Restoring trust – how?

IPSOS Mori’s poll on trust in politics at the end of May should surprise no-one. 3/4 said that Britain’s system of government needed improvement — the most negative view since Mori started asking the question in 1995. At 20%, less than half the number of people believe that the Westminster parliament is doing its job, as compared with the last time they asked the question in 2001. 76% of people do not trust MPs to tell the truth. 62% believe that MPs put their own interests ahead of party, constituents and country — again, the worst that Mori has ever recorded. 2/3 think that MPs use power for their own personal gain. Even so, 80% believe that the system of expenses was to blame, not just the politicians.

52% of people were prepared to vote for a candidate not caught up in the scandal, even if that meant voting against the party they want to win the election.

It’s not hard to see how we got to where we are. But the question is: how do we get away?

Given that only 1 in 4 people have said they trusted MPs in general to tell the truth, and this figure has stayed fairly constant since pollsters began asking the question, we could perhaps say that it is inevitable that voters don’t trust politicians. But this is clearly not universal. 51% of Americans think Obama’s leadership is excellent or good, and 47% think his ethics are excellent or good.

Are the British naturally more cynical than Americans? Most of the world — we are given to understand — still believes British democracy to be above par on its ethics and honesty. Or do they simply believe this because they just don’t pay as much attention to it as we do?

Certainly, right now, everyone who wants to distrust politicians (that is, 3/4 of us) can find lots of evidence for it. But, as Mori points out, even before the scandal, approximately the same number of people still distrusted politicians. It is therefore clear that it is something other than our observation of what politicians do that sows our distrust.

It was said of King John that nobody trusts a man who trusts nobody.

This struck me deeply when I heard it on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time during the run up to the Euro elections. No-one trusts a man who himself trusts no-one. The more I consider it, the more I am compelled to believe that it is the culture of sowing distrust, innuendo, constant attacks on the character of opponents, and, worse, constant mocking, that makes all politicians (including those who don’t indulge in this, because all are tarred by association) appear to be untrusting, and therefore untrustworthy.

And yet, and yet. If we were to say that politicians were not allowed to be in conflict with each other, and to point out each other’s failings, then we would have no debate, and no means of holding government to account. The duty of opposition is to oppose, and it is one of the things which holds us back from tyranny.

So, are we therefore left with a choice: either our politicians by their behaviour will forever command our distrust, or, by their silence, will appear to earn our trust while, in truth, betraying it? This is a truly Shakespearian conundrum.

The answer, surely, is that there is a middle way. We are now engaged in a national process of hand wringing about standards in public life in relation to expenses. But it would not be beyond our power as a nation to start imposing standards on the the discourse of MPs. It was two elections ago that the Advertising Standards Authority threw its hands up and ceased to police political advertising. You can now, in a very real sense, say anything you want on a political poster, and get away with it. But the imposition of a standard of debate both in and outside the chamber of the House of Commons is something which could be done, and, for that reason, should and must be done.

At the moment, the only thing which limits a politician’s ability to make any accusation they want is the risk of being found out later on.

We are expecting the new Speaker of the House of Commons to reform members’ expenses. But we should also expect and require the Speaker to reform the standard of debate.

We, the electorate, should also seek to vote, in the new parliament, for new MPs who will not stop at nothing to obtain and maintain power. In this, in the past, we have signally failed, and we should therefore, collectively, accept a large part of the responsibility for the politicians we have elected. Because, ultimately, the electorate does not necessarily get the government it wants, but it always, collectively, gets the government it deserves.

So, should Christians vote for Christian parties? Here’s why not…

Former vicar in Hyndburn MP bid — Lancashire Evening Post
Two Christian parties stood on the same ticket at the recent Euro elections, and now a former Vicar is planning to stand on a Christian ticket in Hyndburn, Lancashire. In these times of national distrust of politicians (more so even than usual), doesn’t the existence of Christian parties offer hope and an alternative to traditional politics? And, as a protest vote, it is surely better than voting BNP? Here’s why I think not.

1 Christian parties do not stay Christian for long
We don’t have a history of Christian parties in Britain, but they have lots of them in mainland Europe. The problem is, that it’s fairly hard to identify what the ‘Christian’ component of the Christian Democrats is. This is a problem which has particularly taxed the Dutch, whose own struggles with ‘Christian’ parties that were no longer Christian enough, resulted in a baffling 23 distinct Christian parties during the last hundred or so years. A fascinating timeline of their mergers, splits and acquisitions is presented in this Wikipedia article. Christianity grew up as a counter-culture within the Roman state, and flourished despite intense persecution for around 300 years. It was Constantine, the only emperor to be proclaimed in Britain, who proclaimed toleration for Christians in 313 AD, followed later by the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire. We can argue backwards and forwards about the real impact of this, but, certainly, by the fall of the Roman empire, a great many practices, symbols and philosophies from the pagan world had been adopted into Christianity, and the track record of supposedly Christian emperors was, to say the least, patchy, when it came to implementing the teaching of Jesus Christ.

