Bright as the Stars

It’s been a challenging week. More than that, with the events in Manchester, it’s been a tragic week. Our thoughts and our prayers have been with those who have lost loved ones, those whose loved ones have been injured, and everyone who has been affected by a senseless act of violence.

On Thursday, people all around the country will stop at 11am for a minute’s silence in response to the Manchester attack. It’s right that we should do this, even as we feel powerless and overwhelmed by the mounting tragedies around us: Manchester, Westminster, Paris, Stockholm, Mosul, Aleppo, Yemen – the list seems endless.

In my work leading a Homelessness charity, I regularly encounter people who have been pulled under by the riptides of tragedy. Indeed the rest of the staff encounter difficult and moving situations that our service users are facing far more than I do, and yet carry on.

And I still have hope. For me, my faith in Jesus reminds me that all things – no matter how dark – can be redeemed.

MLK

One of my heroes is Rev Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, at the height of the struggle for freedom and equality for African-Americans – a struggle for which he had been imprisoned, beaten, humiliated, slandered, and which would ultimately cost him his life – King said the following in a speech in Memphis, Tennessee. He described an imagined conversation that he might have with God in which he could choose any point in history to live;

“…Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

 The world is still messed up. Our circumstances may be difficult. But we can see the stars brighter than ever. And I’m glad I’m living in 2017.

Northern Light?

Watching from the side-lines of the Labour leadership contest it seems that, so far, very few big ideas have been declared by our four candidates. Of course, the tabloid caricatures have been cast: from so-called Looney Left to so-called Blairite Revisionist. Meanwhile we wait for something to happen.

But the reality is that so much is up for grabs. Will we move back to the Centre? Will we return to the comfort of Blairism or continue the more radical critique of Miliband and beyond? How will we reconnect with the electorate of Middle England whom it seems we failed to persuade in the General Election? How on earth will we come back from the debacle of the Scottish result soon enough to perform well in next year’s Holyrood election? The political landscape has changed. And we somehow have to chart a course through it over the next five years.

Perhaps the first step in determining our direction of travel is to work out where we’re starting from. One of the most instructive articles prior to the election was by Paul Mason. He argued that the country is now dominated by three groups; ‘Scandi-Scotland’, the asset-rich south east and post-industrial Britain. He argued that the Scots, south-eastern England and the post-industrial North and Wales are now living out conflicting narratives. The danger for the Labour Party is that while Blairism recognised this trend and adapted to it, winning seats in the south, we were wrong to assume that post-industrial Britain and Scotland would come along for the ride.

Mason also points out that the SNP and the Tories have captured the zeitgeist of their heartlands well. Labour has not, ceding votes to Ukip, the SNP and the Tories. The upshot is the loss of Scotland to the SNP, the loss of the South East to the supposedly more aspiration-friendly Tories, and the huge increase in the Ukip vote in the North. If Ukip were as good at politics as the SNP would Labour have lost more seats in the North? Almost certainly. Labour needs to ensure that we don’t miss the writing on the wall: as well as developing a narrative that wins back Blair-era southern voters and reclaiming our place in Scotland, we need to talk about The North.

The long-term status of the North as a Labour heartland cannot be taken for granted. The tribal loyalties and family connections which used to define our presence in the North are waning. It’s arguable that, like the industry which once defined it, Labour’s roots in these communities have loosened. The roots are not gone. But we cannot afford to go any further without tending to them.

True, all is not lost. As accurate as that Maggie Simpson electoral map was, there remains strong support for Labour in the North East, and in urban centres like Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester. Indeed, in areas like Wearside – first to declare on polling day – incumbents Julie Elliot, Sharon Hodgson and Bridgette Phillipson all increased their majorities considerably. Labour is still the party which can best represent the North. But to do that we will need to both up our game and lobby for changes that will allow the North to flourish again.

