FAITH, FAMILY AND FAIRNESS: WHY ‘VALUES VOTERS’ MATTER TO LABOUR
PROGRESS LECTURE, 23 FEBRUARY 2010
Thank you for inviting me to deliver this lecture.
Paradoxically, I’m going to talk a lot tonight about listening.
Sometimes, when we’re angry – particularly with our kids – we say we’ll give them a good ‘talking to’.
A lot of voters today are angry and disappointed. Angry with politicians. Disappointed with politics.
In my view, what they need is a good ‘listening to.’
We need to listen. Indeed, we need to listen and learn.
Particularly when people tell us what matters personally to them. Progressive action comes from a receptive ear.
I represent East Renfrewshire. Few of you will know precisely where it is. It’s a great place to live and bring up a family.
We won it in 1997, as we won the country, because we captured the hearts and minds of middle Britain. To win again, we need to make as rich a connection with those voters today as we did back then.
Politicians at times become too technocratic. We came into public life because of our passion and our values. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Mario Cuomo, it turns out that we campaigned in poetry but we govern in PowerPoint.
Tonight, I would like to reflect on some of the values which I believe still resonate with many voters:
• Fairness and
I know that some will find this a controversial statement. Here in Britain ‘values voters’ are often seen through a prism of the American experience. American mid-Western, rural voters who go to Church, who are members of the National Rifle Association and who oppose gay marriage. ‘God, guns and gays’ were the pillars of the American Conservative majority built by Karl Rove.
There’s some truth in this, but remember the last 3 Democrat Presidents have been avowed Christians. Despite the formal separation of church and state, faith has long played a central part in US politics. That’s not surprising for a country where 60% of people say that God plays an important part in their lives.
But it’s wrong to think that religion plays no role in British politics. Particularly, given that over 5 million people have been to church, mosque, synagogue or gurdwara in the last month. That’s a hugely significant figure. Faith voters massively outweigh ‘Motorway Men’ or ‘Worcester Woman’ or any other trendy demographic group identified by political marketeers.
In the UK, research at the time of the last General Election shows that Labour gained the most support from the actively religious – with 31%, a 9 point lead over the Conservatives. This lead needs to be replicated in the coming election – and it will be if we reflect and respect their values and aspirations.
And just this weekend a ComRes Poll commissioned by the public theology think tank Theos highlighted just how crucial religious voters will be to the election result as Labour closes in on the Conservatives. As their director Paul Woolley said ‘The UK isn’t like the United States, but the religious vote is going to be a critical factor in determining who gets into No 10 – especially when it comes to appealing to female voters.’
Faith has always been important to Labour. After all, colleagues in the very first PLP named ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ as a major influence not ‘Das Kapital’.
Indeed, as we all know, the Bible gave the labour movement much of its intellectual legitimacy to challenge the vested interests of the old order. As David said in Psalm 9: ‘The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.’
We all believe in big ideas. It’s why we are Labour. We are all believers. Social justice. Social democracy.
Many of us also have faith.
First, let’s acknowledge that faith has played a crucial role in building Britain. It’s good that the Churches still play a major role in our education system. They were also central in the building of health services before the NHS. There is no exclusively secular solution to the challenges we face today.
Second, let’s celebrate the capacity of different faiths to exercise moral leadership. There is a powerful respect for religion even amongst those who don’t have faith. When the Chief Rabbi, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Cardinal, or the Moderator of the Church of Scotland speak, men and women of all faiths and none listen. Why? Because living together in the world we know that morality matters. And we have an appetite for ideas and a passion for debate about this. No wonder polls show that a clear majority of Britons want religion and the values derived from it to play an important role in public life.
Thirdly, faith networks and influence can also transcend frontiers. The Anglicans, Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists in our country are each part of a worldwide community – with a reach which extends beyond where government and traditional diplomacy can stretch. As socialists we share that internationalism. Our solidarity – as that of faith groups – extends well beyond our national boundaries. And when people of faith press us on good and just causes – such as climate change, rights of asylum seekers and the need to tackle poverty at home and abroad we listen.
This is, of course, the run-up to a General Election, so what does it mean for us? Well, unlike other European countries, rightly no party captures a plurality of faith voters – In Britain we do not have a party and faith symbiosis.
But evidence from the last General Election shows that people with faith vote in larger numbers than the unreligious. It is noticeable that religious voters are 8% more likely to vote than those without faith. And the even larger group of voters who are believers but not attenders are also 8% more likely to vote than the unreligious. Though amongst this group, called by some the ‘Fuzzy Faithful’, Labour only had a 4% lead in 2005.
