“MY WORK has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong.” So said the Labour Party’s last bearded leader, Keir Hardie. And so quoted the present bearded leader, Jeremy Corbyn, at the end of his speech to the party’s annual conference in Brighton on Tuesday.
Speaking for more than an hour, Mr Corbyn ranged over topics from opposing austerity to Saudi Arabia’s imminent execution of an opposition activist. There was plenty of cheers and applause for commitments to re-nationalise the railways and to bring all schools back under the control of local authorities.
He also quoted Jesus and the parable of the good Samaritan, telling delegates that Labour’s values included not “walking by on the other side of the street” when someone was in trouble.
Days earlier, Mr Corbyn (Features, 18 September) had attended a Sunday service at One Church, in Brighton, organised by Christians on the Left (CotL). He also announced his backing of CotL’s campaign against expanding Sunday trading (News, 10 July).
The group have been encouraging delegates to Labour’s conference to write their “Ideal Sunday” on a whiteboard to show their support; Mr Corbyn wrote: “My ideal Sunday is a day of reflection and rest — everybody deserves that!”
In brief comments during the service, he said he wanted to engage with faith groups about areas in which they could campaign together, such as welcoming more refugees to Britain and climate change.
After the service, a number of Labour MPs and members joined Christians for a vigil on Brighton beach to reflect on the impact of climate change on the world’s poorest people.
On Wednesday, a row erupted after Mr Corbyn said in a radio interview that he would never authorise a nuclear attack if he became Prime Minister. Senior Labour MPs immediately criticised him, including the shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle, who described his comments as "unhelpful".
Earlier, the conference had decided not to debate the Labour Party's commitment to renew Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent system. Mr Corbyn's speech had included a commitment to discussing key issues and seeking to persuade each other, as well as criticism of the media for reporting such internal debates as "splits", "concessions", and "capitulations".
Rebecca Henney, office and communications manager for Christians on the Left, said that the whole Party conference was marked with a surge of optimism about the Labour Party.
“For me, the personal highlight [of Mr Corbyn’s speech] was speaking about taking personal abuse out of politics,” she said on Tuesday. “A lot of people found that very appealing. And I loved the line about ‘divine discontent’.”
She said there was a sense that the party under Mr Corbyn would be more receptive to working with faith groups on areas of common ground. “He received a really good response at our Sunday service,” she said. A Robin Hood, or financial- transactions, tax would be another campaign where the Church and Labour could join forces on, she also said.
Other Christians at the conference were more guarded about the ascent of the veteran left-wing backbencher to the leadership of the party. Paul Waddell said he personally did not support Mr Corbyn; but he thought the party would get behind him.
“It was great that he quoted Jesus, and there are lots of values that would appeal to Christians,” he said on Tuesday.
He doubted, however, whether Mr Corbyn’s speech would connect with those who had not voted Labour in May.
“I think the Labour Party has been increasingly involved with faith groups and institutions. It was starting to come to the fore under Ed Miliband,” he said. Referring to the campaign against Sunday trading and the refugee crisis, Mr Waddell said that there was plenty of overlap between the Church’s concerns and those of the reinvented Labour Party.
“Some of the hard Left are very, very passionate atheists, but it has never been anything more than robust discussion with those individuals,” he said. “Most of the party are very warm and open to people of faith.”
Another Christian delegate, Ed Rennie, said he was fairly sure that Mr Corbyn would never become Prime Minister, so he was avoiding becoming too invested in the new enthusiasm breaking out in the party.
“Obviously, real Labour people wouldn’t dispute any of his aspirations, but it’s just . . . how do we achieve this?” he said. Mr Corbyn had an “appalling voting record” on faith schools but was very friendly to Christians, he thought.
He also pointed to Sunday trading as a fruitful point of intersection between trade unions, the new Labour leadership, and the C of E. But he also acknowledged there was a danger that the Church might become too well-acquainted with a more activist Labour Party.
“The problem is that the Church is seen to criticise the Government when it is not left-wing enough, but not to speak out on those issues where they might find more affinity with the Conservative Party,” Mr Rennie said. “But it is important for convinced secularists to see the Church supporting hot-button issues such as workers’ rights.”
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