Which party should I vote for?

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 07.36.21There has been a flurry of activity this week on the question of the forthcoming election and Christian faith. Tuesday saw the publication of the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (WIMN) identifying key issues to consider for Anglicans as they vote, and today sees the publication of a survey by the Evangelical Alliance on the attitudes and concerns of evangelicals as the election looms.

Some of the reactions to the House of Bishops’ letter were predictable and reactionary. The Times’ leader called it a ‘Bishops’ Blunder: The Church of England’s leaders have waded into politics. They should wade out.’ David Cameron’s comment had a different tone: ‘All are welcome to intervene in politics.’ But I wondered if there was a common underlying assumption: that politics was a distinct arena, where anyone can make a contribution if they wish, but it is really the province of the experts, who will probably make up their own minds regardless. In fact, though politics might not be everything, everything is political, and this distancing of professional politicians from ordinary life has surely been a major factor in the disenchantment that many now feel with the political process.

The other main criticism of the bishops’ contribution was that it was ‘left leaning’. In fact (as Evan Davies pointed out on Newsnight), 46% of Anglicans voted Conservative at the last election, and it is Catholics (influenced by Roman Catholic social ethics and the notion of ‘the common good’) who are more likely, in practice, to be left leaning. But let’s pause for a moment to consider this. Everyone agrees that British politics took a major step to the ‘right’ with Margaret Thatcher, and that Tony Blair’s New Labour confirmed that. As ‘Who is my neighbour?’ expresses it (para 34)

In 1979, the incoming Conservative government was pledged to facilitate individual enterprise and a market freed from state interference. Just as successive administrations between 1945 and 1979, Conservative as well as Labour, tended to regard the collectivist structures introduced under Attlee as part of a strong national consensus, so different administrations since that of Margaret Thatcher have treated the market-oriented and individualistic emphasis of her governments as part of the undisputed political landscape.

So if the Church of England was ‘neutral’ prior to Thatcher, then it must have looked ‘left leading’ ever since—or else it is simply chameleon-like, adapting to the changing landscape of politics.

In fact, Christian thinking about political issues is always going to defy the ‘simple binary’ (Evan Davies again) of left-right politics as we have it. A key summary in WIMN comes in paragraph 120:

At this election, we can sow the seeds of a new politics. We encourage voters to support candidates and policies which demonstrate the following key values:

  • Halting and reversing the accumulation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals.
  • Involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most.
  • Recognising the distinctive communities, whether defined by geography, religion or culture, which make up the nation and enabling all to thrive and participate together.
  • Treating the electorate as people with roots, commitments and traditions and addressing us all in terms of the common good and not just as self-interested consumers.
  • Demonstrating that the weak, the dependent, the sick, the aged and the vulnerable are persons of equal value to everybody else.
  • Offering the electorate a grown up debate about Britain’s place in the world order and the possibilities and obligations that entails.

Some of these concerns might be classically ‘left leaning’, but others are clearly not. I do find it curious that the notion that there should be any limit to the accumulation of power and wealth by a smaller and smaller minority is often portrayed as ‘socialist’, when only a few years ago we would have simply called this ‘democracy’. It does perhaps indicate how far the political landscape has continued to drift to the ‘right’; Thatcher refused to contemplate privatisation of the Post Office as a ‘privatisation too far’—something that has now gone through with hardly a murmur.

Jonathan Chaplin, of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, believes that WIMN is a significant development in the Church’s thinking about politics:

Whatever its limitations, Who is my neighbour? significantly raises the bar for official church statements on politics. It shows how theological truth can speak effectively and illuminatingly to the political health of the nation at a moment of crisis and opportunity. It thus plausibly carries a claim to prophecy – which in Scripture is, in the first instance, addressed to the people of God themselves.

The EA survey of evangelical attitudes offers further insight into this question.

A survey of evangelical Christians has revealed that nearly double the national average intend to vote in this year’s general election. Four in 10 say they will change their vote from 2010. The government parties have lost significant support while smaller parties and Labour gained.

The Faith in Politics? report follows a survey of 2,020 evangelical Christians, conducted by the Evangelical Alliance between August and September 2014. It shows many concerns ranging from the credibility of politicians to the issues that they think political parties should be pursuing for the common good of society, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable.

Faith in politics - evangelical likelihood to voteThe first and most striking thing about this survey is the level of engagement of evangelicals in the political process, which seems to me to be a significant change from a generation ago. Not only are they much more committed to voting than the general population, they appear to be more active in other ways as well. A whopping 78% signed an e-petition in the last year, compared with 9% of the general population, and they are seven times more likely than the national population to have contacted a politician or taken part in a public consultation.

This goes alongside a growing scepticism about politicians:

  • Less than one in 10 (six per cent) think that politicians can be trusted to keep their manifesto promises.
  • Half of the respondents say they are less likely to believe what a politician says today than five years ago.

I suspect that these two factors are connected: as evangelicals trust politicians less, but remain concerned about the impact of politics on their lives, they are motivated to get involved.

When it comes to the policy questions that concern evangelicals, there are some predictable issues that come to the fore:

When asked what policy positions/issues are important and will affect their vote, the top five were:

  1. Policies that ensure religious liberty and freedom of expression (71 per cent)
  2. Policies that are likely to make a positive difference to the poorest people in the UK (61 per cent)
  3. Policies to eliminate human trafficking (59 per cent)
  4. Opposition to same-sex marriage legislation (46 per cent)
  5. A pro-life stance on euthanasia (45 per cent)

Faith in politics - evangelical voting intentionSome of these (and the issues in the longer list of concerns) have obvious explanations; Christians in general and evangelicals in particular have felt increasingly marginalised in the public square, so it is not surprising that religious liberty should be top of the list. But note how classic concerns of the ‘right’ sit cheek by jowl with classic concerns of the ‘left’.

