My social media feeds are full of contradictory views on the election, with different friends and acquaintances spelling out with vigour and passion why it is simply impossible to vote for Labour, the Conservatives and the LibDems in turn. I cannot vote for the SNP or DUP, and a vote for one of the smaller parties will have no effect in our crazy ‘first past the post’ system. (My only consolation is that all this proves I do not live in a social media bubble of confirming views.)
So why bother?
I repost here as a guest article a piece by my friend John Stevens. It caught my eye because he perfectly expressed the dilemma that I and many others feel—and yet at the end of it he calls us both to transcendent hope and prophetic engagement, which is surely the place that we ought to be.
As the General Election approaches, I feel increasingly depressed by the state of British politics. It seems to me we have an invidious choice to make between deeply flawed candidates advocating deeply flawed manifestos. In a starker way than in other recent elections it feels as if wisdom means choosing the least worst option from everything that is on the ballot. “None of the above” is never a real alternative, so it comes down to who will do least damage to the nation and the cause of the gospel within it. I begin to have much more empathy for the evangelicals in the US who voted for Trump. I might not have agreed with their calculation that he was better than Hillary, but I have much more understanding of the dilemma they faced.
I can’t see how an evangelical Christian could be an enthusiastic supporter of any of the mainland parties or candidates. They are all equally committed to the liberal progressive agenda, with only marginal differences on key social policy issues. Social conservatism is unrepresented. There is no party actively courting and seeking the “evangelical vote” because we are so small that we don’t matter, and to do so would be regarded as toxic.
The Labour Party seems to be led by a man who is deeply sincere in his convictions, but his Marxist convictions are, in my view, sincerely dangerous. To be weighed against this, more moderate Labour MPs and the safeguards of the British Constitution would probably constrain him in practice, as would any coalition partners. He may even be forced to stand aside to allow a workable coalition to form.
Boris Johnson is a man who seems to have no discernible deep convictions, save the pursuit of his own dream to be Prime Minister. He is a shape-shifter who adopts whatever opinion he calculates will be to his advantage. The fact that he wrote two articles ahead of the EU referendum, both equally passionately argued, one advocating Remain and one advocating Leave before joining the Vote Leave campaign tells you all you need to know. I have no idea whether he thinks he believes what he says or if he is more cynically calculating.
He is a proven liar whose word cannot be trusted, who avoids the most challenging scrutiny. Any other politician would have been destroyed by the Jenny Arcuri allegations, which are far worse than the expenses scandals that landed other MPs in prison. No charity trustee or leader of a public institution would get away with giving public money to someone without disclosing a patent personal conflict of interest.
The Liberal Democrats have behaved with hubris, and Jo Swinson seems to have over-reached herself and her lack of experience has been cruelty exposed. Their liberal progressivism verges on becoming illiberal and intolerant. There are MPs in all three parties who would make far better leaders than the present incumbents.
Living in England there are other parties you can’t vote for. The SNP will probably romp home is Scotland, but Nicola Sturgeon seems deeply intolerant of those who disagree with her. I feel sorry for voters in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein wins seats but won’t take them. The DUP wants Brexit but has never been able to suggest a practicable solution for the issues of identity and cross-border trade that leaving the EU will inevitably cause. I suspect that, whatever the outcome, the Union will not remain intact for much longer.
The question that most interests me most is, how has it come to this? It was not that long ago that the electorate was filled with hope and optimism belting out “things can only get better.” Today there is little enthusiasm, and many are simply hoping that things won’t get much worse.
The root cause is obviously the desperate spiritual state of our nation, and that people have turned away from trusting the Lord Jesus and living by his word. This ought to make us weep and pray for revival. From a more secular perspective a number of factors have contributed to the current political context, all of which are interrelated.
1. The swing voters are no longer the centrists
Austerity and Brexit have reshaped the political landscape, and the parties have had to respond to the rise of populism. Elections are always contested on the basis of the concerns of the likely swing voters who will determine the outcome, with the main parties competing to gain their support. For much of the last 30 years that has been a contest to win the vote of centrists, but now it is a battle to win the vote of the disaffected extremes.