Sandwiched between the resurgent nationalisms of Scotland and Wales, pressured by protest votes, underwhelmed by deepening apathy and left behind by the relative affluence of the South East, the North has been taken for granted; not just by Labour but by the country as a whole.

That we have a dysfunctional economy, far too dependent upon London and the South East, is obvious. This imbalance is evidenced in the inequality that we find all over: from the East End of Glasgow to the docks of Sunderland, from the valleys of North Wales and, ironically, to the outskirts of London itself. Our politics also remains heavily-weighted to London with Westminster, and to some degree the London Assembly and the Boris Effect, creating a self-fulfilling gravitational pull for investment. This fact was only partially-acknowledged during the election campaign, even although it affects the whole country.

But crucially, whilst Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have Parliaments and Assemblies to represent their voice and some of the powers needed to stimulate their economies, the North has been left with only local, and not regional, government.

The North has a problem. It has been taken for granted and ignored. But even now the Labour Party remains the best hope for a transformed, empowered and dynamic North. So what should we do?

In Glasgow, to be ‘Clyde-built’ was once a badge of communal pride, something that helped shape the identity of an entire city: it’s now a nostalgic reference to the industrial heritage of ship-building. At one time, the relationship in parts of the country between local education, employers and the wider community was so inter-related as to be inseparable. Even football clubs were part of this eco-system, with teams like The Blades, the Potters, the Cobblers or the Brewers named after the local industries. This socio-economic model is no more. All we have left are traces and disconnected parts. And it’s not just the loss of jobs and consequent wealth of previous generations which leaves a hole, but the dilution of the very sense of identity which many communities found at least in part from the ‘Made in’ stamp.

So what’s the lesson here? Firstly, communal identity can be an important factor in socio-economic success. The community that works together, stays together, it seems, even after most of the work has gone. Secondly, if we are to create the modern equivalent to the old communities centred around local industries and stimulate integrated local economies, focussed on creativity, hard work and shared identity, then more power needs to be held more locally. This is the opposite of the individualistic approach of neo-liberal economics in which each ‘producer’ is a singular widget in a vast economic machine. It’s an alternative to the creeping authoritarianism of the SNP in Scotland or the Conservatives in England.

But we need to go above the level of the immediate town and the Local Authority. It’s the impact of that core Labour ideal – solidarity – which will help the North as a whole find its voice, not just in the UK, but throughout the world.

Politically this puts Labour in a complicated situation. We began devolution but we didn’t see it through, side-tracked by wars and declining radicalism after years in power. The result is a half baked devolution which is itself the cause of some of the tension felt in Wales and the North. Why shouldn’t Wales have the same powers as Scotland, ask Plaid Cymru? Why should the North be ignored or need to resort to ‘take us with you Scotland’ pleas after a Tory victory? George Osborne’s ‘northern powerhouse’ whether real or imagined is clearly intended to begin the decontamination of the Tory brand in the North and to centralise power in the hands of a sprinkling of city Mayors. To oppose it looks like meanness, yet if Labour is to reclaim the strong support of the North we will need to be much bolder than Osborne.

It is too soon to be setting policy for 2020. We have a leader and deputy leader to elect first and a defeat to digest. At the same time we must not cede the North to the Tories or to UKIP. For that to happen we must develop a strong narrative that offers hope to communities too often left behind; the non-voters, UKIP voters and those in Pudsey, Colne Valley, and Keighley that don’t like what Labour had to offer this time round. The offer must give hope to communities which have had little since before Thatcherism, communities New Labour too passed by.

And it has to be about more than devolution; it has to involve power and money. Bad decisions made locally are just as bad as bad decisions made far away. Labour needs to be content with the direction set by the North being different from that of London, the South, Wales or Scotland. This will require ambitious policy and a clear settlement for the other parts of the UK. The risks are real, the rewards – not least for the people of Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds and Grimsby – are huge.

