On Easter Sunday, in the run-up to the 1997 general election, the Telegraph published an interview with Tony Blair under the headline: ‘It is impossible to be a Christian and a Conservative’. He had not in fact said that; a subeditor inferred it from what he had said. Across the land, Conservatives exploded in rage. Blair was roundly condemned.
Actually, it was a great interview. In the 1980s and 1990s, people like me seethed as the Conservative party paraded itself as the party of morality while implementing the policies of selfishness. They got away with it for years. Blair put the boot on the other foot. It was a turning point in that extraordinary campaign.
Ahead of the 1997 election, Blair wrote: ‘Easter, a time of rebirth and renewal, has a special significance for me and, in a sense, my politics. My vision of society reflects a faith in the human spirit and its capacity to renew itself.’ Christianity gave Blair a language which was both reassuring and hopeful. His government was forever offering ‘New Deal’ and ‘Fresh Start’ programmes. And that language made him Labour’s most successful election campaigner. The Bible helped him project a progressive political vision that connected successfully with people far beyond church congregations.
In building a coalition for a Labour majority, we should not underestimate the importance of the churches. The old assumption of shrinking congregations and dwindling influence is now out of date. In London, certainly, congregations are growing, and my guess is that that will be the case across the country in due course as well. But the bigger point is that Christian faith provides a language around which a broad based coalition for progressive change can be built.
As in Margaret Thatcher’s day, it sometimes appears that the most effective opposition to the Tories is coming from the churches. Catholic Social Teaching is exposing the truth about the government’s policies. The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster highlighted just after his appointment the destitution being created by government policy. The 27 Anglican bishops who signed a letter to the Daily Mirror articulated effectively moral outrage that so many are forced to rely on foodbanks.
Who would have predicted that – as government benefit cuts leave hundreds of thousands without enough money to buy food – it would be the churches who stepped up to address the need? The Trussell Trust coordinates the fast-growing network of over 400 church-based foodbanks which between them provided food for three-quarters of a million people last year. Iain Duncan Smith has been so angered by their meticulous publication of statistics about what is happening that he refuses to speak to them, accusing them of a ‘political agenda’.
The foodbanks are sustained by thousands of volunteers, mainly drawn from the churches. As they see for themselves the impact of Tory policies on their communities, we need them to see Labour as the party which can deliver a better future.
We have a tendency to feel uncomfortable about religion – to find the subject embarrassing. We fall prey to the propaganda which characterises believers as deranged or bigoted or both. We forgo needlessly a very large number of votes as a result. Instead we should be welcoming those who come at politics from a starting point of faith. We certainly should not be requiring people to keep quiet about their faith when they get involved with the party. We need the energy and the insights they draw from what they believe.
‘God told me to join the Labour party’, said a new member, describing herself as one of the ‘squeezed middle’, at the Progress Campaign for a Labour Majority meeting with Christians on the Left in Liverpool last week. I am glad He did. My guess is that He will be telling a lot of other Christians to do the same thing as they see what is happening around them in the coming months. We need their support. And the party needs to make very sure that it makes them welcome.
Stephen Timms MP is chair of Christians on the Left. He tweets @stephenctimms
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