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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”