Populism, especially the existential threat of UKIP and The Brexit Party to the two main parties, has meant that neither can realistically gain an overall majority without attracting their supporters. This has led Boris Johnson to turn the Tories into a committed Leave party with no room for dissent, and Jeremy Corbyn to try to maintain an “all things to all people” ambiguity on Brexit. Both are driven by fear of losing a core component of their vote and letting the other side in by default, rather than by a positive vision. Boris Johnson has sought to clothe himself in statist tax and spend policies, which are the very antithesis of the free trade economic liberalism that has animated the Tory Brexitiers. Are they using him or is he using them?
2. Centrist voters no longer join political parties
Centrists might bewail the choice they face but, in the end, this is the consequence of their own failure to participate in the political process. The main political parties used to be mass movements with large memberships. Over the last fifty years membership and participation has declined dramatically, so that the active members of the parties are drawn from the rank of activists and lobbyists.
The membership changes introduced by Ed Miliband allowed Momentum to orchestrate a de facto take-over of the party, by galvanising their devotees to join solely for the purpose of electing a Marxist leader. Those moderate MPs who nominated Corbyn just to allow a wider choice on the ballot must have spent the last 4 years ruing their foolishness. The composition of the Tory membership has changed simply because new members have not joined. The constituency association memberships have become older and more right-wing as a result.
Both parties have now moved to the direct election of their leaders by the membership, rather than by the body of MPs, with the result that the electorate is wildly unrepresentative of most of the people who lend their support to the party in public elections.
Centrists have behaved as if the end of history had arrived and there was no longer any need to bother about the messy and time-consuming business of politics, and that this could be safely left to others. They have miscalculated. I have never belonged to a political part and admit that I am as guilty as anyone. Healthy civic institutions, including political parties, require the participation of the body politic.
3. The main parties are no longer functioning as moderating entities
Politics parties have historically had the effect of mustering broad coalitions of the left or of the right, and therefore of moderating more extreme positions. The Labour Party has always had a racially socialist wing, but leaders such as Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have ploughed a less radical furrow, often attracting great hostility and accusations of treachery for their pains. When a radical leader has been appointed by one party, the other has generally responded by offering a comparatively moderate alternative. It is hard to remember that between 1979-1983 Margaret Thatcher had followed relatively centrist policies. The radical reforms only came later when she no longer felt the need to placate the “wets”.
The radicalisation of the party memberships, together with the direct election of leaders, has inevitably radicalised the parties as a whole. What is perhaps unique is that this has happened to both parties at the same time.
This radicalisation is seen in the half-hearted attempts of both parties to deal with racist attitudes amongst a minority of their hardcore supporters. The Labour Party has failed to deal with anti-Semitism, which is the form of racism that most afflicts those who hate global capitalism and imperialism. The Tory Party has failed to tackle Islamophobia, which is the form of racism that most afflicts those who have a nostalgia for a past white national identity.
In both cases I fear that the parties have a vested interest in not tackling the problem thoroughly because this would alienate some of the very people they need to attract and hold to give them a chance of victory. Sadly, some voters are racist, whether anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic or both. Populism has seduced parties into courting these voters as a matter of necessity.
Those who ally themselves with racists in order to scrape the majority they need to win are in danger of selling their souls. There can be no going back once the genie is out of the bottle. Moderate politics relies on both parties refusing to play that game for their own advantage. I fear that pragmatism and desperation to win have meant they have both succumbed. The ends can never justify the means.
4. Character is no longer seen as essential for leadership
A further factor that has ensured we have such an insidious choice is that our culture has rejected the importance of character as a pre-requisite for public office and service. The quality of a person’s private life is no longer seen as significant.
Boris Johnson has a well-documented chaotic private life, including failed marriages and multiple affairs. We still do not know how many children he acknowledges. Some of his lovers have had abortions. He has been proven to lie and has lost his job because of his lack of trustworthiness and integrity on several occasions. Many of his colleagues don’t trust him, but they cross their fingers because they hope he will be a winner. Yet these failings are dismissed as mere peccadillos, and to some are even attractive marks of his humanity. Jeremy Corbyn has a similar chequered personal history, as does Nigel Farage.
In the past there was institutionalised hypocrisy and cover-up of personal failings and infidelities (eg The Profumo Affair and John Major’s “Back to Basics” sleaze fiasco). But the uncritical acceptance of key character flaws, and in some instances their celebration as a qualification for popular support, means that we get the politicians we deserve.
