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The cynical culture of party politics

27 February 2015

IT IS no surprise that the Bishops' Pastoral Letter for the General Election should have drawn a largely negative Conservative response, and virtual silence from everyone else.

Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Greens don't want to be seen to endorse anything from the Church. As for the Tories, you have only to combine the word "poverty" with the word "bishop" to produce howls of left-wing bias, and demands that the Church stick to saving souls and stop interfering in politics.

Even The Times, normally more balanced, produced a ridiculous leader describing the letter as "disingenuous and, in at least half a dozen respects, nakedly partisan".

This hysterical over-judgement is not justified. The most important point that the Bishops make is about the culture of present-day politics: the lack of any attempt by the parties to sketch a moral vision for society. Instead, they are presenting themselves as rival brands, with voters as mere consumers. Their election promises are bribes aimed at particular interest groups; there is no appeal to the nation as a whole. The Bishops are right to point out that all this undermines democracy, and produces the kind of cynical despair in which extremism can all too easily take root.

They are also right to emphasise the importance of social cohesion, and to draw attention to the plight of the poor. They could hardly be Christian if they failed to do this. It is extraordinary, not to say alarming, that Tories see this as the inevitable mark of a left-wing bias. There was a time when Tories were proud to be concerned for social justice, and were often better than their more ideologically driven rivals at delivering imaginative policies that helped poor people. It is still likely that Iain Duncan Smith's reforms to the benefits system will achieve that, reducing unemployment and encouraging people back to work. Michael Gove's war on the complacent teaching unions was an attempt to get justice for all children in the education system, no matter how poor their background or narrow their family horizons.

The Tories should have replied to the Bishops' letter by articulating the moral vision that they can genuinely claim: a passion for freedom within the law; a respect for individual flourishing in which all have a chance to reach their potential; and the concern for community cohesion which lay behind "the Big Society".

If the Tories were interested in the votes of the million or so people who claim to be Anglicans, they would have come out fighting. If it is not possible to vote Conservative because you believe in justice and fairness, then our political system really is in trouble.

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