In terms of voting intentions, there is a notable shift away from support for the Conservatives, largely because of the party’s shift away from support for the traditional forms of family. There is also increased support for the small parties (Greens and UKIP), though not as much as in the wider population.

In some ways, I was disappointed at the list of issues that came out, and was hankering after something a bit more nuanced and even theological to make its presence felt. But the issues that come out are quite clearly a function of the kind of question being asked. When you offer people a list of issues, and ask which are important to them, you are inevitably asking about the output of any process of reflection on politics, rather than engaging with the inputs. It is in the inputs that we might hope to find some theological reflection, and how these carry through to the outputs is not always straightforward. As I reflected on why I respond to political issues and parties the way I do, I realised that there is a whole range of things I am concerned with:

  • Dealing with people holistically, created in the image of God, and not merely as units either of consumption or production.
  • Recognising the importance of creativity, work and the opportunity to contribute to society.
  • Treating people as responsible individuals, who should be held to appropriate account for their actions.
  • Recognising our common fallenness and corruptibility, rather than treating people as purely rational. We are subject to addictions and temptations which cannot simply be treated as ‘market forces’.
  • Seeing people as individuals-in-community, recognising the value of ‘social capital’.
  • Supporting the place of the family within society, as its primary building block, and giving attention the importance of fathers and mothers in the formation of children.
  • Creating a culture of hope and redemption for those who end up in situations for which there appears to be no possibility of escape or change.
  • Treating people equally, and undermining centres of power which protect their own vested interests.
  • Seeing politics as a service to society more than the exercise of power; engaging in debate with a concern for truth and not political ambition.

Faith in politics - Top 10 key statisticsThere is much that could be said about each of these, which for me are rooted in a biblical theology of what it means to be human. And each of them has a bearing on a whole range of issues, from health and education to prison reform and economic strategy. But as I express them, I am again struck by the lack of a simple ‘left-right’ binary. In fact, a good number of these things appear in the bishops’ report in a variety of forms. My hope and prayer is that, whichever way we vote, we will do so ‘seeking first the kingdom of God’ (Matt 6.33). Or, as St Paul says (and WIMN quotes):

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

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6 thoughts on “Which party should I vote for?”

  1. The bishops’ social and political analysis is erudite and good if rather long. Few Christians would want to differ widely with their vision and aspiration for a more just and compassionate society. However to imply that by both engaging with politicians and voting. Christians and particularly Anglican Christians are going to make a transforming difference is unrealistic.

    The major driver to social and political change in the UK is secular liberalism which influences almost all political thought, both left and right, and which is fundamentally opposed to religion and Christianity in particular. The only antidote to this world view is a resurgence of Christian faith and its world view.This is not to suggest some utopian Christian society but rather to understand that until we see as few as 10 – 15% of the population expressing Christian faith and attending church we will never see the society that the bishops envision.

    For the church political critique and engagement is important but of much greater importance is for the church to be engaging with the community with the good news of redemption in Jesus Christ. Christians need to be led by bishops who are encouraging, even insisting, that all we Christians should be inviting our family, friends and work mates back to church. There they can discover how realistic, holistic, wholesome and joyful Christian faith really is.

    I still like to think the bishops believe that too but sometimes I wonder.

    • David, I also like to think that the bishops think this…and I am encouraged by the ones I know personally!

      I also think it is a little chicken and egg, in that credible analyses like these help with credibility, and lower some of the barriers to people taking Christianity seriously…

  2. Ian, you wrote:
    “Four in 10 say they will change their vote from 2010. The government parties have lost significant support while smaller parties and Labour gained.”

    I really don’t think labour have gained because the very discrimination against the family and against children that politicians have brought about was actually brought about by labour votes. The government couldn’t actually get enough support together to pass the pigs-ear they made of the redefinition of marriage. We now, courtesy of the government, have rules that are seriously different when a man and woman get married compared to marriage between those of the same sex. The rules are not even the same.

    I am with the 71% now looking for a party that shows genuine respect for the U.N. declaration of human rights. I.e., freedom of speech and freedom to practice one’s faith in public. Neither Labour nor Conservative do that.

    David Cameron marched in the Charlie Hebdo funeral to try to be pro-freedom of speech. Simultaneously David Cameron is wasting large amounts of taxpayers’ money persecuting Christians using the equalities office (an expensive quango). He has shown his double-standards.

    Charlie Hebdo is a magazine not an individual person, so it is a commercial entity. Ashers, the bakers, in N.I. are a commercial entity trying to practice their faith but David Cameron feels completely free to persecute them. Persecution it is in a part of the country where marriage between a man and a woman is legal. The actual argument turns out to be a political statement made by the activist and aimed at Stormont – the bakers are merely those victims in the middle. The activist is likely to win because the taxpayer is extensively funding his lawyers and barristers. David Cameron, does not really represent conservatives at all is openly practising persecution against Christians.

    The problem facing all Christians everywhere is that we have been completely disenfranchised by the three main parties and yet we outnumber all of them and are simultaneously most likely to vote.

  3. Clive, you are quite right – extraordinary double standards from government and I am not sure how many Christians are aware of the lengths a few Christians have gone to, so as to defend our religious liberties.

    You are also correct to say that Christians have been disenfranchised when it comes to choosing a party for which to vote. Currently it is almost like “asking turkeys to vote for Christmas”.

    A case can be made for Christians intentionally withholding their vote or perhaps better still spoiling their ballot papers to register our unhappiness with the “Westminster elite’s” persistent pressure to exclude Christian thought and practice from the public space.
    Christians should vote for the common good but not at any price.


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