Clearly, in the modern world, no Christian party is going to advocate persecution of non-Christian minorities, or crusades to recover lost ‘Christian’ lands, but the history of a too-close union between Christianity and political power is that the, quite soon, Christian regimes and Christian parties lose the Christian distinctive, and become just like other regimes and other parties. For Christians — such as myself — this creates huge problems. Get into any argument with atheists about the existence of God, and they are certain to bring up the Crusades and the Inquisition as examples of the malign impact of religion on the world. The solution to this problem is to challenge them to identify exactly how the philosophy and practices of the Crusades and the Inquisition were derived from the teachings of Jesus. In fact, they derived almost exclusively from the philosophy and practices of the Roman empire. But, at this point, we, as Christians, need to step away, and accept that applying the label ‘Christian’ to really any brand of politics creates enormous risks for the faith itself.

Over the last years, we have seen the spectacle of American presidential candidates scrabbling to present how ‘Christian’ they are. But, with the exception of Jimmy Carter (and, we hope, Obama), their actions once inside the White House have shown no particular Christian influence. If the only purpose of having ‘Christian’ parties is to bring out a captive vote, which can then be treated in a cavalier fashion, just as Tony Blair was able to treat the left-wing vote, then we would be better off without such parties.

2 Christians are called to be involved in mainstream society
Jesus called his followers to be salt and light in society. Through the pages of the New Testament, we see the early Christians engaged in all manner of ordinary, secular jobs. One of them was a city administrator. At no point do any of the New Testament writers suggest that Christians should distance themselves from secular politics. Going a little further back, the book of Daniel presents a clear picture of godly action by a civil servant and later prime minister in a thoroughly pagan regime.
The moment that we create Christian parties, we put a dilemma before Christian voters: should we vote for the best candidate, or should we vote for the Christian party. In some cases we may even be faced with the challenge of voting for the best candidate who is a Christian in a mainstream party, or the Christian party candidate.
Great Christian politicians such as Gladstone and Wilberforce were Christians active in ordinary mainstream parties. Their influence was much greater because they were involved in regular politics.
At the European elections, which traditionally favour minor parties, less than a quarter of a million people voted for the Christian parties, and their average vote was just 1.64%. But even if all regular church-goers had voted for them, they would not have attracted more than 10% of the vote. Of course, with a low turn-out, as we saw for the last election, 10% of the total electorate, if every church-goer voted, would be 20% of the actual vote — enough to put a Christian MEP into every region, but nowhere near enough to make those MEPs any more than an irritation, in the way of UKIP or the BNP.
For Christian politicians to have an impact on the society in which they live, they need to work with non-Christians. Which, of course, is exactly the way of things in business, the public sector, and most of the voluntary sector. And that means being in parties made up of many kinds of people.

3 Protest votes of any kind do not work
And that brings me to my third point. Everyone likes to make a protest, and the protest vote has a long tradition in British democracy. But not a very healthy tradition. Labour voters protested in their droves at the Euro election by simply not bothering to vote. The result? Two BNP MEPs were elected. And, rather worse for Christians, these BNP MEPs actually claim to speak for Christians. As I have pointed out in a previous article, they have no credentials for doing so, and they have no track record which would support it. However, the result of all the protest voting that took place is that the BNP got seats, whereas the Christian parties got none. I struggle to believe that all the people who voted for non-mainstream parties were happy to see the BNP elected. Nonetheless, the English Democrats, the Christian parties, and Socialist Labour were each worth an average of around one and a half percent, with the others all together probably worth another couple of percent between them. Even if these votes had been evenly distributed across the three mainstream parties, it would have been enough to keep the BNP out.

I am, personally, a committed Christian, and I joined a mainstream political party because I believe that faith does matter in politics. I certainly wouldn’t agree with anyone who suggests that you should keep religion out of politics. This is a frankly baffling and illogical perspective: why should we arbitrarily reject one part of our society from having a role in our common life. We might as well suggest that scientists should keep out of politics, or musicians, or dog-owners, or people who drive particular kinds of motor-cars, or people who do not drive at all. But, just as I would advise against a ‘Science party’, or a ‘Musicians’ party’, or any other kind of single-issue or special-interest party, I would advise Christians who want to have an impact through the democratic process against Christian parties. No party can possibly have a monopoly on Christians, nor can any party guarantee its future to the extent that it can be sure it will always behave in a scrupulously Christian way. History — and mainland European politics — is littered with too many examples of people who believed passionately in what they were doing, but were also entirely wrong.