We elect liars, and so they lie to us. We elect those who have shown they are untrustworthy in their words and promises, and so they break their promises to us. We give them the permission to be who they are because we put them into office regardless. We can hardly complain.
5. The electorate doesn’t want to face reality
Politics has become the ultimate consumer activity. We, the voters, are the market, and so the politicians have to offer us what we say we want—preferably for free because it will be paid for by someone else. Parties have become adept at marketing and advertising strategies, appealing to different segments of the electorate with different messages, stoking their personal fears and promising to indulge their personal agendas. It is the political equivalent of the targeted marketing made possible by supermarket loyalty cards. In many cases what we want is not even possible. There are limited resources and hard choices must be made. Cultural change and economic transformation are long term not short term.
The main parties are all offering massive increases in spending and acting as if the financial crash did not happen. They pretend that austerity was not forced upon us by economic circumstances and the pressure of global financial markets. The most respected independent bodies say that none of their figures add up.
The changed battleground for this election is said to be a result of disillusionment with the old politics. I fear that, whoever wins, there will be far greater disillusionment to come. Buyer’s regret is almost inevitable, as when the payment holiday on a credit purchase ends and you have to start paying back.
Many of the promises being made are unaffordable, unachievable or unlikely to deliver the claimed benefits (rail re-nationalisation for example). The main parties are playing the populist game, but the anger that will follow their failure to deliver may cause something far worse to emerge.
It is equally possible that a cold dose of reality will return politics to the previous norm, as is happening in other countries that have experimented with populism, as radical politicians are forced to moderate in office by the harsh facts of life and international money markets. We may all wake up with a populist hangover and wish we had never tried it.
The root problem is that we do not like to hear too much reality, nor to have to make hard choices. Boris Johnson once promised that on Europe he was in favour of having cake and eating it, which is what most of us want in every area of life. Yet good leadership must speak the truth and explain the real options. If either side chooses to break this convention with fantasy promises, the other side if forced to reply in kind. It precipitates an arms race of false hope, which will ultimately bankrupt everyone.
The dynamics that have produced this choice at the election have the potential to affect any community organisation, including the church. If we fail participate, ally ourselves with those with unacceptable views for pragmatic reasons, forget that character rather than just charisma or competence is essential for leadership, and prefer to be told what we want to hear rather than to be told be told the truth, we have only ourselves to blame if our institutional culture is compromised and undermined.
I have no idea who will win this election. I will endeavour to choose how to exercise my vote based on the common goods of civic peace and the protection of religious liberty and gospel freedom—as these seem to me to be Biblical priorities. Whomever I vote for, I will do so with a measure of reservation and regret that there was not a choice that is more fully aligned with my convictions. I will have relatively low expectations and be thankful if they exceed them.
There are many good resources to help Christians make their choice. I would recommend the assessments produced by Christian Concern, The Christian Institute, CARE, and the Evangelical Alliance . No matter what choice you make, have the humility to realise that other brothers and sisters will exercise their wisdom in a different way.
It would be easy to be discouraged, but despite all the above I don’t want to be. This election is hyped as crucial to determine the future of the nation, but that is nonsense. Christians, of all people, know that our hope is not to be placed in politicians. Jesus is risen, ascended and ruling at God’s right hand. He holds the nations, including our own, in his hand, and to him they are a drop in a bucket (Is 40.15).
Whatever happens, the Bible assures us that God is working out his good purpose to bring about the reconciliation of all things under Christ. In this age that might mean our nation experiencing costly suffering, painful refining or even being handed over to ever escalating wickedness—or it might not.
This perspective ought to liberate us to pray, decide and cast our vote without angst. The future does not rest on our choice. If we prayerfully apply wisdom and make a choice with good conscience, we can leave the result to God. He is sovereign and I am not—which is good news.
I might want “none of the above”—but I can rest confident in the rule of the one who bears the name that is above all names, and whose ultimate victory is, despite all the current opinion polls to the contrary, a forgone conclusion.
John Stevens studied law at Cambridge and lecturer at the University of Birmingham before becoming pastor of City Evangelical Church, Birmingham. Since 2010 he has been National Director of the Federation of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC).
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