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How the Church wants you to vote

For the first time, the Church of England has produced a letter saying how we – and our politicians – should approach the general election.

In an unprecedented move, the Church of England has published a letter intended to guide the population in how to approach the upcoming general election.

Although the House of Bishops, which published the letter, insists it’s not a “shopping list of policies we would like to see”, it is pretty clear which policies the Church is against. And it reads more like a set of (rather sensible) instructions for our politicians than advice to voters.

Here’s what the Church tells us in the 56-page document, Who is my neighbour?:

 

We don’t support one party

In a not-so-turbulent caveat, the bishops are keen to point out that this letter is not party political: “If anyone claims that this letter is “really” saying “Vote for this party or that party”, they have misunderstood it.”

We do do God

A little dig at Alastair Campbell here, refuting those “people, including some in the positions of influence in the media, politics and elsewhere, [who] claim that religion and politics cannot mix.”

“Without a grasp of the power and meaning of religion, it is impossible to understand the dynamics of global politics today . . . The claim that religion and political life must be kept separate is, in any case, frequently disingenuous – most politicians and pundits are happy enough for the churches to speak on political issues so long as the church agrees with their particular line.”

Don’t vote Isis

A strangely indirect reference to religious extremism:

“It is a mistake to imagine that all manifestations of religion are essentially similar or always benign . . . The answer to ‘furious religion’ (that is, the religious impulse turned in on itself or used to justify oppression and conflict) is not to marginalise religion in general or see religious faith as some kind of problem.”

A message for hardsinning people (and politicians)

“To speak of human sin is not the same as apportioning blame and being judgemental. All are sinners; all fall short.”

This forgiveness even extends to politicians themselves:

“We should neither hold politicians to a higher set of moral standards than we expect from ourselves, nor allow them off the hook by treating political life as if it were outside the demands of morality . . . with few exceptions, politicians are not driven merely by cynicism or self-interest. The low esteem in which politicians are held today has many roots. But simply blaming the individuals concerned is not an adequate response.”

At-One-ment Nation

Only slightly less catchy than Labour’s similar slogan:

“At-one-ment is as necessary a goal for public life as it is for the personal dimension.”

More idealism please

None of parties offer an attractive vision of the future: “ . . . we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best. There is no idealism in this prospectus”.

End the Dutch auction

Nothing to do with Europe – this is just a damning reference to political parties’ narrow core vote strategy:

“ . . . the idea that politics is about satisfying the wants of distinct groups so as to win their votes has prevented our politics from rising above a kind of Dutch auction”.

Quit buying us off with “retail politics”

An indictment of treating politics as “an extension of consumerism”:

“The time has surely come to move beyond mere “retail politics”, where parties tailor their policies to the groups whose votes they need, regardless of the good of the majority”.

Tories, stop harking back to Thatcher

“Thatcher’s market revolution emphasised individualism, consumerism and the importance of the corporate sector to the extent that, far from returning to Victorian notions of social responsibility, the paradigm for all relationships became competitive individualism, consumption and the commercial contract, fragmenting social solidarity at many levels.”

Labour, stop harking back to Attlee

“We are now as distant in time from Margaret Thatcher’s first government as hers was from Attlee’s. Both administrations changed the way people looked at society, politics, the role of government and the nature of human relationships. But today, neither vision addresses our condition.”

Beveridge is OK though

“Beveridge understood that if the state is given too much power to shape society it will stifle the very voluntarism that prevents the state from being hopelessly overburdened by human need.”

Crack down on social Darwinism

Our “society of strangers” (one of the Church’s many excellent soundbites) relies too much on competition, rather than cooperation, between people.

“Consumption, rather than production, has come to define us . . . So has an excessive emphasis on competition regarded as a sort of social Darwinism.”

Don’t just rehouse people in random places

Social policies should not just assume people are “happily mobile and footloose”.

“ . . . attempts to address the shortage of suitable housing will create new problems if they neglect people’s attachment to particular places and the social networks they create there.”

Bureaucracy is not messy enough

Politicians in government, and those seeking office, want everything to be too “neat”, and get stuck in bureaucracies:

“ . . . human life and creativity are inherently messy and rebel against the uniformity that accompanies systemic constraints and universal solutions.”

Devolve divinely

Don’t decentralise every little bit of power, but do try and make policy relate to people’s lives and communities:

“Unless a political vision emerges which reaffirms the bonds which tie us together as a nation, as localities, as communities and as neighbours, we shall be left with the spectacle of politicians claiming more and more powers and yet achieving less and less that is worthwhile.”

We’re not all young and attractive

Stop measuring people up against the perfect individual:

“When individuality is thought to stem from autonomy and freedom of choice, a particular image of the ideal individual – young, free, attractive, and materially comfortable – becomes the archetype against which everyone is measured and most are found wanting.”

The poor are treated as “unwanted”

“There is a deep contradiction in the attitudes of a society which celebrates equality in principle yet treats some people, especially the poor and vulnerable, as unwanted, unvalued and unnoticed.”

Don’t call people scroungers

“ . . . when those who rely on social security payments are all described in terms that imply they are undeserving, dependent, and ought to be self-sufficient, it deters others from offering the informal, neighbourly support which could ease some of the burden of welfare on the state.”

We’re not under threat from Europe

The volatile and war-torn parts of the world, not our European neighbours, affect “the stability of all nations”:

“If there is a threat to the values and institutions of our nation, it does not come today from our closest neighbours in Europe.”

Rethink Trident

“The presence of such destructive capacity pulls against any international sense of shared community.”

Politicians won’t listen to voters on this because they’re fixated with the “talismanic power of nuclear weaponry”.

Keep ringfencing the foreign aid budget

“The government is to be commended for committing 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid when budgets have been so hard pressed. For any party to abandon or reduce this commitment would be globally irresponsible”.

Resurrect the big society

Praise for the “thoughtful Conservatives” who came up with the now-forgotten initiative:

 “. . . the ideals that the big society stood for should not be consigned to the political dustbin – they could still be the foundation for the new approach to politics, economics and community which we seek”.

End the “us and them” immigration narrative

“The way we talk about migration, with ethnically identifiable communities being treated as “the problem” has, deliberately or inadvertently, created an ugly undercurrent of racism in every debate about immigration.”

Reducing the deficit should not “grind the faces of the poor”

An obsession with indebtedness can be harmful:

 “. . . a concern to reduce indebtedness need not necessitate grinding the faces of the poor”.

The government has not protected the poor from recession

“Those whose margin of material security was always narrow have not been adequately protected from the impact of recession.”

And “burgeoning” in-work poverty has caused the Church to support the Living Wage.

Candidates, stop being so “on-message”

It’s time to cut beneath “the jargon and ‘on-message’ glibness” that has come to characterise political language:

“Candidates who free themselves from clichés and party formulae may be showing the first signs of that human sympathy which would enable them to be real representatives of their constituents rather than simply needing our votes to gain power.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle