The politics of Christmas

It's the season to be jolly, but let's not forget the reality of injustice.

People do not instinctively associate Christmas with politics or economics. Indeed, if there is any association it is an inverse one: Christmas is the one time of the year when we can legitimately close our door to these grim, worldly pursuits.

According to a recent poll from Theos/ ComRes, five in six people (83 per cent) agreed that "Christmas is about spending time with family and friends," and three in five felt that it was "a time when we should be generous to people less fortunate than ourselves." Over two in five thought "Christmas is about celebrating that God loves humanity," and about the same number said they thought that it was "a good excuse for taking time off but doesn't really have any meaning today."

By contrast, only a third thought "Christmas is a time when we should challenge poverty and economic injustice," and less than one in five agreed that "Christmas is a time when we should challenge political oppression around the world." The message was clear: domesticity and charity yes, religion and leisure maybe, politics and economics no.

This is perfectly understandable and, in some ways, admirable. Generosity is better than parsimony, and many families are in desperate need of the time and space that Christmas (sometimes) affords. But it is also somewhat ironic, given that the narratives on which the Christmas story is based comprise some of the most pushily political passages in the New Testament.

Matthew's retelling is the subtler of the two. His opening genealogy emphasises Jesus's political descent, but also mentions four foreign women, with vaguely scandalous histories - a triply unusual feature for genealogies of the time. His story of the Magi and the escape to Egypt, taking place around the murderous paranoia of Herod, the supposed king of the Jews, continues the theme. God is not on the side of the powerful in palaces, Matthew is saying, but rather to be found among foreigners and refugees.

Luke's gospel is more direct, repeatedly juxtaposing the might of the powerful empire and plight of its powerless subjects. The holy family is pushed around so that the Roman Empire can put its taxation records into order. (The fact that Luke appears to have confused Quirinius's local census of Syria and Judea in 6AD with Augustus' general censuses, held in 8BC and 14AD, doesn't change his point: taxation and debt were bitterly controversial subjects at the time).

Caesar Augustus's decree immediately gives way to story in which shepherds, the lowest of the social low, are the first to hear about the birth of a "Saviour" who will bring "peace". The fact that Caesar was widely known the "Saviour" who brought peace through his brutally efficient armies is instructive.

Luke makes a similar point a little later when he scrolls forward to the start of John the Baptist's ministry. Luke carefully - and unnecessarily - dates this from reign of Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Philip the tetrarch, Lysanias the tetrarch, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas, before going on to say "the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness". God moves not among the rulers, Luke implies, but out there in the wasteland.

Mary's famous song, the Magnificat is, of course, the most visibly political moment of the story. "[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty": a message that even the beauty of evensong has not been able to dull.

Christmas is, and will remain, a time when most of us down tools and try to close the door upon the world. The decision to move it into midwinter makes that more or less inevitable, particularly in northern climes. But that does not change the fact that the story, which still provides the contours of the season, challenges us to take questions of social alienation, political oppression and economic injustice very seriously indeed.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. "The Politics of Christmas" can be downloaded here.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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Jeremy Corbyn is not standing down - 172 people cannot drown out democracy

The Labour Party could right now be exploiting a bitter Conservative leadership contest, writes shadow chancellor John McDonnell. 

The shadow chancellor writes exclusively for The New Statesman amid one of the most turbulent weeks in politics this century.

The “coup” taking place in the Labour Party

The instability from Brexit has extended into the Parliamentary Labour Party with members of the shadow cabinet standing down. I would like to thank all of those who have participated with me for their work.

Frustratingly, this has come at the worst possible time for our country. And at a time in which we our party could have used to reset the economic narrative that the Tories planted in the public during the summer of 2010 when our party was in the midst of a leadership contest.

Our party right now could be exploiting a bitter Conservative leadership contest that’ll probably lead to electing a Tory leader who will be responsible for any economic fallout from Brexit. The Tories have peddled lies over the past six years over the management of our economy and the state of the public finance, which the decision last Thursday is sadly exposing.

I strongly believe that if some colleagues are not careful then they may cause irreparable damage to our party and the country. 

The Labour Party changed last September. Jeremy was elected with the largest mandate of any political leader in the history of our country. Our party’s values of democracy and solidarity seem to be asked of the membership and always met. Sadly not by some members of the PLP. 

There are those in our party who could not come to terms with the fact that a quarter of a million members could clearly see that the our party’s broken election model has lead to two back to back defeats and needed replacing. Like the wisdom of crowds, our membership understands that we cant keep going on doing the same thing electorally and getting the same results.

I believe that we can all still work together, but I feel some MPs need to get off their chest what they have been holding back since last Autumn. Maybe then they will hear the message that our membership sent them.

The truth is that Jeremy is not standing down. In the Labour Party our members are sovereign. There was an election held and a decision made, and 172 people cannot outweigh a quarter of a million others. 

It would risk sending the worst possible message we could send as a party to the electorate - that Labour does not respect the democratic process.

The economics of Brexit

The Leave vote delivered an immense shock to the political system creating great instability. Of immediate concern is the deteriorating economic situation. Credible economic forecasters virtually unanimously warned that leaving the European Union would be an enormous shock to the economy. 

The disagreements centred on the severity of the shock, and the long-term damage done. To that initial shock must be added the realisation that there was no plan made for a post-Brexit Britain. 

George Osborne has not secured the foundations of our economy and the market volatility reflects that missed opportunity. With turmoil continuing, and major employers already threatening redundancies, the immediate task is to stabilise markets and reassure investors and savers that financial institutions remain rock solid. 

The measures announced by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney early on Friday morning, and the later statement from the Chancellor, are to be welcomed and we have requested a briefing under Privy Council rules on the financial authorities’ contingency plans. It is also reassuring that George Osborne has now moved a threatened, post-Brexit austerity Budget until at least the Autumn. 

Nonetheless, with a recession now forecast, any attempt to push further austerity measures in response to the crisis would be an act of exceptional economic folly. The Chancellor’s own fiscal targets have long since been missed and simply redoubling the misery of spending cuts and tax rises will not bring them any closer to achievement. 

What is needed in a crisis like this is urgent government action to shore up investment, already falling before the vote. Shovel-ready projects should be brought forward, creating jobs and focused on beginning to rebuild those parts of the country currently most deprived – and where the vote to Leave was strongest. As a country we will get through this crisis, and we will do so when we no longer tolerate a situation in which too many of our people are excluded from even the chance of prosperity.

The referendum result

I have been in consultation with many economist, trade union and business leaders since the early hours of the morning when we learnt the result. I hope to give a speech this Friday going into further details of Labour’s economic response, but the result last Thursday came as a blow to many of us in the Labour Party.

All wings of the Labour movement fought hard, and two-thirds of our voters swung to Remain – the same as the SNP, and far more than the Tories, who split 60:40 for Leave. 

Labour will now be fighting to ensure whatever negotiations now take place, and whatever proposals the government chooses to bring forward, will maintain hard-won protections for working people in this country.

The new Labour leadership inherited the Labour In campaign last year. Obviously as with any campaign we will now have to reassess, but the hard work of the staff who worked on the campaign cannot be questioned. They did a fantastic job. 

Jeremy Corbyn also managed to help get out a larger number of our voters than the other main Westminster leaders across the country. 

But the sad truth is that we lost regardless. We need to learn lessons of the referendum and the General Election campaigns, and question whether the way we campaign as a party needs to be changed. 

It is clear that we cannot fight the next election using the same outdated practises and policies that were in place at the last two general elections, and the recent referendum. 

We cannot continue to do the same things in the same ways and get the same results. Those people who need a Labour government the most cannot afford it.


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015.