Churches can help Labour renewal
The single biggest obstacle in the way of Labour reconnecting with communities is its dogmatic, sneering secularism
Although Alastair Campbell famously said otherwise
, New Labour under Tony Blair did God a lot: not agreeing with what the churches said, or enacting policy on that basis, but in granting exemptions and opt-outs from equality laws for faith-based organisations in order to preserve their integrity and independence. There was respect for conscience and belief. Blair's ears were tuned to faith.
Then came Gordon Brown, and Labour tuned out. No more opt-outs from anti-discrimination laws, which under Blair had allowed religious organisations to retain their distinctive ethos; 13 Catholic adoption agencies were forced to close
because they refused to allow same-sex couples to adopt (even though there were 400 others the couples could go to). Rather than allow a free vote, as Conservatives had done in 2001, the whip was imposed on MPs voting for the human fertilisation and embryology bill of 2008
(which made it legal to clone human embryos). Labour-leaning Christians felt torn between their beliefs and the government.
There isn't really a faith vote, or a Christian vote – until people sense that government is hostile to faith; then it appears, as it did last year. Brown lost it; Cameron has been quick to reach for it. When Sayeeda Warsi, the Tory party chair, gave a speech to Anglican bishops on the eve of the pope's recent visit, she struck a chord. The last government, she said, had been wary of religion, sensing behind every faith-based charity "the whiff of conversion and exclusivity
". Because of that prejudice, "they didn't create policies to unleash the positive power of faith in our society". Guardian-reading bishops will have nodded at that.
Cameron's "Big Society
" vision may be, depending on how you view it, either the most exciting political idea in a generation or ideological cover for shrinking the state. But in its language and attitude the vision speaks to faith – and especially to the Catholic social value of subsidiarity, which has influenced it.
This thinking recognises the importance of civil society – of bonds based not just on contract but reciprocity; which regards both state and market as too powerful; and which understands that the vigour of civil society is contingent on the association principle: we're not just individuals, naked before the state and before money, in other words; we belong to families, faiths, communities, schools – all of which precede our citizenship and must be protected by the state within the bounds of legality and the common good.
Which is why the freedom to manifest belief is not a matter of individuals only – as liberals of both right and left see it – but of organisations, too. The deeper politics now is not left versus right; it's liberals versus communitarians. The dividing line between the two lies in their attitudes towards faith as a social actor.
Both Miliband brothers spent part of the summer with community organisers from London Citizens
, learning to reach beyond the hollowed-out shell of party activists to ordinary people via, in part, their places of worship. This heralds a return to Labour's organising roots. The new Labour leader, Miliband E, has said he wants his party to be more like London Citizens: less focussed on the state and more on communities.
There was a glimpse of that a few weeks ago, when Miliband D addressed a "Movement for Change
" assembly at Emmanuel Church in Westminster. The idea of holding it there – and before 1,000 "ordinary" people, rather than party activists – came from the London Citizens/CitizensUK community organisers he had recruited. But not everyone was convinced; some of his senior advisers tried anxiously to cover up references to the Bible and hymns on the church's walls with Labour flags. Miliband D himself, so I'm told, was quite changed by the experience. But the suspicion of religion remains.
Politically, that's suicide. Most people are not in churches and mosques. But millions are. And in political terms those millions are dynamite. Fired by strong values, believers in a better world, members of organisations built on strong bonds of trust, and willing to turn out to demonstrate and build power – churches were, and for Labour can be again, potent sources of political renewal. True, there are plenty of secular people with ideals, but they are less organised; or, if they are organised, they tend to know better what they oppose than what they stand for. Contrast the 10,000 who protested Pope Benedict
with the 200,000 lining Whitehall to welcome him.
Ed-led Labour needs to know that you can't have the fruits without the roots. If what the party must now do is galvanise people where they gather – and especially where those who gather are hardest hit by joblessness and cuts – it must first remove the single biggest obstacle in the way of the party reconnecting with communities: its dogmatic, sneering secularism.
A Catholic Labour MP I spoke to recently thinks Labour tuned out from faith the moment it unplugged from ordinary people – when it became technocratic and managerial. He says the party will need to become more faith-friendly as it reconnects – and is reassured to think that Jon Cruddas, a Catholic social radical, might be its chair. Cruddas and members of the Christian Socialist Movement
(CSM) know what is not yet clear to many on the left: that there's no future for Labour if it forgets how to do God.