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Party leaders vie for black church vote

20 April 2015


In the House of God: Ed Miliband sits with Baroness Doreen Lawrence at Praise House, on Sunday

In the House of God: Ed Miliband sits with Baroness Doreen Lawrence at Praise House, on Sunday

THE men vying to be Britain's next Prime Minister have been courting the votes of black-majority churchgoers.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband are touring the country in an attempt to secure an edge on 7 May. But at the weekend, both headed to worship gatherings near the capital, where black-majority churches are experiencing spectacular growth, and can command congregations of thousands.

Mr Cameron's faith, which he has described as intermittent ("a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes") was none the less enough to win him huge applause as he appeared on stage at the Festival of Life in east London on Friday night.

The festival began in a camp off the Lagos expressway; it can now arrange annual fixture at the ExCeL conference centre, drawing 45,000 Christians for a night of prayer and praise.

"As Jesus said, with his arms outstretched to his disciples: 'Here are my mother and my brothers," Mr Cameron quoted. "For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, my sister and my mother. And that is what we are. As God's children we are all one big family."

The gathering was, Mr Cameron suggested, a demonstration of the Big Society he has championed, a concept that some were "determined not to understand".

"Like Jesus turning water into wine, you turn loneliness into companionship," he told them. "You turn deprivation into comfort. You turn lost lives into lives with purpose.

"Just think how great our country Britain could be if we built on that. If we have an even bigger Big Society where even more people shared your family values: values of prudence, of hard work, of looking out for those who fall on hard times. With those values we can achieve the Britain we all want to live in."

He said he was a believer in aspiration ("the only limit to someone's aspiration is their own ambition and talent"). He was confident that his successor was present in the room.

And he won a huge cheer for his assertion that it was a night to be "proud that this is a Christian country, where we stand for the freedom to practise your faith and where we stand up for Christians".

He recalled the Nigerian schoolgirls, "cruelly snatched" by Boko Haram a year ago, and prayed for their safe return.

Before he left the stage, the Prime Minister was prayed for by the Festival's founder, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Pastor Enoch A. Adeboye. Mr Cameron had earlier referred to him as "Daddy G.O."

Asking the crowd to stretch out their hands to Mr Cameron, Pastor Adeboye prayed for "the wisdom of Solomon and the courage of David so that in his days, in our days, Great Britain will be great again."

The first-ever manifesto from the black Churches, published in February ( News, 27 February), noted that, in London, 48 per cent of churchgoers were black or from an ethnic minority; and that Operation Black Vote had identified 168 marginal seats in which the BME vote could decide who won on 7 May.

"With such a high number of Christians among black communities, the black-majority Church in Britain is set to have a significant say in who wins this next election," it said.

On Sunday it was Mr Miliband's turn to try to influence this constituency. In Croydon to support Sarah Jones, battling to take a marginal seat from the Conservatives, he joined the congregation at Praise House, a Pentecostal church he last visited in the aftermath of the 2011 riots.

His address was more muted than Mr Cameron's. The party's manifesto rather than the Gospel was his key text, and his object was to show how it matched the concerns of the BME community.

Before introducing the Labour leader, Pastor Damian Luke referenced the "years of hardship" that had been faced by black people in Britain. As an immigrant from Nigeria, he had felt: "There are people who think I am less of a human being."

Politicians blamed immigrants for domestic problems, he warned, and xenophobia was on the rise abroad. Praise House is a short walk from Lunar House, home of the UK Visa section. Next door to adverts for minimum-wage jobs at the job centre on the high street are offers of support appealing border agency rulings.

Mr Miliband told the gathering: "What strikes me is that we have equality before the law in our country, but we don't yet have real equality. The battle for me, for equality, is not yet won."

He spoke of a promise to create a race-equality strategy across every government department to address barriers and discrimination, including those present in policing, "which is such a big issue still in our country".

Baroness Doreen Lawrence, a Labour peer whose son Stephen was murdered in a racist attack in south-east London in 1993, was present in the congregation, and he praised her "incredible courage".

He was "definitely" committed to working more with black-majority churches to alleviate unemployment among young black people, he told a reporter from The Voice newspaper. At 32 per cent, it is double that among their white peers. For a start, Labour would a guarantee a job to every young person who is out of work for more than a year.

Promised "tough questions" by Mr Luke, Mr Miliband was asked about the "discipline" of Christians who wore the cross, preached on the streets, or tried to share their faith at work. He was asked whether parents should be able to take their children out of sex-education classes, what the Government would do to address family breakdown, and how he would stop councils treating Christians with "suspicion".

"By the time a child is 15 they are more likely to have a smartphone than a father in the house," one woman, who described herself as a wife and mother, pointed out. "We are not quite the country that I grew up in. . . I know that a lot of it depends on what is in the home, but my authority as a parent is being taken away from me by government policy. . . Parents are actually afraid to parent because of the nanny-state culture."

Mr Miliband appeared more comfortable talking about the economy, suggesting that it was long hours and multiple jobs that kept parents from being able to spend time with their children. He defended sex-and-relationships education, criticising "certain newspapers . . . who want to scare people". He repeated Labour's commitment to creating an envoy for religious freedom, professing himself to be "deeply troubled" by the persecution of Christians abroad, and avoiding the arguably trickier issue of balancing at home the right to freedom of expression and equality legislation.

Asked in a media roundtable if his party had changed since Alistair Campbell's assertion that "We don't do God," he explained that it came down to common ground. As "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" floated up through the floorboards from the service under way below, he explained: "So many of the objectives I have for the country . . . how we get a country that's not just run for the rich and most powerful, that's something that motivates lots of people of faith from all backgrounds. So in a way, how people come to these issues is different, but the view people take about these issues is actually very similar."

His approach seemed to have to satisfied the congregation. "He was very down to earth, and he did his best to address the issues that were being voiced to him," said one woman. "I think that the proposals that he wants to bring about are very practical."

Whether either of the party leaders' appeals translate into votes remains to be seen. In 2010, ethnic minorities were three times less likely to be registered to vote than white people. Only 29 per cent had been contacted by any of the parties during the campaign. This time around things might be different, as the BME community grows in political confidence and the parties realised that they have to work hard to secure their support.

"Vote according to your conscience," Pastor Luke told Praise House. "Nobody at the front is telling you how to vote."

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