So, if these ‘values voters’ can sway elections what are the issues that sway them? It’s a myriad of issues including the economy, the NHS & crime. There are also issues with culture and morality at their heart – about people, especially those dear and close to them, living fulfilled lives. About society being based on a clear understanding of fairness. It’s not just Right Wing v Left Wing – but about the Right Thing and the Wrong Thing.
We have achieved a lot together in recent years in supporting families and challenging inequality. But in modern politics there isn’t a belated sense of gratitude for past achievements from a public who are much more interested in what you are going to do next.
People want us to respect their lived reality. Of course they know everything we’ve done. Or as we sometimes say – have done for them. But new schools and hospitals, better qualified and well paid nurses, teachers and doctors are what they think we’re there to do.
People rightly want more from us. We were elected because we have a broader, more generous, more inclusive, more inspiring sense of what Britain is and more importantly what it could be. We are about possibility, imagination and inspiration. And yet we were rooted in what places were really like.
We knew – and we said – a few people can make a misery of a community. We knew – and we said – welfare should be a safety net not a hammock. We knew – and we said – government was there to serve the people, and was not an end in itself.
In short, when people were frustrated, we didn’t just acknowledge their frustration. We didn’t just understand their frustration. We met them at the point of their frustration. And we took their indignation, their affronted pride, and yes, sometimes their anger, and we embedded it and embodied it in our politics and our policies. Anger is an energy. But, as former miners’ leader Mick McGahey said, “Anger is not enough. For if it was, our forefathers would have achieved everything we want to see.”
The post-world war sense of fairness – the desire for redistribution of wealth and opportunity – which is so important, and has made our modern world, has encountered new realities and been changed. When we talk of fairness, many good people talk of frustrations. We may seem at odds – but we are talking about the same things.
We need to stay connected with people in five key areas:
• their worries about anti-social behaviourâ€ª
• the challenge posed to the welfare state by a minority who can work but won’t work
• the importance of patriotismâ€ª
• the need for a firm but fair immigration policy
• the benefits of shifting from a something for nothing society to a something for something societyâ€ªâ€ª
I don’t buy into theories of fairness fatigue. Just look at the enormous public response to the Haiti earthquake. But perceptions of fairness at home are shifting.
I think that this is caused by a sense that after a decade of economic success, and after six decades of welfare from cradle to grave, that there have been real chances for many but yet not all have prospered, or perhaps not all have been willing to take the opportunities. â€ªWe should not pander to the darker sides of these sentiments, but we have to meet any sense of unfairness halfway and either debate, discuss or deal with it. And that changing nature of perceived unfairness is part of the challenge for a Fourth Term Labour Government.
While fairness is at the core of our values, family is the most important thing in our country. We love our family more than anything else.
I am convinced that like faith, family is another force for good. For me it incorporates a solid bedrock and source of emotional support in changing times. We are all nurtured at least in part by our personal experiences.
As well as providing a supportive emotional environment, it’s a potential source of financial support in difficult days. All in all, families are our firm foundations, our rock in times of trouble.
Traditionally British families have been ‘generationally horizontal’ – with aunts, uncles and relatives across a generation providing support. But today with smaller families and longer life expectancy, our families are becoming more ‘generationally vertical’ across three or four generations.
At the same time, some people who grew up in a more conservative age are now grandparents in a more diverse age.
There is a greater acceptance of a wider range of lifestyles. Surveys show how we are becoming more liberal on how people live their lives.
Today’s grandparents grew up in a society where marriages were over one-third more commonplace than nowadays.
Attitudes to family have changed over the decades. Attitudes to what is a family have changed over the years too. Now we are less judgemental – most people want to live and let live.
In previous generations there was an expectation that others would share their faith and way of life. But attitudes have changed and many people of faith simply expect respect for their way of life and values system.
And many of today’s grandparents reflect a combination of two nurtured environments.
In the 50s their experiences were of an era when cohabitation, divorce and homosexuality were frowned upon. Annual divorce numbers were around one-fifth of current figures.
However, in today’s environment the granddaughter they love more than anything is cohabiting or one grandson might be happily married and the other divorced. But they love them all – they are not judgemental.
I celebrate marriage and family life, and while it’s wrong for government to financially incentivise one family type over another. I am convinced that family is the glue which holds our communities and society together.
It is rightly more difficult to win a fourth election in a row. But, let’s just remember – we have won many of the battle of ideas. Cameron’s Tories have had to embrace the language of progressives in order to be heard by the British public. But it’s their second language, while it’s our native tongue. The problem is that sometimes politicians sound like bureaucrats, treating persuasion as though it is arithmetic: “My 15 point plan is three times better than your five point plan.”
We were formed by a belief in, and a passion for, a radical vision of what we can be. Not simply what we have to settle for.
We need to remain connected to the mainstream concerns of all voters and respect the priorities of faith voters and in so doing we can win a future fair for all.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.