Boris Johnson visited the Husseini Mosque in Northholt during his mayoral campaign in 2008. Photo: Getty
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Should religion ever play a role in policy-making?

As market and utilitarian analyses increasingly dominate our public discourse, religious voices could offer fresh insights.

This week Faith Minister Baroness Warsi resigned from Government. She was a keen advocate for David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative and in particular played an impressive role in encouraging faith communities to be more involved in the policy making process.  These days there is, quite understandably, a surge of interest in religion when those purporting to act in its name do bad things. Much of the criticism of religion’s role in society derives from unfamiliar tenets, the real or imagined divisions it creates in society, and abuses carried out in its name. Indeed, for many it is regarded as an outdated and even dangerous impediment to the advancement of a civilised and mature society, replaced and made redundant by science and a secular humanism.

But this tells only one side of a very complex story, since huge swathes of the world's population hold religious belief as a powerful source of motivation and moral vision, and answers to the basic questions of human existence. Generations have passed on wisdom, justified values, and binded society through religion, creating harmonious and vibrant communities (if politicised variants of religion are avoided).

Indeed, as our public discourse becomes increasingly narrowed by strictly market or utilitarian analysis, it’s worth considering religious voices for fresh insights on the moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions of a wide variety of public issues ranging from climate change and education to poverty and urban violence.

You will find that religious actors are not reticent in coming forward with ideas, resources and proposals aimed at public policy change. Citizens of a religious background not only have a right to participate in the policy-making process but have valuable contributions to make to the common good when they do so. In recent years has been a surge in interfaith policy activism on both sides of the Atlantic across diverse policy domains, influencing visionary decisions by urban policymakers.

In the US, interfaith groups in states including Georgia, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have already made impactful contributions to the policy process. For example, in the most populous Hawaiian island of Oahu, Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) has worked hard since its creation in 1996 to improve access to public services. FACE, a non-profit interfaith group that includes 38 churches, a Buddhist temple, and two Jewish congregations, helped end discrimination against non-English speakers who were unable to sit the driver's licence exam. The exam is now offered in 12 languages in addition to English, a welcome development that will help counter reduced access to employment and an increase in uninsured drivers.

In Europe, the traditionally Catholic Nordrhein Westfalia region of Germany has seen faith based social service agencies grow into a national advisory council that advises the government on social service policies. Interfaith activists in London have joined with community leaders, social activists and businesses to alleviate poverty by campaigning for a more equitable living wage. Since its inauguration in 2001, the Living Wage Campaign has boosted the wages of tens of thousands of low-income employees by over £210 million.

These examples contradict the view of religious actors as merely promoting forums for bland conversational niceties while ignoring the more difficult aspects civic life. Indeed, the process of arriving at a shared understanding of the common good and the approaches, methods and instruments by which this can be realised may contribute to greater levels of mutual trust and collective action among a diverse citizenry, a vital pre-requisite for a more cohesive, flourishing society.

Interfaith leaders engaged in this process deserve credit for their persistent and results-oriented work in the policy field and their capacity for innovative solutions. In spite of this, engagement with religious actors remains contentious among those who fear the illiberal consequences of a resurgent religion in the public square.

There are conceptual and practical challenges as well. There is no common denominator about the nature of religion and its potentially transformative role in the life of society. Policymakers need to set aside the common assumption that any role for religion in society is a Trojan Horse for conversion. Similarly, religious actors will need to reassure their secular partners that their efforts to contribute to the social good are free from any hidden agenda to coerce their views on others.

If this engagement between religious actors and policy makers can be optimised, the benefit to wider society, particularly in urban and deprived areas, would be enormous. It will require courage and tolerance from all of us.

Muddassar Ahmed is a Patron of the Faiths Forum for London and Kishan Manocha is a Vice-Chair of the Inter Faith for the UK.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.