Responding to the BNP

Many of us reacted with dismay to the news that the BNP had won not one but two seats in the Euro elections. The irony of this happening on D-Day escaped no-one. Yet, the sun rose the next morning, and we are still here. It is time to wake up, collectively, see what has really happened, and work to set it right.

First, we must put the BNP success into context. If they were a worthwhile party with a positive contribution to make, we would no doubt be congratulating them on two seats. But they are two seats out of 69, and the BNP managed to attract just 6.2% of the national vote — less than the total of other minor parties. Even if you add the BNP vote to the UKIP vote (something which UKIP would strongly protest), 75% of the population still voted for pro-European, not anti-European parties. Looked at on its own, 93.8% of people voted against the BNP.

Second, we must understand that the BNP result is an artefact of our particular form of Euro-election system. When given the choice of systems, Britain opted for the D’Hondt system — the least proportional of all the ‘proportional’ systems on offer, and the closest available choice to the UK’s standard museum-piece first past the post system. Critics of proportional representation are bound to be saying that the BNP would not have got seats under a true first-past-the-post system. But, equally, they would have gained no seats under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system which most believe to be the fairest and most obvious — at least to the voter. Under STV, each voter ranks the proposed candidates in order, until they have no further preference. Given the make up of the vote last week, it is fairly clear that the BNP would have picked up almost no second or third preference votes. Far from allowing the extremists in, STV would have kept them out.

Third, we must recognise that we have only ourselves to blame for this debacle. British politics has functioned on a constant diet of back-biting and sneering, both from the media, and by politicians themselves. We have lambasted each other as incompetent, destructive, and sometimes even as ‘evil’. Now that we are facing electoral success by a party that is neither democratic nor, in any ordinary sense of the word, benevolent, we need to re-calibrate our language.

I grew up in the Thatcher years, when we were inclined to refer to her party as ‘fascist’. But they were not fascist, and never would become it. The Conservative Home website has a long blog & comments denigrating the Lib-Dems, and accusing us of being ‘liars’. Lib-Dems are not liars. We tell the truth the way we see it—as we should do in a free democracy. Tories may not agree. But that does not make us liars. Everyone has been lambasting Gordon Brown. I was on a TV show on Sunday with a Conservative candidate who, before the show, accused Brown of destroying the British economy. Brown did not destroy the British economy. And, no matter how expedient it might be for us to suggest that he did, to do so plays into the hands of the real fascists.

Likewise, spurred on by the media, the public has been educated to accuse all politicians of being liars, cheats and free-loaders. Journalists may write tongue-in-cheek, but the man in the street believes it to be true. But even politicians who have been found to have cheated on expenses are only part-dishonest. I should certainly not like to see them returned to the House of Commons, and I believe that they should have cleared the air by resigning. But that does not mean that Mrs Kirkbride and Ms Blears have not been working hard for their constituents for a very long time.

Contrast this with the BNP. Just scratch a BNP leaflet or website, and you find deceit right beneath the surface. Dig deeper, and lies and violence, as well as the arbitrary suspension of the human rights of those of whom they disapprove, are written right through their rotten hearts. As a committed Christian, I find the way in which Nick Griffin profaned the name of Jesus Christ in his speech on Sunday night to be an abomination. He claims to be speaking for Christian values and a Christian country, but everything he stands for diametrically opposed to the teaching of the carpenter from Nazareth.

So where should we go from here? The BNP know exactly where they are going. They will use every opportunity to milk the European system for funds, publicity and credibility. They will demand air-time as their democratic right, even though what they will be advocating is the dismantling of democracy. Their strategy has been building up to this for years. Why else would they contest European elections, when their whole ethos is anti-European and anti-internationalist? Their smug victory was bitter enough, but the aftermath will be far worse.

Our response, then, must be equally coherent and consistent. Otherwise, they will build on this to put them in a position of even more appalling strength at the next election.
First, the forces for good in politics must reinvent and reinvigorate themselves. No matter how much they are depending on the income, Members and Ministers who have been irretrievably tarnished by the expenses scandal should go. Parliament should vote soon to create a mechanism for them to resign immediately without loss of their resettlement grants — no matter how much that might irk the public — in return for their swift exit. If this is genuinely impossible, and I do not really understand why it should be, then they should announce now that they will be standing down. We do not need public humiliation and hand wringing — that would only serve the BNP and other extremists — but we do need action.

For us, the candidates and voters for the new parliament, we must bind ourselves not only to a code of conduct in regard to our expenses, but also in regard to our use of language and our conduct of business. The bickering, jeering atmosphere of the House of Commons, since it was first put on radio and subsequently television, has done a great deal to undermine public trust. We must simply stop backbiting, stop running negative, personal campaigns, not digging up any possible piece of dirt (proven or otherwise) to vilify another individual whose only genuine crime is daring to stand for a party not our own.

