Following on from the last post in the I’m a Christians and this is why I vote… series where Frank Cranmer gave his reasons for not being able to bring himself to vote, Daniel Stafford, offers his views on why he believes it is imperative that Christians should vote. Daniel works for UCCF and is part of Nexus based at Emmanuel Church, Oxford, which works to equip and motivate churches to engage with politics and society though events, training and resources. Daniel tweets at @nexus_dans.
For another perspective, Archbishop Cranmer has also responded to Frank Cranmer’s piece.
Over the last month this blog has presented Christians supporting all of the major national political parties arguing eloquently and persuasively why their Christian faith has led them to be involved in politics with their chosen party. While great work has been done to show one can be a Christian and belong to any of the parties (with obvious exceptions for parties such as the BNP who hold views wholly incompatible with the Christian faith) there remains an issue in which the church rather sadly reflects modern society, rather than the church influencing society – increasing voter apathy towards all political parties.
Recent statistics released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) give a brief snapshot into this malaise – 42% of 18-24 year olds have no interest at all in politics, compared to 21% of over 65s. 60% of all voters believe voting is the only way to have a say in politics, and despite positive spin by the ONS, one third of respondents do not believe they are seriously neglecting their duty as citizens by failing to vote. Other statistics do not make for more encouraging reading – party membership is in decline and the trend for voter turnout has been steadily falling for some years now. The issue at stake therefore seems to be that, as with society at large, there is a deep set cynicism that any political party can make a difference. In broad terms, I think three clear themes can be identified for why voters feel this way:
1. A general disillusionment with politics
The expenses scandal in the previous parliament exposed a long underlying distrust of politicians by the British public. Whether the perception that politicians never tell the truth or answer direct questions, frustration with the ‘Punch and Judy’ nature of Parliamentary politics, to much more serious scandals concerning the personal character of MPs, the ‘dirty’ nature of politics can make it unattractive even to those who are politically minded.
2. Specific disappointment with the political parties
Each of the three main parties has taken adopted a policy position in recent memory that has alienated its traditional support base. The invasion of Iraq, the redefinition of marriage, and the raising of university tuition fees are perhaps the most high profile examples. In each case there has been a cost to the respective parties as their supporters feel ‘their’ party has let them down and cannot be trusted.
3. Perception that the parties are no different
In some ways informed by the points above, a separate and distinct impression by voters is that the effect of voting for different parties has no impact on government policy. This takes two forms – those who believe there is no actual difference in party policy, and those who think that the mechanisms of government make any genuine policy change impossible to implement. The net effect is that these voters see no point in choosing between the candidates put forth for election.
I will not labour long the argument that we should care about this – it has been argued well that we should care about the health of our nation’s governance, of which the health of our democratic institutions is a crucial part. I would add four further reasons why we need to care:
(a) We can make a difference, even if we don’t always win
Any person or grouping engaging with politics accepts that they will never win every argument, vote, and decision. Losing is never pleasant, and persistent defeat is difficult to bear, but it is worth participating for those times when you win the argument and make a difference.
(b) We cannot abandon the public square
We are not the only participants looking to make a difference in the public square. If we neglect to speak for those issues we prize and value, we have only ourselves to blame when evil prevails.
(c) Some Christians are called to public life
While not every Christian standing for public office will be a William Wilberforce, they are doing the good work that God prepared in advance for them. Supporting Christians in this hostile environment is something we should care about.
(d) We are meant to be salt and light to the world
In some ways, it can be argued that the electorate get the politicians they deserve. We have the opportunity to model Christ-centred political engagement to a fallen world.
I do not deny that political engagement is difficult – but I hope I have persuaded you that it is worthwhile! In conclusion I have set out three ways that each of us can respond:
The first most straightforward way is to back whichever party best reflects your own views, as we have been encouraged to do so far. We go in accepting we won’t win every argument, but trusting we will have some positive impact, and that the present system is capable of delivery policy change. One of the best ways to do this is join a Christian group affiliated to a political party. The Conservative Christian Fellowship, Liberal Democrat Christian Forum and Christians on the Left all work closely with their respective parties and have an extremely important role in keeping the Christian faith at the heart of party politics. The more support they receive, the more effective they can be in the work that they do looking to bring Christian principles and ideals into the political bubble.
For those who believe the system to be fundamentally flawed, my second proposal is to learn about those who are attempting to reform the system such as Labour’s Progress group who hosted a joint event with Christians on the Left this week. Each party has a reform wing (Douglas Carswell being a prime example in the Conservative Party) – the Liberal Democrats indeed were the fusion of the historically reformist Liberals, and the SDP, who split from Labour over the issue of democratic reform. One can argue that so-called ‘protest parties’ such as UKIP and the Greens similarly stand for a policy of democratic reform. In any event, there is no shortage of options and opportunities to stand for Christians to pursue democratic reform should they believe it necessary.
The third way involves a sobering comparison with global politics. The Ukraine may be the example currently on our television screens, but many other nations have no meaningful democracy – the area chairman of my own party grew up in British Guyana under a dictatorship. There may well be occasions where it is legitimate to abstain from voting and delegitimise the government – but it is absurd to suggest that we have reached that point in the United Kingdom. So my challenge is simply “Choose ONE of the above.”
If you want to consider this further, my pamphlet for Nexus entitled Getting Engaged; Why and how to interact with MPs and councillors expands on some of the points raised here in more detail.