Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Princess, the Politicians and the People: The 2015 General Election Campaign

After wall-to-wall coverage of the General Election campaign over the past few weeks, it was a welcome respite last weekend for news coverage to be dominated with the birth of Princess Charlotte. Indeed, there seemed to be a collective and palpable sign of relief as the British public lapped up a much needed good news story, and the politicians were temporarily kicked off the front pages by a baby princess who is happily oblivious to the political maelstrom that she has been born into.

While I am an avid follower of politics, I’m afraid I haven’t changed my view from a blog post two years ago in which I shared my frustration with the main political parties, and how I would struggle to know who to vote for in 2015. With just two days to go, I’m still not sure who to vote for. The main problem with the General Election campaign has been that it is pretty depressing to follow. The hatred and distrust between politicians and political parties is an unedifying spectacle and not a particularly mature way of seeking a mandate to govern the country.

Any fresh vision for the future espoused by any of the political parties is being drowned out by a hugely negative campaign on all sides. Given that we are likely to be heading to another hung parliament, you can almost sense the desperation from the three biggest parties; this General Election matters more than any other election in recent memory. Who wins power and what coalition is formed could have profound implications for the whole nation.

Sadly, there seem to be few voices who are seeking to confront the huge issues that are facing the UK in the early twenty-first century. We have a society where even working people have to rely on food banks, where our country has a huge deficit, where our health service is often at breaking point, where the gap between rich and poor is growing, where our communities are fractured and there is huge distrust with immigration. These challenges demand from our political leaders a fresh vision for the future and desire to build a society based on the common good.

parliamentary copyright images are
reproduced with the permission of Parliament
Sadly, too often politics is actually about self-interest or by political parties looking after their own support base. This emphasis on self-interest means an increasingly negative tone in campaigning and means political point scoring by attacking the 'Other' in society whether that is big business, the poor, the English, the Scots, the immigrants, the EU, those on the left or those on the right. All the major political parties - whether it’s the SNP or UKIP, Labour or the Conservatives - are guilty of seeking to divide rather than heal an increasingly divided nation.

This may well have been how politics has functioned since time immemorial but that doesn’t mean that it is right, and it is something that needs to be challenged. The US Christian writer, Jim Wallis writes about an American context, but it is true of the United Kingdom too:

‘It’s time to find a better vision for our life together. Politics is failing to solve most of the biggest problems our world world now faces - and the disillusionment with elections and politicians has gone global.
   Politicians continue to focus on blame instead of solutions, winning instead of governing, ideology instead of civility.’

This negativity in politics does not inspire confidence in me, and it is sad that politics is often now about fear of the other rather than articulating a vision of hope for the future. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written that British society is at ‘a watershed moment.’ The United Kingdom is our country’s name, but we are hardly a united society. Rather, we are living in an age of greater polarisation and we desperately need a new politics that speaks of hope, and more importantly is based on love and the common good.

Love is not a popular term within party politics, but perhaps the Biblical sense of agapÄ“ (which is translated as ‘sacrificial’ or ‘self-giving’ love) is something that will lead to a better politics. Within Christian theology, love is exemplified in and through the self-giving love of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is the kind of love that seeks the well-being of others and which seeks the common good  and the flourishing of all in our society, whether they belong to our political, ethnic, religious or class tribe or not.

While love and building the common good is something that is much needed within the political sphere, it would be wrong to blame politicians for everything that is wrong with modern politics. After all, politicians are a reflection of society as a whole, which has become more individualistic and based around what we want rather than the good of all in our communities. In his recent book, ‘On Rock or Sand?’ John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, writes that:

‘In previous generations, a good life was defined by making a positive difference to one’s community, nation and even the world. This was expressed in lives of service and solidarity with one’s neighbours. But that idea has given way to an individualist and consumerist conception of the good life characterised by the management of individual pleasure.’

If we want politics to change, then we should also seek to change our society. As a Christian, for me it is only through embracing and following the way of love marked out by Jesus that can begin to build for the common good of all in the United Kingdom. The trouble is that this way of love will be costly and demand something of all of us. So while I might bemoan a broken political system, the uncomfortable truth is that broken politics speaks of a broken and self-centred society that all of us are responsible for creating, but also for mending.

So, who should we vote for on 7th May? Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, offers some excellent advice in his recent article for the Huffington Post. Perhaps it is time to move away from voting for parties and prime ministers, and instead vote for those local candidates who will represent us with integrity and seek the common good. Maybe the fleeting sight of a newborn baby cradled by her mother outside a London hospital might just remind us that to God all in our society are as precious to him as a child is to their parents. After all, we are all made in the image of God.

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