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Why we all need to learn to disagree well

The Labour Party has been meeting in Liverpool this week for its annual conference, having just held a leadership election. The implications of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election will take some time to digest but are not confined to the Labour Party.

The Labour Party has experienced a dramatic increase in its membership since the General Election last year. With over half a million members, it has declared itself the largest political party in Europe. The new members have brought with them enthusiasm for change and impatience with what many see as half-hearted remedies for the challenges of inequality and social injustice. They have found a focus in Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong politician from the left wing of the Labour Party, who was elected leader last year in a major upset for established politics.

However, Mr Corbyn has not enjoyed the confidence of most of the Parliamentary Labour Party and currently remains behind in the polls, which was why he faced a challenge to his leadership this year.

Other political parties, particularly the Conservative Party, are viewing the changes in the Labour Party with a mixture of bemusement and bewilderment. They should be cautious, because Labour’s experience is not unique. Established political parties are facing challenges across the world, both from within and without.

In the United States, activists have taken a very different perspective to their mainstream leaders. In the case of the Republicans, the insurgent candidate won the presidential nomination and could be elected president. Governing parties elsewhere in Europe are also vulnerable from both the left and right wings of politics.

At home, the Conservative Party may appear in the ascendance but it has no idea what Brexit should or will mean. Its leader is under pressure from fellow Conservatives and UKIP who want the UK to adopt a ‘hard Brexit’ stance in negotiations with the EU.

These political pressures probably have roots in the causes of the financial crisis almost 10 years ago. Rising inequality was hidden by increasing debt until the bubble burst. The initial response from governments, which bailed out the banks and increased public sector borrowing to compensate for a shrinking private sector, was broadly correct. However with hindsight it seems they were too generous to the banks after the crisis.

They also reverted to old economic orthodoxy, cutting back sharply on spending and, damagingly, cutting rather than expanding public investment. As a result, we are living in a sort of economic stasis, in which central banks keep printing money but growth remains lacklustre and in many countries debt levels remain high. It is no surprise that electorates, the people government policy must serve, are unhappy with the lack of progress and rising wealth inequality.

The challenge is moral. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, archbishops and politicians spoke about the need for moral values in markets. A window of opportunity for change opened briefly, as people searched for new certainties but soon governments and banks tried to return to business as usual. Yet pre-crisis normality has not returned and people are again asking deep questions about the values that should underpin our society. There is a strong conviction that people should not be left behind. If centre ground politicians cannot articulate this belief properly nor act convincingly upon it, some people may look elsewhere.

As we search for a restored and renewed political framework, it is important that we take time to revisit our values and get them in the right perspective. How we do politics is important too. The principle that everyone is created equally and has equal worth before God must be lived out in the way we engage with each other as well as in the policies we advocate. It is right sometimes to disagree vigorously, but we must disagree well. Our opponents in debate are men and women made in the image of God. We should seek to build relationships of trust with them where we can.

This is not the easy road in politics. Politics also needs to find room for grace, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. We do not always get things right. We must not rush to condemn, especially through social media, we must not forget to understand, and forgive. We must never resort to abuse or prejudice.

The church has an essential role in politics today. Those involved in politics, perhaps particularly Christians, need prayerful support. It can be tough out there, and particularly at the present time. The church must also stand as a witness to kingdom values and the truth that lies behind them.

Speaking at the Labour Conference church service, run by Christians on the Left, Jeremy Corbyn remarked that “Bringing faith communities together is important and we need to draw political lessons from this.” The Church of England and other denominations can take a lesson from politics as well. It is important to challenge ourselves to ensure that we can hold fast to our beliefs while being open to expressing them clearly and in ways relevant to the times in which we live. 

This article was first published by the Church of England Newspaper, on 29 September 2016.

Church of England Newspaper, 29 September 2016, 10/10/2016

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