Christian Left pleasantly surprised by election that leaves PM bargaining for power

09 June 2017

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Remaining: the Prime Minister, Theresa May, makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street after she returned from Buckingham Palace on Friday

Remaining: the Prime Minister, Theresa May, makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street after she returned from Buckingham Palace on Friday

THURSDAY’s General Election result, in which the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority, was being quickly digested by the political and religious Establishment.

The Conservatives won 318 seats, just short of an overall majority, and 12 fewer than it had before the election. The Prime Minister went to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen’s permission to form a government. The expectation was that the Democratic Unionist Party and its ten MPs in Northern Ireland would not form a coalition with the Conservatives, but enable Mrs May to remain in power.

The main beneficiary of the Conservatives’ unexpected collapse was the Labour Party. It defied predictions of electoral embarrassment under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to gain 29 seats, and win 261 in total.

Stephen Beer, the political communications officer for Christians on the Left, said that he was as surprised by the result as the rest of the country. “I think the election result has taken the whole country by surprise. I’m with the country on that one.

“Theresa May called an election not for the national interest but for her own interests, and the campaign turned out to be very revealing,” he said. “The country is fed up with austerity and people talking about hard Brexit.” The message from the electorate was “Think again,” he suggested.

Several of the new Labour MPs are members of Christians on the Left. Mr Beer said that their success could be linked to church membership, which helped to ground them among the electorate. “They have been campaigning vigorously and really connecting with their communities. They are embedded in their communities. Churchpeople understand, because there is a church in every community in this country.

“This is one of the things Christians on the Left have been talking about for a long time — connecting people in the Church to a political party and actually campaigning for policies that can change our society for the better.”

The campaign had united the often fractious and squabbling Labour Party, Mr Beer also said. “There’s still a friendly battle of ideas within the party [but] Jeremy Corbyn has just led an election campaign that has gained seats when we were predicted to lose them. I think it would be very odd indeed if the party decided to replace him.”

While Labour supporters were celebrating their gains, Conservatives were disappointed as a fragile overall majority of 12, won in 2015, was whittled down to nothing.

Gareth Wallace, the executive director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF), said that his party now needed to get over this blow and get on with governing. “It’s the voters’ choice, and we have got to put our best foot forward. It seems there was a reluctance among the electorate to say exactly what kind of government they wanted,” he said. “Maybe no one party was clear enough.”

Commentators have suggested that blunders in the Conservative campaign were factors in the result, particularly the rare, if not unprecedented, pre-election U-turn on a manifesto proposal, which concerned social care (Comment, 2 June).

paBuoyant: Jeremy Corbyn leaves Labour Party headquarters in central London, telling reporters the party had achieved an “incredible” result in the electionMr Wallace defended Mrs May’s campaign. “It was courageous to offer a comprehensive social-care policy; these are issues every Western nation with an ageing population is facing,” he said. “It’s right for government to grasp these nettles. The question will be whether that was communicated clearly.”

Asked about Mrs May’s judgement in holding a snap election, he suggested that hindsight was “a beautiful thing”, but it was impossible to predict in politics when it was a good time to risk trying to increase a majority.

He also spoke about the loss from the House of Commons of Conservatives including several Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF), members, such as the CCF’s co-founder, David Burrowes, Stewart Jackson, and Julian Brazier. Mr Brazier’s constituency, Canterbury, returned a non-Conservative candidate for the first time since 1918.

“Politics is a brutal business,” Mr Wallace said. “But I wouldn’t want any voters out there to be dissuaded from thinking that politics is a valuable and vital calling. People should get engaged and join with their party of choice.”

As a Northern Irishman, Mr Wallace said that he was familiar with the DUP, his party’s new allies in the House of Commons. The DUP’s own domestic concerns about agricultural subsidies and an open border with the Republic of Ireland could well push the Government towards a softer Brexit more amenable to those who voted Remain, he suggested.

“The DUP are well known for being socially conservative while the Conservative Party has edged away from some of those views,” he said. But he said that he was confident that the DUP would not seek to impose these views on Westminster.

He did not want to put an overly optimistic “sheen” on a “difficult night”. But he was hopeful that, with this new alignment, politics might become more “sensible and boring”.

paCasting their ballots: nuns from Tyburn Convent leave a polling station at St John’s Parish Hall, central London, after voting on Thursday  The new parliament features both the most women and most ethnic-minority MPs in history. Fiona Onasanya, the new MP for Peterborough, a member of Christians on the Left, and a black woman, told the Evangelical Alliance last year that the Church had equipped her for public service.

“There are many characters in the Bible who show us we are called to serve outside of the four walls of the church building — from Joseph and Daniel to Esther and Nehemiah. We should take joy and strength from our positions knowing we are placed there on purpose for a purpose.”

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, said that he was enthused by the “absolutely extraordinary” election results, because they showed that lots of voters, particularly younger people, were calling for a “new politics”.

“People who are fed up with austerity and the poor suffering more while the rich get richer,” he said. “If May is successful in forming a government they need to do a lot of listening.”

But Bishop North warned that there was a risk that, with a diminished Prime Minister, the UK might be seen as more vulnerable. “We need greater co-operation with Europe for our own wellbeing and security. If there is now greater willingness to compromise, that can only be a good thing.”

Asked whether there was a lesson for the Church in the result, Bishop North said: “Younger people are motivated by a strong, positive vision. There’s more to Corbyn than just economics; he’s got a vision for what it means to live together which has compelled people. I think that can give the Church confidence that we can be vocal with a positive vision.”

However, the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent, was less complimentary about Mr Corbyn’s efforts. “Labour still lost, and the Conservatives will still form a Government,” he noted.

“I’m not sure that anything has completely changed. But [Mr] Corbyn’s approach found traction particularly with younger voters, and if there more young voters voting that can only be good for democracy.”

paThe way: voters outside a polling station in St James' Church, Edinburgh are given two choices on polling dayMrs May had badly undermined herself with her decision to call a snap election, Bishop Broadbent argued. But in many ways a hung parliament was preferable if it meant that parties talked to each other about how to negotiate Brexit, he said.

The Evangelical Alliance’s director of advocacy, Dave Landrum, said in a statement that the election had revealed again how divided Britain was.

“Elections are always a chance for people to remind politicians that their position is only ever temporary, and we saw that last night. Our democracy is precious, but it is also messy,” he said. “With uncertainty over what comes next, we need to come together and pray for all involved.”

Christians should also “step up to the plate and get more involved in leading change in our society, because opting out is not an option”.

A statement from the Church of Scotland called for prayer and reconciliation. The convener of its Church and Society Council, the Revd Dr Richard Frazer, said: “Now is a time to set aside tribal politics and work for an inclusive and generous future for our nation. That will require both courage and grace on the part of those who have been elected to office, and people of faith should offer prayer, practical support, and a ministry of healing and reconciliation as a contribution to creating that better future.”

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