There is no doubt that passion has returned to politics. There has been a lot to get passionate about. The referendum on European Union membership and the Labour leadership election are only the latest examples. In the past couple of years, the United Kingdom has seen Scotland hold an intensely debated referendum on its future and elected a Conservative government at a general election.
With the passion, that has encouraged many people to engage with politics for the first time, has often come a harder edge. Exhortation has in many cases turned into shouting and vision has given way to vitriol. This did not even stop after the murder of a Member of Parliament during the referendum campaign. We are compelled to ask, how can we do politics well by each other? We may disagree, but how can we disagree well? We can find a way, and we can take heart that we have been here before.
The changes we can see in our national politics are not unique. The United States has witnessed hard fought primary campaigns where politics has become further polarised, even while some people have come to politics afresh. Our fellow European Union members are also experiencing the same phenomenon, for example in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria. In many places the rise of the far right is a cause for real concern. There have been new voices from the left too. Many of these voices are challenging the established political consensus.
One of the privileges of being part of Christians on the Left is that for years we have met many people, often church members, who are passionate about politics. Many have not actually been involved in party politics. We meet them in local community groups and working for and supporting charities that alleviate poverty around the world. They can be running food banks, helping the homeless, or making a stand against human trafficking. They can be praying, and giving money and time to help build God’s kingdom in all sorts of ways.
Christians on the Left has been able to provide a bridge from such activities into mainstream politics. Our message is that Christians and others with a heart for these causes cannot all stand by and let other people make the decisions. Why not aim to be a decision-maker, or to have influence over the policies that drive those decisions? And that is why ever since our movement began, in 1848, we have been encouraging Christians to get involved in politics.
We need to be aware of the dangers as well as the opportunities. With passion can come misunderstanding and division. In the current environment in the Left, where people are articulating ideas and policies which match their view of what is wrong and what needs to be done, it is nevertheless possible to disagree well. In essence it is simple. Vigorous disagreement about policy is fine, and relatively easy. Impugning the character of those who disagree with us is not, even if it can be tempting in the heat of debate or when typing out a tweet. Seeing the best in those who disagree with us, and making the effort to build relationships with them, is essential – and certainly for Christians in politics – but requires much more courage. Yet it is our responsibility, especially if we are to live up to the call to promote justice and peace.
We have been here before. The Labour Conference in 1960 promised to be a tense and stormy affair. It was. The Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, faced a motion calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament. During the conference itself, he declared he would “fight, and fight, and fight again to save the Party we love” but that year the motion was passed. A month earlier, the newly formed Christian Socialist Movement (recently renamed Christians on the Left) issued a statement to its members which is relevant to us today as the next Labour conference approaches.
"We hope that members who are delegates or visitors to conference will attend our meeting and bring others to it. We hope that members... will speak in the light of the principles summed up in our aims, and with Christian charity.
Charity does not mean that we should not express our convictions forcefully and even fiercely (though it is terribly easy for self-righteousness and intolerance to disguise themselves as righteous indignation). But it does mean, among other things, that when we differ from those who are nominally our comrades, we should differ with courtesy, with a constant awareness of possible beams in our own eyes, and without the attribution of base motives or insincerity. If we are of the 'Left', don't let's assume that Right-wingers are careerists, cowards, or conscious traitors to Socialism: if we are of the 'Right', don't let's assume that Left-wingers are demagogues, irresponsible agitators, or exhibitionists.
It is perhaps only in this respect that we ought to heed a platitude that has often been invoked to excuse parochialism and miserliness - the platitude that charity begins at home."
May we work in that same spirit, sharing passion and disagreeing well, as we continue to promote involvement in politics and work for a society that embodies the values of our faith.
Stephen Beer – Supporting Owen Smith
Steven Saxby – Supporting Jeremy Corbyn