Today’s post is written by Claire Mathys, the Director of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum (LDCF), fresh from the Liberal Democrat party conference in Glasgow. You can follow both Claire and the LDCF on Twitter.
Conferences are funny things. Any Christian who has been to a large conference, be it New Wine, Spring Harvest or Greenbelt, will know what it’s like – you take yourself away from normal life and enter a bubble of like-minded people, where everyone substitutes their normal daily routine for a conference agenda, mixed in with ‘coffee with a friend’ here and ‘lunch with a former colleague’ there, surviving off a narrow choice of over-priced fast food options. People madly dash from place to place trying to do everything, and then on occasion sit down and have a deep conversation with someone about what’s really going on, reflecting on ‘normal’ life and making decisions about what they want to change when they go back.
I’ve just returned from the Liberal Democrat Conference in Glasgow, and am still on an adrenaline high that’s not unlike the post-Soul Survivor high. I’ve spent less time over the last few days singing than I would have done at a Christian conference, but I hope I have been worshipping God in a different way, by bringing something of God’s love and truth into the political world.
There are a scarily large amount of similarities between a Christian conference and a party conference. There is a ‘main stage’ or auditorium where the keynote speeches and policy debates take place, and then alongside that, a fringe programme of events, which take place at fixed time slots throughout the day. At a Christian conference you might take yourself off to a seminar on mission, spiritual gifts or forgiveness; at a party conference you choose between meetings on poverty, housing, or criminal justice. Then there’s the exhibition hall, where numerous organisations try to catch the eye of passers-by and get them signed up to their mailing list.
That’s where I spent much of my time during conference – on the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum (LDCF) stand, having conversations with Christians in the party about all sorts of things, offering encouragement and a listening ear. It wasn’t just Christians who approached our stand; all sorts of people came to talk to us – the media, atheists, enquirers. It was a fantastic opportunity to have a visible presence, a reminder that there are people of faith within the party, and giving Christians the confidence to be open about it, knowing that others are doing the same.
This year we were also selling copies of our new publication, Liberal Democrats Do God, in which 12 Parliamentarians write about how their faith and politics go together. It was great to see the reaction of this within the party – not the eye-rolling or anger that you might expect, but a genuine respect that MPs with faith were writing about it and an interest in what they had to say. The book had already got significant media attention, particularly in relation to Steve Webb MP’s assertion that God is a liberal, and consequently a lot of people in the party had heard about it and turned up at the stand with cash in hand to buy their copy.
Our stand was close to the BBC’s, which had a TV screen showing live what was happening in the main auditorium. It was encouraging to look up at it from time to time and see one member of LDCF after another speaking from the podium, on issues ranging from tax, to gambling, to the economy. LDCF is not about gathering Christians into a ‘holy huddle’ inside the party, but about supporting them as they get involved in all these important areas of debate and make a difference.
But Christian conferences, as well as having rather different content, have a feeling of safety that party conferences don’t have. The media turns up en masse at political conferences, so you’re always half aware that you might be caught yawning in the background of someone doing a TV interview, and you never quite know who is listening to your conversation. It’s certainly more relaxing being at a Christian conference, where vulnerability is seen as a good thing and you don’t always have to be on your best form. Those who get involved in the debates have to accept that there will be people who speak against them on the other side of the debate, who will criticise or even ridicule their arguments, and that they may be massively defeated – all in a very public setting. Political engagement is crucial, but it is not for the faint-hearted.
Although the media is very present at conference, it is not all just for media show. Party policy is made at conference – which plays a large role in what goes into the manifesto at the next election – and members take their responsibility for making it very seriously. Each day there are several policy motions which are debated and then voted on. The votes can be close, and so every vote counts.
I spoke to one LDCF member who had a powerful story to tell of God using her in the party. A few years ago she had been at a fringe meeting on poverty and a gentleman she sat next to said to her in conversation, ‘Of course what we really should do, is to raise the tax threshold so that those on low incomes don’t have to pay tax’. The LDCF member turned to him and said, ‘That’s a brilliant idea!’ He said, ‘Oh no, it’s would never work in practice though…’. So she went away and did a lot of research on the idea, to see how it might work. She got others involved and managed to put together a policy proposal to present at party conference. The idea was voted on and endorsed at conference, so became party policy. A couple of years later, the party found itself in government, and has implemented it, as the readers of this blog will probably know – taking 2 million people out of paying tax altogether. The LDCF member behind this does not work for the party and is not an MP; she does what she would say is a very ordinary sort of job. But that is not a barrier for making a difference – God can use any one of us, and thankfully the party structure tends not to get in the way.
The fact that the Lib Dem conference is so accessible to the ‘ordinary’ person is one of the best things about it. Someone could join the party, and a few months later come along to the conference and find themselves speaking on the platform for or against a policy motion, or questioning the party leader. People often get the impression that if you want to talk to an MP, or even a Minister, that you have to jump through extraordinary hoops to be allowed the privilege. But at a party conference, they are just wandering around and happy to talk to anyone who comes up to them for a conversation. There are extensive Q&A sessions at every fringe, where anyone can ask a question and put the MPs and other speakers on the spot to give an answer. It feels very genuine – not pre-planned answers to navigate around media spin, but MPs discussing things honestly with their fellow Lib Dems.
Coupled with this is a sense in the party that those in power need to be kept in their place. There is an attitude among members towards their leaders that, ‘you’re there to represent us, and if we don’t think you’re doing a good job of that then we’re going to tell you.’ There is a feeling that each party member is as important as the next one, and while there will always be a degree of natural deference for senior politicians, generally people fight quite hard against this. During the infamous sing-along event on the last night of conference, it was a Baroness in the House of Lords who was standing on the door selling songbooks for £3 each. At the Lib Dem Voice awards fringe event, when a mixture of serious and comedy awards were given out, Nick Clegg was in the audience towards the back, joining in with everyone else, finding the comedy photos that had been shortlisted on his iPad and holding them up for the people behind him to see.
At this conference, important decisions were made on the economy, nuclear energy, education and more. There were several close votes – showing the differences of opinion within the party. I often hear people say they don’t want to join a party because they don’t believe in everything they stand for, but they only need to get a taste of conference to realise that doesn’t make sense. It is not about joining a ‘programme’ of policies, but about joining a community of people who are together debating and trying to work out the best way forward on the issues of the day.
In the midst of all this, LDCF holds a time of prayer and worship at the start of each day, so that before we get into the nitty-gritty of policy, we place ourselves before God and seek his wisdom and guidance. We also hold fringe debates on issues we think ought to be discussed. Being involved in politics, debating difficult issues and sometimes losing the debate, can be a tough place to be. LDCF is there to support Christians who are on the frontline fighting for change, wanting to see the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven, and it is a privilege.
As Christians we are called not just to send a postcard to an MP about global poverty or social justice, but to turn up to the debates about it and add our voices. It is easy to spot injustice or recognise where others have got it wrong. The hard part is thinking through the detail of what needs to be changed and how. Those who have been called to do this need our prayers and encouragement. Could you join them?