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Political activists begin to prepare for expected General Election

12 January 2024

Focus on culture, not policy, say Christian lobbyists

Alamy

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, speaks at the National Composites Centre at the Bristol and Bath Science Park last week

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, speaks at the National Composites Centre at the Bristol and Bath Science Park last week

CHRISTIAN organisations attached to the two main political parties are preparing for a probable General Election this year with a focus on the culture of politics and the part that faith can play. But actual policy positions are less prominent on their agenda.

The director of Christians on the Left (CotL), Hannah Rich, said last week that the organisation’s decision not to take a firm position on inter-party policy issues was an act of “kindness”. “It’s not being cowardly: it’s about being kind to to members who have really strongly held personal opinions on some of those things,” she said.

CotL, formerly the Christian Socialist Movement, is affiliated to the Labour Party. While its membership does not exclusively comprise party members, the group only campaigns for Labour.

“We can be a critical friend,” Ms Rich explained. In recent years, most of the group’s work had been focused on the culture of the Labour Party itself rather than policy issues, she said.

“We saw our role very much as bringing salt and light to the conversation, if that doesn’t sound too cheesy,” she said. “It was a really difficult time then to be a member of the party, and particularly to be a member of local parties. During that time, local party meetings were quite messy, quite divisive, and we ran campaigns trying to get people to be nicer to each other.”

But the bitter inner turmoil of the Corbyn era seems uncontentious compared with the difficulties posed by certain policy issues. There is a wide range of opinion among left-wing Christians on issues such as abortion, assisted dying, and surrogacy, and, as a result, CotL is at pains not to take a public stance.

“We’re a broad church within a broad church,” Ms Rich said. “We’re really proud that we have every variety of Christian within Christians on the Left, and we have every variety of ‘Left’ within that, as well.”

Such diversity, and freedom of conscience, is carefully guarded: don’t expect a pronouncement on surrogacy any time soon, akin to the Pope’s pronouncement this week (story here). On some issues, though, there was sufficiently clear feeling for CotL to put out a statement, as the group did in November about the conflict in the Middle East, when it condemned the 7 October attacks by Hamas and pleaded for international law to be respected.

On other contentious issues, however, such as assisted dying, there was unlikely to be any kind of unified statement, she said, pleased that Sir Keir Starmer had told MPs that they would be given a free vote on the issue.

CotL’s counterpart in the Conservative Party, the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF), took a similar position on policy issues, its Parliamentary Director, David Burrowes, explained.

There was no “exclusive Christian view” on “how we deal with various aspects of public, economic and social policy”, he said, but a need to “look at how we encourage wider Christian world-views” in politics.

Elected MP for Enfield Southgate in 2005, a seat that he lost in 2017, Mr Burrowes knows better than most the vicissitudes of political life.

As the Conservative Party is currently trailing in the polls, it seems likely that the CCF may have to adjust to life as a adjunct to an opposition party. The prospect doesn’t appear to faze Mr Burrowes, who co-founded the CCF in 1990.

AlamyThe Prime Minister arrives at the BBC last Sunday for an interview with Laura Kuenssberg in which he spoke about his General Election plans

“We have that long history, when in the different seasons we have different roles to play,” he said. He cited work during the early 2000s that was credited by Iain Duncan Smith as formative of the “Big Society” programme of the Cameron premiership (News, 9 December 2010).

One issue on which Conservative politicians and C of E leaders have clashed in recent years is immigration policy. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been criticised for some of his interventions in the debate (News, 10 May 2023).

“I wouldn’t be going along with some politicians who say that the Bishops should get out of politics,” Mr Burrowes said. He believes that Christians have a responsibility to call out injustice wherever they perceive it, and that the Bishops should likewise be “ready to be criticised”.

House of Lords reform seems likely to be on the agenda if Labour comes to power, after the publication of a report by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown which recommends that it be replaced with an elected Second Chamber (News, 9 December 2022; Comment, 9 December 2022; Leader comment, 16 December 2022).

For her part, Ms Rich was wary of reading the Bishops’ opposition to the Government’s Rwanda policy as any kind of endorsement of the Labour Party. “Some of those polices are so abhorrent and awful that I hope anyone in the position of a bishop would want to oppose them,” she said.

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