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House of Bishops calls for a new politics ahead of election

17 February 2015


Meeting voters of the future: David Cameron visits Upton Heath CE primary school, Upton-by-Chester, last week 

Meeting voters of the future: David Cameron visits Upton Heath CE primary school, Upton-by-Chester, last week 

THE House of Bishops has called on politicians to offer the electorate a bigger vision of society in the run-up to the General Election in May.

In a pastoral letter to the members of the Church of England, released today, the Bishops note how both the Labour government of 1945, and then the Thatcher government, from 1979, "changed the political weather". But neither of these two transformative ideologies - either establishing a welfare state, or freeing markets from state interference - were sufficient today.

"Neither vision addresses our condition," the bishops wrote. "Placing excessive faith in state intervention on the one hand, or the free market on the other", leads to a narrowing of ambition and does not nurture the common good.

This is the first time that the House of Bishops has released such a letter before an election. The letter, which is 126 paragraphs long, does not offer support to any party, but seeks to encourage Anglicans to think how best to use their vote on 7 May.

Acknowledging that people feel detached from politics, the bishops said that the political parties had failed to offer "attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see. . . Instead, we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best." The letter calls for an end to "retail politics", and for politicians to focus instead on the common good rather than appealing to sectional interests.

The intervention has provoked some criticism. The Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who is a Christian, accused the bishops of being left-wing and attacking only the Government. Speaking today on Radio 4's Today programme, she said: "The Church is always silent when people are seeking its voice, and yet seems very keen to dive in on political issues when, actually, no one is asking it to. Where were the bishops' voices when the last Labour government was in a spending frenzy?"

Speaking at the launch of the letter, however, the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, said that the House of Bishops did not have a preference for "any single political party or programme. . . The letter] encourages Christians to engage positively in our political processes, to use their vote, and to value hard-won democratic freedoms."

The letter addresses a wide range of political issues, such as the economy, inequality, the welfare system, immigration, housing, the European Union, and the Trident nuclear deterrent. It does not endorse particular policies, but offers more general reflections on how Christian voters should approach these issues.

They should be wary of accumulations of power, the letter says, whether in the state or the corporate sector. Instead, intermediary institutions, such as housing associations or credit unions, should be strengthened, and power handed down to a local level.

The immigration debate has an "ugly undercurrent of racism", and has too often been framed in terms of "us" and "them", the letter says. "Crude stereotyping is incompatible with a Christian understanding of human social relationships."

The House of Bishops also warns against debt, whether personal or national, and notes that "the greatest burdens of austerity have not been borne by those with the broadest shoulders". On welfare reform, the letter says that the state should support the needy, but not to the exclusion of voluntary action and "neighbourliness".

New welfare policy announced. The Prime Minister is to unveil a new Conservative policy today which would require young adults on Jobseeker's Allowance to undertake 30 hours of unpaid work a week if they have not found a job after six months on benefits.

"What these young people need,"  Mr Cameron said, "is work experience, and the order and discipline of turning up for work each day. From day one, they must realise that welfare is not a one-way street."

The plans were criticised by Labour politicians, who said that their own policy of guaranteeing young people who are out of work for six months a state-funded job would better tackle youth unemployment. 

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