We end with some tentative suggestions. If power and money are needed in addition to deliberation, any devolution must involve tax raising powers, a demarcated area that is ‘the North’, and the ability to make choices which are different from those of surrounding regions.

We believe that this would be best realised by the creation of a ‘Mayor of the North’, a First Minister of Northern England. This role would have powers and budget akin to the Mayor of London, would be directly-elected every five years in line with Parliamentary Elections, and would be scrutinised by a Northern Assembly comprised by 100 Councillors from the Local Authorities of the North. This new tier of ‘super-Councillors’ would be paid a full-time wage and would split their time between their Local Authority responsibilities and the Northern Assembly.

Assembly Members would be elected by their peers in the Local Authority which would form an Electoral College, itself reflective of the popular vote in each Local Authority election. The Assembly (which would be at least as powerful as the London Assembly), and the Northern First Minister would operate a significant budget garnered from both Central Government and a proportion of Local Government Council Tax receipts and Business Rates. These funds would be used across the range of powers currently devolved to Local Government. But, significantly, the budget could also be allocated to one-off infrastructure or other flagship projects.

There are of course questions to be answered: How would such an Assembly and First Minister work in partnership with London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh? Where in the North would they be based? What would their exact powers be? How would the relative responsibilities of the Assembly and the councils of the North be integrated? Should this form part of a wider new constitutional settlement that finishes the incomplete devolution of New Labour and that benefits other regions?

These questions cannot be answered definitively without some degree of trial and error. But this is nothing to be scared of. These proposals are less dramatic than the waves of devolution the Celtic nations have experienced since 1999, continuing up to this day. And those waves are only moving in one direction.

Our challenge is to continue to outwork our mandate as the unity party; the party which transcends nationalism, authoritarianism, narrow sectionalism and self-interest, and which instead cultivates flourishing, confident communities that are rooted in social justice. To achieve that we have to do something that political parties don’t like to do with power: we have to give it away.

Campaigning 101

It’s only a few days since the debacle for Labour that was the 2015 General Election Result. The Tories have shuffled their cabinet, and we in Labour are currently shuffling our feet, thinking what to do next. So, whilst the posturing for the leadership contest gets underway and the weeping and gnashing of teeth slowly abates, I feel drawn to dwell on the lighter side of the campaigning of the last few months.

This was my first, end to end, General Election campaign and I’ve learned a lot. Here are the top lessons –

    • Comfortable footwear should not be under-estimated. This campaign saw me destroy three pairs of shoes. When you’re walking up to 15 miles a day, you want to be comfortable. Neon is optional though.

Campaigning Feet

  • The designers of most letterboxes are sadists. My knuckles are evidence that ACME Cheese Graters Ltd also has a nice side line in letterbox design.
  • Dogs can be more cunning than you expect. It’s not the big ones or the loud ones that you have to watch out for; it’s the wee ones that wait silently under the letterbox that will give you a heart attack.
  • Take necessary precautions against chafing. Enough said.
  • The designers of most letterboxes are sadists. Who ever thought it was a good idea to put a letterbox at the bottom of a door?
  • Having a door shut in your face is a political rite of passage. A bit like childhood picnics in Largs, it’s not nice, but it’s characterforming.
  • Watch out for the SHOUTY MAN. You may not know it, but somewhere, even now, a SHOUTY MAN is poised in a hallway, just waiting for you to knock his door whilst wearing the wrong badge.
  • Some shortcuts are not all they promise to be. That route to the next door that avoids you having to go back up the path and down the next path? It’s a shrubbery. Just don’t.
  • Fuel up on polling day. Even if you’re campaigning in the seat that prides itself on declaring first (Sunderland), 7am to 1am is still a long time to stay alert. Bananas and French Fancies are essential.
  • We’re in a Party Rosette Arms Race. Did you see the size of some of those UKIP ones?
  • The Voter ID Board is like the Ring of Sauron. One ring to rule them all…The power of the board can do funny things to some people (not just Hobbitses).
  • The designers of most letterboxes are sadists. What are those brushes in the middle for? No-one wants to fight a hedgehog just to deliver a Sorry You Were Out card. Posties, I salute you.

