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The two big parties’ social theology

30 September 2016

OUR two main political parties, Labour and Conservative, not only appeal to our political convictions, but also to our habitual way of seeing the world. This is most obviously manifest in the way in which they regard each other.

As soon as the Labour leadership contest was over, the rhetoric of the party conference this week turned, as it always does, to beating the real enemy: the Tories. The Tories are absolutely necessary for Labour’s existence. It cannot imagine the world without them.

Rarely are they called “the Conservative Party”. Instead, the word “Tory” is spat out with a kind of curled hatred — the two brief syllables encapsulate the privilege and indifference that Labour finds in Conservatism, and exists to destroy. It is simply impossible for the Tories ever to have done anything that is just, or moral, or fair.

If you tend to see life as a crusade against the embedded wickedness of an inherently unjust society, you will probably line up with Labour. Labour-voting Christians can see the many biblical denunciations of social injustice as supporting them.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, do not depend for their raison d’être on the Labour Party. Typically, they hardly acknowledge that the other party exists at all. There is no Labour equivalent of the spat-out “Tory”. “Socialist” sounds rather academic; “Marxist” hardly describes the whole party (at least, not yet); “Labourites” is illiterate.

The nearest that the Conservatives get to insulting Labour is by summoning up the spectre of “the unions”, in the hope that it evokes a grainy mental picture of Arthur Scargill urging on the revolution.

There is a reason for Conservative indifference to Labour. Conservatives really do see themselves as the natural party of government. They claim not to be ideological, and to rule by pragmatism — which enables them to be sublimely indifferent to the war cries of the Left.

The Conservatives, are of course, basically conservative. Even when they innovate (which they do with surprising frequency), it is in the interests of a deeper continuity. So, if you find the rhetoric of Labour distasteful, and long for an imperfect but manageable stability, you will probably feel more at home in the Tory ranks. Tories who are Christians can take the view that practical wisdom in a wicked world is the best that we can hope for.

Both have a sense of sin. For the Tories, human selfishness is something that we have to work with, moderating its destructiveness as far as we can. For Labour, sin is basically social inequality, which must be removed by struggle and legislation.

If you find, at the end of the conference season, that you are a bit of a floating voter, it may be that your social theology is afloat, too.

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