Second, we need a new, albeit unwritten, contract between the media, the public, and the politicians. Newspapers are, of course, under tremendous pressure, since their means of revenue generation has been dramatically eroded with the rise of the internet. It is unsurprising that they have leapt to whatever means of pumping up sales and increasing publicity that they can find. But politics is not the same as reality TV, and the house under Big Ben is not the same as the house of Big Brother. The constant caustic attacks on everyone who dares to put their head above the parapet are burning away our national life.

I am not suggesting that our papers and broadcasters should become anodyne, saccharine, mouthing platitudes for the sake of the ill-educated. But the duty to hold government to account must be balanced with a duty to contextualise, to explain, and, above all, to propose workable alternatives.

Third, we need to redefine our national project. Since the 1980s, the direction of Great Britain has been — almost without a voice of dissent — maximised prosperity, at the expense of all other things. Anybody speaking out against greater prosperity would have been seen as a lunatic.

I am not, of course, extolling the virtues of poverty. I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich, and I know which one I would pick any day of the week. But prosperity at all costs has placed an intolerable burden on government to deliver what is not in its gift. We relentlessly relaxed rules on lending, reduced supervision of the financial sector, made it ever easier for people to borrow and enter bankruptcy, and we made every possible arrangement to encourage people in the belief that you are what you own, and your only worth is financial worth.

The personal tragedy of Gordon Brown is that he was remarkably adept at stoking up the prosperity when the world was in boom, so that Britain was one of the greatest long term beneficiaries of the decade of plenty. And he has been — at least as far as international commentators are concerned — remarkably good at stitching together coalitions to limit the damage of the recession. But the public have no patience for this. The public want ongoing, endless prosperity, of the kind they have got used to. Even if the rest of the world was collapsing while Britain endured a mild slump, the public would still be calling for Brown’s blood, because we as a nation, and he, while chancellor, have programmed ourselves to see the success of a government solely in economic terms.

I do not intend to dwell on wasted opportunities. We are where we are. But unless we define our national programme in other terms — call it social capital, if you are on the left, or call it community spirit, if you are on the right, or call it spiritual renewal, if you are from a faith background — then we will inevitably and periodically return in each economic cycle to a point where the electorate believe the government has entirely failed them, see no prospect of better from the other mainstream parties, and are willing to entertain the claims of those who are quick to point the finger at scapegoats, and quick to advocate a simple ‘make sense’ plan, which (in fact) will not result in the return of the prosperity that the public seeks, and will further destroy the threads that hold the fabric of society together.

It is time for those of us who believe in a radically different agenda from that put forward by the BNP to begin long term, effective and altruistic political action.

Time to stand up and be counted.

Who now can claim that the Daily Telegraph helped democracy?

On the anniversary of D-Day, for the first time in British history, a far-right party with the fascist heritage of Hitler and Mussolini has won parliamentary seats from the British electorate — not one, but two. We can point to the economy, we can point to disillusionment with 12 years of Labour, we can point to the long established media xenophobia when it comes to European elections, but everyone must now admit that this is above all a result of the Daily Telegraph’s intensive campaign over the last month and a half to discredit mainstream politics in this country, using to the maximum the exclusive access it (allegedly) bought to a story which was, morally speaking, the property of another journalist, and, legally speaking, the property of the taxpayer.

As I said on BBC yesterday, I absolutely believe that the story should have come out, and I absolutely believe that MPs who have committed fraud should go to prison, while MPs who have organised their expenses in such a way as to game for a profit at the expense of the tax payer should resign from the House.

I also believe that this crisis has been handled badly. If the Speaker had had any sense, he would have released all the information about all the expenses the day that the story broke.

And yet, and yet. By milking the expenses scandal to the uttermost, and ensuring that it and it alone controlled the news to maximum effect, the Daily Telegraph has wiped out a generation’s already faltering confidence in its elected representatives. The Telegraph may argue that it has not tarred every politician with the same brush, but the result of its revelations is that all politicians are tarred. Go onto the streets of any town or city in the UK wearing a rosette of any of the major parties, and you will quickly hear people say ‘You’re all the same’. The Telegraph will certainly argue that it did not intend to mislead the public. But the result is that the public were misled. The Telegraph may argue that it did exactly what was necessary for a free press to survive. But the reality is that it did the opposite: in this story, at least, which has dominated the news agenda in the run up to the elections, we have seen not a free press, but a monopolistic press.

The result — and I do not remotely wish to claim that this was the Telegraph’s intention, although I would strongly argue that they should have foreseen it — is that fascism is once more on the rise in Britain, electorally stronger than at any time in British history.

Who now can claim that the Daily Telegraph, in so doing, has helped democracy?

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