But the greatest lesson of all? It’s that fighting for your ideals, taking them out onto the street, to the doors of strangers, and doing your bit to work for a better society is one of the most rewarding things you can do.

Redeeming Politics?

What would it be like to be awoken suddenly by your parents in the middle of a starry night, to roll yourself out of your bed, run down the close, and tumble into the Anderson Shelter for fear of the incendiary bombs that are falling from the sky?

What would it be like to drive a truck back and forth to the front line, constantly under fire, bringing back the dead and wounded from the battlefield slopes of Monte Cassino? How would that affect your view of the world? What would be your reaction to losing your best friend to the arbitrary trajectory of a high explosive shell? How do you think you would spend your life in the aftermath of these events?

Even in our turbulent times, it’s hard to imagine what my Grandparent’s and their peers had to endure during the Second World War. It’s also difficult to grasp how, after all they experienced, they managed to pick themselves up and throw themselves into building the peace, and to renewing a society which until that point had been grossly unequal. My Grandpa in particular found an outlet in the Union movement and in local politics to play his part in creating a new kind of society. If Union and Political Party membership is anything to go by, so did millions of others.

But by the early stage of the 21st Century this civic engagement – and in particular, engagement with politics – has become much more of a niche pursuit as apathy, disenfranchisement and disaffection with our political process has grown. Just ask any taxi driver the views of their customers on politics for a depressing insight into the rise of cynicism.

It’s become an almost-hackneyed idea to encourage voting by an appeal to the sacrifices of previous generations. For me, the stark contrast of how things could have been without the victory over Fascism secured by people like Bill and Cath, remains a powerful reason to not just vote but to get involved in our political process. But the truth is, it’s not really enough for many people today. Many feel that politics is something which happens to them, not through them, and have entirely given up, on the trip to their local polling station on Election Day, let alone any more active involvement in politics.

Although this spectrum of non-voters includes those of all Faiths or none, it’s interesting to note that, according to recent research, 8 in 10 Christians are likely to vote in the election; double that of the general population. With the first General Election in the UK in five years nearly upon us, one which is likely to be the closest and most unpredictable in a generation, why is it that Christians generally feel more of a compulsion to use their democratic franchise than others? And can this inform those who have lost hope in our democracy?

First though, a confession for the Register of Interests: I’m not only a Christian, I’m a Labour Party member and on the left of the political spectrum. Everything I say here comes from that perspective.

So, what kind of politics are we aiming for? Let’s assume we’re talking about democracy only. It’s what we’ve got, and as Churchill famously said,

“democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.

Simply put, democratic politics is the process through which society orders its priorities, and through which we express our understanding of Public Good.

This should be a concern for all people in society, and it’s certainly the concern of a Christian and Biblical worldview. Understanding and then creating Public Good is something that we can either participate in or not. But it’s never something which we can remove ourselves from. As Nick Spencer has said, “However much we might attempt to privatise life – whether through the adoption of human rights or the extension of market mechanisms into every aspect of life – shared public “space” is an irreducible phenomenon, and public space which is not simply anarchy must be governed by some idea of the public good”.

So why is Public Good so central to a Christian worldview, and how can this guide how we assess our politics, and even how we use our vote? I believe that the political party which most closely applies the following ideas in its policies and vision is both worthy of your vote and likely to form the best government:

Love of neighbour – we might as well take first things first. The injunction of Jesus to love your neighbour as yourself is the core idea at the heart of Christianity on how Christians should aim to live with other people. For the avoidance of doubt, the Parable of the Good Samaritan makes it abundantly clear that this means all people, including our enemies. If politics is the process through which society orders its priorities, loving your neighbour through politics means that we should shun individualism, selfishness and sectionalism in all areas of life, including in government.

