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Why the right label is crucial

18 January 2013

Bob Holman probes the Christian Socialists' proposed change of name


Great tradition: the Revd Lord Soper, the first chairman of CSM, seen in 1983

Great tradition: the Revd Lord Soper, the first chairman of CSM, seen in 1983

WHEN she was a teenager, our daughter belonged to Crusaders. It changed its name to Urban Saints, which I found appealing. Yet when, in October, the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) undertook consultations to change its name, I felt I was losing a part of myself.

The CSM was formed in 1960; chaired by the Methodist, the Revd Donald (later Lord) Soper, its committee was in favour of unilaterism, state ownership, and a classless society, although these aims gradually diminished in importance. I was impressed by Soper, but more influenced by Richard Tawney.

His starting-point was that God had created all people of equal worth, and that they had an entitlement to resources, opportunities, and responsibilities that fostered unity, not division. I joined the CSM in 1962, and called myself a Christian Socialist.

The CSM affiliated to the Labour Party in 1986, although later some members were highly critical of the Labour Government's invasion of Iraq. A former director of CSM, Dr Andrew Bradshaw, wrote that in 2010 "it is in very good heart - membership is once again rising. . . CSM members are having influence at all levels within the Party. 2009 saw CSM make a major impact at Party conference; it held more fringe meetings than any other organisation, as well as hosting the conference service." A tenth of Labour Party MPs were members.

Despite this progress, the executive committee now favours a change of name. It circulated a questionnaire in October, to be returned by the end of December. Its chairman, Stephen Timms (an MP for whom I have great respect), and its director, Andy Flannagan, have sent out statements arguing that more people are looking for a political outlet, but that the word "Socialism" is difficult to understand, and old-fashioned. In the questionnaire, members are asked which of the following names they prefer: Communion, The Common Good, or The Christian Left.

I have waited until after the closing date for the questionnaire, as I did not wish to influence members. Its results will be circulated in the next few weeks, and then all members will have a vote on the change of name, before the AGM on 21 March.

IMPLICIT in the case being made for change is a reluctance to use the terms "Christian" and "Socialist". Both the National Children's Homes and the Church of England Children's Society - with which I have had close links - have changed their names to Action for Children and the Children's Society respectively. Among their reasons, I understand, was to attract financial and other support from a wider group than churchgoers, and grants from secular bodies.

I am a long-term supporter of the former Bible Lands Society, which has become Embrace the Middle East (News, 31 August). I think the change is acceptable, in that the countries served were not necessarily lands of the Bible, and it is now working more in co-operation with a range of diverse services. USPG has also caused a stir by renaming itself United Society (Us). The former name was a mouthful, but many are critical of the new one (News, 20 July).

But the CSM did not have a mouthful of a name. It is not changing its objectives. It does not run services with large numbers of staff for whom huge amounts of money are required. Instead, its argument is that the terms of its title are out of date and not easily understood, and so put off prospective members.

Yet Mr Timms makes it clear that the movement will remain Christian, and says: "We will still be a socialist society." So why try to hide the terms? I am glad still to call myself a Christian Socialist. It is the term I often use when writing an article or before a talk. I have not found it a barrier.

At the Greenbelt Festival, I spoke about Christians and equality. Some people disagreed, but all seemed to understand the terms. The Labour Party may be embarrassed by the word "socialist", but Christians in a society that remains socialist should be able to explain it.

None the less, I accept that others have found it a handicap. I will not go as far as the Revd Hazel Barkham, who has declared online that she will resign if the title goes. But obviously any new title must be linked with Christianity and radical politics.

TITLES such as Communion, The Common Good, and The Christian Left are vague, and are not obviously associated with socialism. The first two indicate no link with Christianity. I want to be positive, and suggest two other names: Equality, or Egalitarians. I believe that equality should be the core of our movement.

It should also encourage the personal practice of greater equality - a matter CSM has largely ignored. Keir Hardie and George Lansbury (whose lives I have written) were both leaders of the Labour Party, and called themselves Christian Socialists. They reflected their principles in their lifestyles, and made explicit references to Jesus. They lived on modest incomes, refused to move into fashionable areas, and declined honours. Today, if more followed their example, they would both challenge the domination of greed and make the case for greater equality.

Poverty and inequality are increasing in Britain. Personal greed is an evil that dominates much of society. I write not as a distant academic or a wealthy politician. I do so as a member of a congregation in a very deprived area. I meet families dependent on food parcels, and people who often run out of money.

This is wrong according to the values of both Christianity and socialism. A movement giving priority to promoting greater equality and putting egalitarianism into personal practice would attack Britain's great injustices, and also attract new members.

Professor Bob Holman is a former Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath. His book Woodbine Willie will be published by Lion Hudson in March.

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