It looks like UK politics is on the precipice of something new. The recent round of European elections has been aptly dubbed the 'rejection elections'. The UK political landscape looks bland, it looks desperate, to many it offers little vision. UKIP superficially appears to offer a vision of taking control back to the people. They believe they know what's wrong, offering a manifesto along the lines of 'foreigners have come into our country and taken away our jobs and we're tired of listening to the EU telling us what to do'. Their rhetoric doesn't take us far beyond this. Why have they taken the lead position in an important national election?
To people who work in low-paid jobs or are unemployed, it is not difficult to imagine that UKIP offers a seemingly reasonable plan. Add to this people who are racist, dislike the EU political structures or who are disillusioned with British politics, and we end up with a sizeable minority of British people. Such people voted UKIP, securing them 24 seats in the European parliament. This gave them a ground-breaking political lead over Labour (20 MEPs) and the Conservatives (19 MEPs), shaking to the core the long-held bipartisan stranglehold on British politics.
Similarly across Europe, both far-left and far-right 'anti-establishment' political groups saw a rise in popularity. The ever-widening gulf of economic inequality is taking its toll on the EU populace. Austerity measures for the poor and vulnerable are leaving a large minority of EU citizens desperately poor. Welfare support has been reduced and taxes on the poorest simultaneously increased. EU countries continue to grow wealthier, while public services have been slashed.
Europeans in general have misguidedly turned their anger against the people down the street, rather than against those 'above', seeking refuge in the aggressive racism of far-right parties. Spain, Portugal and Greece bucked this trend by supporting far-left parties, recognising that their governments have spinelessly oppressed the poorest and most vulnerable to pay for the financial meltdown caused by the wealthy. Maybe this reflects the extreme reality experienced in those countries, that solidarity has been crucial to the lives of many, notably to the extent that the co-operative movement has taken off spectacularly in Greece.
The Biblical command to love our neighbour as ourselves causes us to reflect on how we can bring our faith into a political landscape that will breathe this command into every policy. This demands a political vision. Such a vision requires from the Christian person the humility to lay down pre-conceived ideas at the foot of the cross. Do we allow our political ideas to shape our faith or do we take the Bible as the ultimate source of our political vision? Such a vision would cry out against the injustice and austerity imposed on the poor and the vulnerable. Such a vision would seek to eradicate the very social, economic and political structures that cause injustice. Such a vision would seek to serve the dignity of every man, woman and child.
The UKIP 'vision' offers nothing meaningful to address the hardship experienced by the poorest and most vulnerable British people, instead only suggesting that a tiny group of people would take minimum wage jobs currently being taken by new EU immigrants. In most parts of the UK today, the minimum wage is barely enough to afford monthly housing rent payments, let alone to afford climbing onto the housing ladder. This 'vision' is really only offering an answer to misplaced fears and exasperation with the irrelevance of a political landscape sculpted by a narrow political elite. It is an oasis in a desert of barren politics worshipping the idol of GDP growth at any cost to people and the environment.
Instead, shouldn't we expect a political vision that recognises the hard choices that need to be made to tackle the structural deficiencies in the current UK political and economic landscape? Debt-fuelled economies are an efficient way of redistributing assets from the poor to the wealthy. GDP growth is acquired almost exclusively by the wealthiest few percent of the population. Fiscal policy (welfare benefits and taxation) is lenient on the wealthy and punitive on the poor. Economic inequality is tearing apart the very fabric of our society. Only appropriate political intervention can curb the extreme inequality developed economies are heading toward.
Shouldn't we expect our political and economic systems to be there to support social cohesion? To support public services, to value the population as a whole? What is the point of an economic system that creates a handful of super-wealthy people at the expense of everyone else? There is no such thing as “trickle-down”, quite the reverse has been observed for decades. There is also no such thing as a free-market. The current workings of Capitalism are built on many misunderstandings. Challenging this erroneous thinking and tackling the structures supported by it are of paramount importance to a sustainable future for the British people, affording dignity to all, supporting communities and sustaining our environment. When did we decide that the well-being (and even this is debatable) of a few wealthy people merits the demise of everyone else?
I have written this article for Christians on the Left because I believe this is a political movement that is seeking to reconcile a Christ-centred vision with the political machinery already in place in the UK. It is a movement that recognises the folly of ignoring the structural causes of inequality and oppression while seeking to serve those adversely affected by these structures. The Church has spent too long on the sidelines, seeing virtue in its deliberate apathy. However, in the absence of a voice from the Church, do we really need to wait for the rocks to cry out?
New Internationalist (2012), 'Teamwork – how co-operatives can save the planet', New Internationalist Magazine, July/August 2012 Issue, NI454
Pikkety, Thomas (2013) 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century', Harvard University Press
Chang, Ha-Joon (2011) '23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism', Penguin Books, London