The equal worth of all humans, before GodPart of the reason that we’ve to love our neighbours is because we’re all equally sinners (“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”) and because we all equally and beautifully reflect the image of God. In this sense, all humanity is equally precious and equally broken: no-one is inherently more valuable than another. Our political system and the Government it produces should reflect this in the way it views individuals, taking as a first principle the idea that all citizens have the same intrinsic worth – regardless of their social standing or background. But Governments should do more than recognise our inherent equality; they should actively work to reduce inequality. The Biblical understanding of human nature recognises both our tendency towards fallibility and the immense capacity within humanity for progress. If applied by governments, this understanding would lead to policies that encourage the goodness within humanity to rise to the surface and empower those who have been marginalised by the brokenness of our world.

God’s deep concern for Justice Love and Justice are closely intertwined. As renowned Evangelist and theologian Tony Campolo has noted, “If we stop to think about it, justice is nothing more than love translated into social policies”. Although the death and resurrection of Christ on the cross is the best example, God’s heart for justice is a consistent theme throughout the Bible and indeed throughout human history. Reflecting our creator, at our best humans recognise and express justice in our relationships with one another as we act upon the Moral Law (as described by C.S. Lewis) which we find within ourselves. In this sense, justice is simply love manifested in our interpersonal and social relationships. This is equally true when we think of government. So, to reflect God’s desire for justice, the Politics that Christians support should be that characterised by justice: economic, social and criminal.

Righteous and Servant Leadership – Whereas the typical approach to politics in general and leadership in particular has centred around the control of power – most often of one group over others – the Biblical template for leadership is one of humility and service to others. This template for leadership and authority again stems from the idea that we are to put the needs of others before our own. In the New Testament we see the explicit teaching of Jesus about the revolutionary nature of the Kingdom of God where the first shall be last and the last first. Practiced in politics, this counter-cultural worldview would create a system of governance in which elected officials would truly be public servants. This therefore requires a leadership which doesn’t accrue power for its own sake, but for the sake of the society it serves. It also implies the need for a political process which is open, transparent and which provides checks and balances against our autocratic tendencies. Finally, righteousness (often called integrity) is a characteristic of a servant leader who doesn’t accrue power or wealth for themselves. If you are truly serving others, you are not seeing political leadership as an opportunity to benefit yourself or your clique.

No political party perfectly reflects these values in their ideology. And political leaders will always let us down. But it’s incumbent on each of us to make a judgement about the individuals and political party which we think most closely characterise them, and give them our support, if only to hold them to the standards that we expect.

I know I have. And so did Bill and Cath.

What We Owe Each Other

I call it the Man Case. If you’re a father or husband of a particular age, you probably have one too. Some guys have a Designated Drawer or Bespoke Basket. You know what I mean: the one place in the house that is exclusively yours, the place where you keep all your assorted bumf that is either useful for recurring man-tasks (bleeding radiators), sentimental (that ticket stub from the cup semi-final a couple of years back) or apocalypse-averting (your replica Swiss Army Knife with the built-in horse shoe stone-remover).

Last week I found myself rummaging through my Man Case, searching for a matching cuff-link, when I accidentally came across a forgotten treasure: my Widow’s Mite. Now, this is no ordinary item on the Man Case inventory. I was given it a few years ago in the Shuk, Jerusalem, by a kind Palestinian Christian who owns a market stall trading in antiquities. Technically, the ‘Mite’ is a lepton, the smallest and least valuable (Roman or Greek) coin used in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. Despite its small worth – both then and today – I was delighted to be given it. There is something particularly cool about owning something which is over 2,000 years old.

The lepton gets its generic name from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Luke:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on. Mark 12, 41-44

I’ve been thinking about the story of the Widow’s Mite this week as the debate over the 50p Tax Rate has raged back and forth, following Ed Balls’ announcement that the Labour Party would re-institute the rate (for income over £150,000) should the Party be elected to government in 2015. The coalition government dropped the top rate of tax from 50% to 45% in 2013.

