Ever since 1982 I have campaigned for political reforms, which would hopefully make politics fairer and more constructive. Changing the voting system has always seemed to me to be the best single reform. The trouble is that most campaigners have had strong party allegiance. People who support a party that has benefited from our existing First Past the Post (FPTP) system have argued for its retention, whereas people who support parties that have suffered under it demand change. I admit that I fall into the latter category. Could churches put a more objective case for some kind of reform?
I received the newsletter (entitled ‘Emergency Praxis: General Election’) of the Joint Public Issues Team set up by a number of non established churches. The words of John Wesley on Oct 6th1774, were quoted prominently:
“I met with those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1. To vote without fee or reward for the person they judged most worthy; 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against; And 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those who voted on the other side.”
A very careless interpretation of these words might suggest that Christians should be pretty passive during election campaigns, but you have to remember that they were said in the midst of an ill tempered, not to say violent campaign. Rev. Mark Woods (Note 1) has written:
“…When I see Christians I know and respect repeating mindless slurs on the character and policies of their political opponents in all seriousness, I think a little Wesley might be good for them. Don’t speak evil of your enemies. Don’t let your spirits be sharpened against them. They are, on the whole, decent people trying to do their best.
Does that mean politics has to be bland and nice? Not a bit of it. I’m all for passionate engagement. It’s our opponents as people to whom we owe respect; to their weak, dangerous arguments, unworkable policies and bankrupt philosophies we owe none at all. We ought to be able to distinguish between the two, and vote, without fee or reward, for the person we judge most worthy.”
It would be great if the current election campaign were to be conducted on the basis of principles, policies and reliable information. But those relying on the mainstream media will find the latter hard to come by, and most voters will simply not have the time or patience to seek out and compare alternative sources. All the signs are that it is the alleged qualities of the key people that will dominate. The best that Christians can do during the campaign period is to follow Wesley’s advice, but they must expect to be drowned out by slogans, sound bites, and biassed media reporting. Mrs May avoids proper debate, constantly mouthes the words ‘strong and stable government’, and appears in factories surrounded only by a small invited audience (note 2). By contrast Mr Corbyn expounds his policies passionately to large and enthusiastic audiences, but for the most part is only reported on social media. The mainstream media do not report him fairly. His policies may or may not be practical, but he has the right to be heard, and incidentally there is some evidence that people are more likely to agree with his policies than with the man.
Mrs May says this is a very important election, and I agree but for rather different reasons. She argues that a strong Conservative majority is essential in order to secure a good deal on Brexit. I argue the opposite. If the rest of the EU were determined on revenge then there can be no good outcome, but I do not think that is the case. I think that, at present, they want to be firm but fair. If negotiators on both sides are reasonable, then the fact that the government has to convince parliament that the terms negotiated are the best obtainable, would tend to strengthen its hand. If on the other hand Mrs May and the British team are unreasonable then Europeans may act irrationally and take revenge. If the Brexit deal is bad for Britain, which I fear it may be, then the government will be tempted to take repressive measures to stifle dissent.
It is outside election periods that Christians might perhaps make more of a contribution. Since the 1980s the behaviour of politicians seems to have deteriorated.
In his book ‘The Rise of Political Lying’ (2005), right wing journalist and commentator Peter Oborne traces the history of political falsehood back to its earliest days but focusing specifically on the exponential rise of the phenomenon during the Major and Blair governments, Peter Oborne demonstrates that the truth has become an increasingly slippery concept in recent years. From woolly pronouncements that are designed merely to obfuscate to outright and blatant lies whose intention is to deceive, the political lie is never far from the surface. And its prevalence has led to a catastrophic decline in trust, at a time when people are more politicised than ever. In his witness statement to the Leveson enquiry in 2012 (note 3) there is no suggestion that the change of government had changed his mind.
In his subsequent book, ‘The Triumph of the Political Class’ (2007), Oborne makes essentially two points:
He paints a picture of a political class of MPs drawn from all the main parties in parliament who have stronger loyalties to each other than to the people they are supposed to represent. Further the media (including the BBC), far from holding government to account, are in an unholy alliance with them, peddling the manufactured picture of reality that government chooses to cook up. The differences between the two main parties had become insignificant.
The political class consider themselves to be morally superior to the rest of us – not something most of us would agree with!
Recently Oborne has revised his view on the first point. With the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the Labour Party is once again a socialist party. He celebrates this, but he forgets that the media make it very difficult for Corbyn to get his message across. However the sense of moral superiority is not peculiar to New Labour. It has led for example to Conservative ministers asserting that they do not require evidence for their point of view; they know they are right because of who they are. This can lead to poor decisions and inhumanity. It also leads them to believe that they are the ones who should be in power and that this justifies them using any stratagem to retain it. This self conceit or Pride is surely the worst of sins. As C.S. Lewis writes (note 4) ,
“The Christians are right: it is Pride which has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began. Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness amongst drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride means enmity – it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man but enmity to God.”
It is not in my opinion sensible for Christian churches to proceed by accusing particular politicians of Pride. As Lewis points out (note 5), people are very ready to recognise Pride in others, but never (unless they are a Christian) in themselves. It is better to recognise that British politicians, especially Prime Ministers, experience a unique degree of temptation arising from the fact that there is no obvious limit to their power. By contrast CEOs of large companies face the discipline of the market and US presidents face the separation of powers – even Trump has to recognise he cannot do everything by Executive Order. This introduces a modicum of humility. I am suggesting that Christians of all denominations should debate what practical measures could be put in place to limit the arbitrary use of Prime Ministerial power. This power derives in no small part from our First Past the Post Voting system under which not only does a single party enjoy an absolute majority in parliament but also the Prime Minister can rely on the loyalty of most of his or her MPs, (note 6). My proposal would be to campaign for a change to that system. There are several organisations arguing for a more proportional system, e.g. Make Votes Matter and the Electoral Reform Society. I personally support the Single Transferable Vote System along with retired Anglican bishop Colin Buchanan (note 7). This is the system used since the 1920s for Church of England synod elections. He wishes the Church would ‘preach what it practises’.
The first step however is for Christian churches to recognise the issue.
Note 1. Rev Mark Woods, Managing Editor Christian Today, ‘Can John Wesley teach us how to campaign in a general election?’, 25 April 2017, https://www.christiantoday.com/article/can.john.wesley.teach.us.how.to.campaign.in.a.general.election/107878.htm
Note 2. The right wing journalist and commentator Peter Oborne observes in his book ‘The Triumph of the Political Class (2007) that in 2005 Tony Blair employed the same tactic.
Note 4. C.S. Lewis, ‘Mere Christianity’, Book III – ‘Christian Behaviour’ – Chapter 8 – ‘The Great Sin’. ‘Mere Christianity’ was based on a series of radio talks during World War II. It now seems to be out of copyright and can be downloaded from, https://www.dacc.edu/assets/pdfs/PCM/merechristianitylewis.pdf.
Note 5. ibid.
Note 6. Under First Past the Post most MPs are elected in ‘safe’ seats, so it is the local party that chooses the MP – hence an MP’s primary loyalty is to the party rather than constituents or the national good.
Note 7. Colin Buchanan, ‘An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform’, Grove Books, July 2015, www.grovebooks.co.uk. A rather inadequate review of this booklet can be found at https://stvact.wordpress.com/2015/10/23/an-ethical-case-for-electoral-reform/.