A rather strange polarisation seems to have gripped discussion about tomorrow’s election. In his interview with Ed Miliband on the BBC news yesterday, James Landale led with the question: ‘Have you ever run a business? Have you ever made a profit?’ Of course, the answer was ‘No’, and would have been easy for Miliband to have been defensive about this—but he has been media-trained out of that. But the striking thing about the question for me was why Landale did not go on to ask: ‘Have you ever been a doctor or nurse? Have you treated people medically? Have you been a teacher? Unemployed? Disabled?’ or even perhaps ‘Have you ever been a philosopher? Do you understand what makes for a good life?’
In some quarters, you would think that the sole task of the next Prime Minister is to be CEO of UK PLC, as if there was nothing else to politics than creating a culture where people can make money. I suppose you might expect such a narrow perspective from a publication like The Economist, but many other commentators appear to echo their view that it is the economic judgement which is the only determinant of who should get elected. David Cameron appears to think that the slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid‘ will help him to stay in power as effectively as it helped Bill Clinton unseat George Bush Senior many moons ago. He is now the firefighter, whilst Ed Miliband is the arsonist destroying the country by his economic recklessness. As polling day looms, polemic and personalisation extinguish any hope of a sensible debate about the things that matter.
On the other hand, some Christian opinion on the election offers polarisation in the other direction: economic competence is of no importance whatsoever, or so it seems. I was impressed with the ‘pastoral letter’ issued some weeks ago by the House of Bishops, Who is My Neighbour?’ and its call for an ‘attractive vision of the kind of society and culture [we] wish to see.’ But I confess to being slightly disappointed by the approach suggested by Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, in these questions to consider when thinking about voting:
1. Will your candidate be putting the common good, and especially the interests of the poor and the marginal, at the heart of your policies?
2. Will your candidate work with churches, faith communities and all people of good will to shape a society where all can flourish and where the stronger will readily and gladly help the weaker?
3. Will you be striving to fashion a healthcare and welfare system that treats each needy individual with respect and honour as a priceless, significant person (made as we would say in the image of God)?
Don’t get me wrong; these are excellent questions, and in the context Paul works in, these must be the pressing questions in a place which is a long way from the booming businesses of the South East. But I don’t think these can be the only questions Christians ask about Government, for several reasons.
First, economics is not everything—but it is not nothing either. In fact, there is a strong Christian tradition, known as the Protestant work ethic, which sees work and productive economic activity as a key part of a Christian vision for a flourishing society. In a wonderful essay on God at Work in the Grove Ethics series, John Goldingay points out that we work, not simply to be paid as compensation for our effort or loss of freedom, nor simply because it is necessary drudgery, but because we were made in the image of a God who was at work in creating the world. The task of tilling the earth and managing its resources were, in Genesis 1 and 2, a high calling to share with God in the task of creative and fruitful stewardship of this fertile planet. Apart from anything else, people are happier when in work.
Secondly, Christians of all people should know that human beings, with all their remarkable abilities, are also sinful. In a recent television debate, someone in the audience, complaining about welfare reform, commented: ‘Everyone wants to work. Everyone wants a job.’ Actually, they don’t! I know that I am lazy, and there are times when I want to take the easy way out, and I don’t think I am alone. Pretending there is no such thing as welfare dependancy does nothing for the argument against the unfair and unequal cuts to benefits that we have seen over the last five years. Just as we need regulation to prevent those with (economic) power from using it to their own ends, so we need regulation that encourages people into work. The same is true for other major areas of expenditure, such as health care. Our ‘free at the point of use’ system simply will not last unless we can find a way of getting people to take more responsibility for their health.
It seems to me that we therefore need to add a fourth question to the three above:
4. Will your party do all it can to encourage all people into a productive occupation where they can use their God-given gifts to fulfil their calling and bless others?
Our approach in thinking Christianly needs to be both-and and not either-or.
In my previous post, I set out the issues that I think about when deciding who to vote for:
- 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.
None of the current political parties come anywhere near this list of concerns, though some do better than others. But for me, there continues to be one major issue that needs tackling—the growing and out-of-control inequality that we are experiencing.
Inequality is ruining Britain – so why aren’t we talking about it more? The vast and growing disparity in wealth in the UK should be the number-one election issue, but the main parties just aren’t that interested…The Rich Listers are over 100 per cent better off than they were 10 years ago, this despite most of the decade being taken up by the worst recession since the 1930s. By contrast, the average Briton is only as well off as they were before the financial crisis (by some measures they may be worse off).
The FT’s Martin Wolf, hardly a man given to socialist hyperbole, wrote last week, “To my mind, the fundamental domestic challenge confronting the UK is that of creating a dynamic and stable market economy whose benefits are also widely shared.” He added that the complacency of the two main parties (to what should be a fairly obvious and uncontroversial goal) was striking.
Note these comments come from writers in the Telegraph and Financial Times—hardly closet Marxists!
I am very fortunate to have the chance to vote for Nick Palmer as the Labour candidate in my ward, and he offers this comment on economics and health:
Nationally, the fundamental fact of the campaign, barely examined by the media, is the scale of the cuts that are about to be imposed if the Conservatives win and the need for a responsible and balanced alternative. A few key facts:
- Conservatives cuts to “unprotected” departmental spending (e.g. education, policing and support for local services) come to £30 billion over the period, or 15.3% of the entire Budget (Institute of Financial Studies briefing note BN170, page 20). Virtually no detail has been given for these, but it appears that there will be major cuts to child benefit and disability benefit as well as falling support for schools and an accelerating decline in police numbers.
- By comparison, Labour’s projected cuts to unprotected spending amount to £1.2 billion(page 29, same report). The reason for the difference is that Labour would balance the books 1-2 years later and would not seek to eliminate borrowing for investment.
- In particular, the NHS locally faces a quite extraordinary crisis. Nottingham University Hospital is projected to make a loss of £42,700,000 by 2015/16, the fourth highest deficit in Britain. The NHS Trust Development Authority observes that deficits like these “call into question the sustainability of a number of services”
Labour is not offering taxpayer subsidies for Housing Association associations to buy their houses. Or tax cuts on higher earnings. Or the other electoral bribes that have suddenly appeared in the Conservative manifesto.
Nick is also quite happy to question the party line, and will speak up when he thinks the party is going in the wrong direction—something that every MP ought to be able to do.
Despite all this, it seems to me that there are still many major issues that have not been touched on in this campaign. Why do we only train enough doctors to fill 75% of vacancies in the NHS? When will we train more doctors and nurses? Why is there such a terrible drop-out rate for new teachers, with nearly a quarter quitting in their first year? And who has a sensible plan to build more houses, take the pressure off the housing market and make homes affordable again?
Whatever your current intention, I would invite you to ask yourself one further question. If you are inclined to vote for a party on the ‘right’, what are the social values that party stands for? If you are inclined to vote for a party on the left, what vision does that party have for the role of work?
And to the grammar fundamentalists, if you have read this far without screaming, congratulations. You can now say out loud that the title of this piece should be ‘For whom should I vote?’
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?