Who should I vote for?

_82777359_82777358A 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?’

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5 thoughts on “Who should I vote for?”

  1. Thank you for highlighting inequality as so important. “The Spirit Level” by Wilkinson and Pickett, Penguin 2009, demonstrates powerfully how damaging this is, to rich as well as poor, in a whole range of measures across society. The proof is in statistics, which doesn’t always make easier reading, but provides undeniably convincing evidence. One of my ‘Ah!’ books, which changed my whole outlook.

    • Ah. “The Spirit Level”. It is clear that you (and Ian??) have not read the Telegraph article that he cites in the link from “people are happier when in work” (above) and the criticism of this book by Prof Peter Saunders that the article cites. I’d love to hear the counter criticism. Thanks for the stimulus though Ian. I spoilt my ballot paper in this election: there seems to be such a mismatch between political rhetoric on all sides and so many of the issues that my parishioners are facing and that Ian outlines. I find Ed Miliband and Ed Balls utterly unconvincing as alternatives to David Cameron’s “it’s the economy stupid approach. Last week a friend of my daughter’s, working as a GP in Lambeth, said she could never vote Labour in this election because their promises on expanding GP provision were undeliverable and irresponsibly raising people’s expectations. On Thursday I heard Ed M. tell the world “We are going to under-promise and over deliver”. Who do I believe? Not our putative PM. I wrote across my ballot paper: “I am not going to vote again in a general election until we have PR for national elections.”

  2. Thanks for this Ian
    Hmmmm . . . 🙂

    I guess I have a few concerns regarding your comments on work, and some sort of assumed relationship to ‘the economy’ For a start, the PWE in my studied opinion has a very dodgy foundation, and can be considered as a 17/18C attempt at theologically justifying what we now experience as rampant consumerism 🙂 funny that we only needed to start scrabbling around for a theology of work when for various reasons people’s wealth began to expand rapidly . . . On the back of . . .

    There is a very long and noble tradition of Christians wandering around, doing good and ‘scrounging off the state’ St Francis of course comes to mind, and for at least 3 years Jesus and his disciples lived off handouts – of course he may have been saving like crazy all those years as a carpenter . . . Allegedly:-)

    And many many many people who have no paid work are working every hour God sends, doing Gospel work, feeding, clothing, visiting etc etc. the sheep and goats won’t be identified by a hard day at the office or absence therefrom 🙂

    Many of these people will give their lives in the service of others and be rewarded by the state with an impoverished old age not having been ‘economically productive’

    I would also add that I’ve not yet met people with left leaning views who think work unimportant for human flourishing?? However I’m only 53 🙂

    ‘The economy’ like ‘national interest’etc. are huge abstractions, and tools of those who wish to obscure the day to day reality of peoples lives. Why I must ask did no one on the Question Time programme the other week remind David Cameron that the majority of welfare recipients and food bank clients are IN work???

    Anyway- apologies for my rambles 🙂

    Unfortunately I cannot vote. Normally resident in NZ (a land similarly clouded by unhelpful myths and abstractions) I applied to vote in person here in England. Just after I left NZ a postal vote fell onto my ‘metaphorical’ doormat. Too late for me to use even if I hadn’t left home to spend three economically useless months here on Sabbatical, scrounging off the largesse of friends 🙂

    I do enjoy your posts – do keep up the ‘good work’ 🙂

  3. We have a candidate with a guaranteed seat so it hardly seems worth the bother, although I will because I believe democracy is the least worst option of forms of government. Ultimately, Christians should engage in politics more than just once every five years. Your MP, regardless of his or her allegiance, is there to serve *you*.

  4. Yes, all fine – though I’ll be amazed if I ever see Labour getting serious about getting people off welfare and into work like the Tories have (for all its botched and unfair implementation).

    Also, in the spirit of both-and, doesn’t all this somewhat overlook the key moral issues that currently face our society, and the protection of Christian freedoms, especially of the gospel and of conscience? The Catholic Bishops did a much better job (in a much shorter letter) of reminding their parishioners of their responsibilities in these areas http://www.catholic-ew.org.uk/Home/News/Election-Letter2. And Christian Institute have published an excellent, well-researched briefing on many of these issues – http://www.christian.org.uk/wp-content/downloads/election-briefing-2015.pdf – though it makes for depressing reading.


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