Much of the response to the announcement has become pretty ugly, pretty quickly. There has been the usual ‘bad for business’ rhetoric coming from the Tory Party. Then a group of Business Leaders sent an open letter to the Press, decrying the short-sightedness of the Labour Party, suggesting that this retrograde step would both put jobs at risk and would chase ‘wealth creators’ from the country to jurisdictions where their unique skills would be appreciated with a more lenient tax regime.

Now, leaving aside the fact that several of the 24 signatories to the letter have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds between them to the Conservative Party, it seems to me that this is perhaps one of the most outlandish acts of self-interest I’ve witnessed recently. Through it, we see some of the wealthiest people in the land speaking out against a relatively-modest tax adjustment (in France, the top tax rate is 75%) that is intended to help with balancing the nation’s books, in order to protect their own income.

In fairness, the opponents of the proposed increase argue that it will depress investment in the economy and therefore affect the jobs and income of the less well off. But this is an argument that is rolled out every time there’s a threat to the vested interest of the super-rich. Think that the Bankers Bonus is a bit generous? Well, it’s needed to remain ‘competitive’. But I believe this is a smokescreen. The truth is that the United Kingdom is a great place to live and to do business. It’s a stable, safe, prosperous and relatively non-corrupt society where a good standard of living and global connectedness are possible. Top Executives are not going to give it up and move abroad for the sake of five percent.

Likewise, I find the investment argument unconvincing. The idea of the ‘trickle-down’ of wealth is at best hard to prove and at worst an axiomatic Myth of the Right. It’s much more common in my view – and the current difficulty of securing Credit in the economy lends itself to this notion – that the rich tend to either put their added wealth into their (offshore) bank accounts or spend it on luxury goods, depending on how secure they feel. The following sentence is rarely heard on the lips of a millionaire: “Ah, it seems that I have an additional 5% on my income this year. I think I’ll open a cod-filleting factory in Grimsby”.

What about the claim that the reduction in the top rate actually improves the tax revenue of HMRC? This is something of an intractable and statistic-laden part of the argument, which I confess to being somewhat bamboozled by. Although, I have a sense that most others are too. The variables at stake, and the changing context of the economic climate over the last few years, plus the difficulty of predicting the response that individuals make to changes in tax rates, makes determining the causality of tax rates vis a vis revenue raised a mind-bender for the layman. Yet HMRC’s own figures do seem to suggest that, the last time the 50% rate was in place, it raised around an additional £3 billion per year in tax, and in all of the debate I haven’t heard many voices denying that the 50p rate will actually increase the revenue intake, even if only in the tens of millions of pounds.

But of course, ultimately, the debate over the top rate of tax should not be primarily determined by the bottom line of the revenue it generates, but by the principle of fairness and the connected principle of civic duty.

The key lesson that I take away from the story of the Widow’s Mite – other than the idea that all of our wealth, however big or small is actually given by and therefore owed to God – is the principle that each of us should give to each other according to our ability to give. And what else is Taxation in a democratic society, other than each of us giving to one another for the benefit of the whole?

How we share the cost of our Nation says so much about the kind of society that we want to create. If you were out for a meal with a group of friends and, when the bill arrived, you discovered that one of your friends had recently fallen on hard times financially and so could only contribute a small amount to the bill, you and the rest of your friends would club together to make up the difference. You would also have a loftier view of the contribution your hard-up friend made to the cost of the bill, even if it was much smaller than your own contribution.

This is really the heart of the matter of why the Labour Party is proposing the return to the 50p tax rate, and it’s why I support it. In our approach to taxation, we should prioritise the ideals of fairness, of civic mindedness, of compassion, of generosity and of mutuality. If the Widow can give her Mite, then I and the wealthier members of society can give ours and more.