Brighton, I was feeling a bit insecure and tired, and for a minute, on my sofa, in the comfort of my living room, I contemplated not showing up.

It’s a natural temptation, when presented with doing something different, something heretofore unknown to you, to begin thinking of reasons to excuse yourself from participation. We fear the awkwardness and embarrassment of meeting new people, the pain of feeling like an outsider in a world of insiders, and in the case of politics, that either we don’t know enough about the issues to fully participate, or that perhaps, we’re just not the political sort of person after all. And because we fear these things, our natural inclination is to protect ourselves, or at the very least, save ourselves the trouble of experiencing the discomfort that comes with putting ourselves in new kinds of situations.

We’re all, to some extent, political beings, because we’re social beings, but for decades, a political culture has developed which has felt exclusionary to most people. The current political culture, which drapes itself in a slick veneer of suits and spun rhetoric, can leave the average person feeling distant from, if not intimidated by, the workings of democracy. Currently, only one percent of the UK electorate belongs to a political party, one of the lowest rates in Europe. With a system that’s dependent on robust party politics, this isn’t good for democracy, and it’s not good for the country. Part of the appeal of the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is his ability to make people feel that politics belongs to more than simply a Westminster elite. Incidentally, I voted for Yvette Cooper, but having seen Corbyn speak at our Christians on the Left service, I think I understand his overwhelming appeal. When people say they’re drawn to his authenticity, they mean, at least partly, that he looks like people they know, and talks like people they know, and even more important, that they feel they can belong to, and will be included by, the political community he represents.

Relationships and a sense of belonging are crucial aspects to building a healthy democratic culture, but for those new to politics, it can be hard to figure out how to move from a position of feeling on the outside, towards a feeling of inclusion. This is the type of question those already involved in politics should be helping newcomers to answer, and the answer usually has something to do with commitment, responsibility and relationships. Mark Scott, writing in Christianity Today, talks about getting involved in politics as setting out on a pilgrimage. “A political pilgrimage,” he says, “awaits those who want to engage beyond the election. It's a slow journey, embarked upon in community with others, working together for the common good.” I have a lot of political energy, I engage in heated debate on social media, and I read intensively about current affairs. But as Scott puts it, the political pilgrimage begins in the presence of others: “It's about showing up now that the attention has shifted but the real work has begun.”

I feel very blessed that my political pilgrimage in British politics was initiated by Christians on the Left. In my situation, being new to London and new to Labour, I’d feel really at a loss as to how to crack into politics, and build the friendships and acquaintanceships necessary to get involved if I hadn’t connected with Andy and others. In the end, I got on the train, because I felt that, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable I may feel, it’s important that I show up and contribute. And the end result? Not only did I meet MPs, councilors and activists who inspired me and introduced me to different ways to progress on my pilgrimage, but I had the opportunity to take responsibility for encouraging others to get involved with Labour and Christians on the Left. I also made new friends and saw old friends. The experience was one of joy and belonging. Since returning, I’ve registered my address with central office, and I now await my new member pack and my first constituency party meeting. The real work has just begun.

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