Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Re-Colouring British Politics

I seem to have upset some of my friends.

Like many others, I posted these photos from the 1980’s on Facebook as a (hopefully) witty comment on some of the differences between Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron.  In hindsight, I might as well have lit the blue touch-paper and stood well back.

The exchange which followed actually took me by surprise.  The emotions which were provoked among close friends, who I respect deeply, were pretty raw.  

For this I apologise.  It was not my intention to annoy my friends.

But the exchange shows very clearly the strong, even visceral emotions which Jeremy Corbyn evokes.  Perhaps it was those same strong emotions applied in the opposite direction which got him elected with such a clear and unequivocal victory?

Let me be clear - as a politician would say - I don’t know whether his leadership of the Labour Party will work out.  I don’t know if he will rise to the dizzy heights of success or crash and burn in a ball of fire.  But what I do know is that he offers a clear alternative to the on-message-spin-doctored-collective-obfuscation which has increasingly characterised politics in the UK for the last 20 years.  That is why labour supporters voted for him in such numbers.

The last election was a wash-out.  Instead of the major parties offering clear alterative policies and politics, it was more like ’50 shades of grey-blue’ but twice as painful to watch. As Labour tried to look credible, they merely became pale imitators of the Conservative agenda.  There was little to choose between them - except why should you vote for the imitation when you can have the real thing?

It was the natural conclusion of 20 years of Labour politics.

Back in 1997, when Tony Blair swept to power, I remember teasing a life-long Labour party member and Labour historian who lived in the parish where I was curate in Southeast London.  He was a pillar of the local Labour party and was one of those who nominated the Labour candidate at every election.  He was very definitely ‘old Labour’ but fiercely loyal to the party.

So I said to him, “John, I've got a problem – I can’t find a socialist party to vote for…”  Without pausing for thought, he came straight back at me and said “That’s not a problem – vote Liberal Democrat.  They’re the closest thing to a socialist party today.”  Indeed many have joked that Tony Blair was Maggie Thatcher’s most lasting legacy.

But worse than this, for main-stream politicians of all shades of grey in the last election, the need to be ‘on-message’ trumped every political interview, press release, husting and debate.  There was endless repetition of ‘Let me be clear’ echoing over the airwaves whenever party candidates and leaders wanted to avoid answering a question.  All the parties were concentrating more on not slipping up than on presenting meaningful political debate.

In the wake of the MP’s expenses scandal with trust of politicians at an all-time low, it seemed that almost everyone in politics (with the exception of the SNP) had exchanged political principle for the doctrine of political expediency.

And that is why Jeremy Corbyn captured the imagination of so many Labour supporters.

Love him or loathe him – he is a politician who acts and speaks according to his principles.  He does not simply say or do what others tell him to do or say – or change his message according to his audience – or make his decisions on the basis of the probability of success.  He has voted against his own party 533 times since 1997 and faced possible expulsion from the party more than once – hardly the actions of ambition or political opportunism.

These days, such consistent outspokenness is a rare commodity among politicians.

So in the end, I welcome the election of Jeremy Corbyn – not because I support all his views, policies and aspirations – but because we need someone who will challenge the current pattern of political sleep-walking, slavish uniformity, and the dishonesty of political ambition.

In the photos which I shared on Facebook, we see Jeremy Corbyn standing up for the rights of others, whereas David Cameron is standing in the privilege of his education at Eaton.  It is an unfair comparison, considering their respective ages at the time – but what really matters is what they have done since.  By enlarge, they have both continued to stand for the same things.

Tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor may be what the markets want to see – they may even improve the prospects for wealth generation for our economy in the long term – but they are certainly increasing wealth inequality now, widening the gap between rich and poor.

The secret of good politics is debate.  For there to be debate, there have to be two (or more) clear ideologies putting forward different solutions for the world’s challenges.  It is the difference between the two which keep both honest, and ultimately forge the compromise (or synthesis) which carry us forward.

I welcome Jeremy Corbyn as the new leader of the Labour Party in the hope that his principled opposition will re-ignite the furnace of political debate to replace the quagmire into which our political leaders have been sleepwalking.

At the end of the day, it is worth remembering that it was a democratic vote of half a million people which appointed him by a clearer majority than any general election victory in living memory.  Democracy is sometimes problematic – sometimes uncomfortable – but we ignore it at our peril.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Sunrise by the sea

I had a beautiful experience early this morning, praying be the sea.

The sky was cloudy above but clear in the distance towards the sunrise. The effect that was spectacular. Rays of sunlight and an orange glow fell upon the distant mountains creating a magical aura of celestial beauty around the horizon while the cloud above me blotted out the brightness of the sun.

As I said my prayers,  it occurred to me that praying often feels like reaching out to that celestial scene. We see God’s awe inspiring beauty in the distance. We are at once captivated by its beauty and drawn to it. And yet we know that for now, it is beyond our reach. Our lives are lived beneath the cloud, seeing the effects of the sun all around us, and yet not fully basking in its glory.

Then something else caught my eye.

A shoal of small fish swimming near the shore, just below the surface of the water.  As they swam, some of them came up to the surface and broke the plane of the water to feed.  As I watched, some went further,  propelling themselves out of the water completely – for a moment breaking free from their watery world before plunging back into the sea.

Why do they do that,  I wondered? They gain nothing from it. They cannot live above the surface of the water for anything more that a few brief seconds. Their vision would be just as unadjusted to seeing in air as mine to seeing clearly underwater.

Then I realised that the fish and I were both engaged in the same longing.  The desire to reach out beyond our world to that which, for now, is unattainable. The world which is beyond us, of which we see but fleeting glimpses. In the words of Paul we see ‘through a glass darkly’ as we await the time when we will see God in all his glory.

In our prayers we reach out to that fullness of God which is beyond us, enthralled by the beauty we see from afar. And we long for the day when we shall see God face to face.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Reflections on 7/7

As the 10th anniversary of the London bombings on 7/7 is marked with wreaths, services of remembrance and moments of silence, my thoughts are taken back to that day in a very personal way.

Like millions of other Londoners, I caught the tube into the centre of London that morning.  I count myself fortunate that I was already off the tube and at my destination when the first bomb exploded, tearing through metal, flesh and bone with indiscriminate indifference.

I was visiting my wife, Mel at Bart’s Hospital (near St Paul’s).  She was half way through yet another 3 months in hospital after her near fatal accident in 2003.  It was not going well.  In May she began a final series of reconstructive surgery on her leg and abdomen, attempting to cover areas of flesh which had been torn away by the tarmac and the lorry’s wheels.  After the first operation she was held together with over 120 shiny metal staples which made her leg and stomach look like a giant zip, but the wounds intended to improve her appearance wouldn’t heal, and bit by bit, the necrotic tissue which resulted had to be removed, painfully and hopelessly.

I was in the ward with her when news of the bombs started to come in.  We had already heard an unusual number of sirens outside, and now the hospital was gearing up for a major incident.  Beds were being emptied of all but the most seriously ill.  Patients were being sent home or moved to less acute wards.  Those being admitted for planned surgery were being turned away, and the hospital staff were whispering the latest reports to each other.

Our first reaction was fear.  They wouldn’t try to send Mel home, would they?  With the number of tubes and machines she was linked to, it would have been a nightmare.  We need not have worried.  Mel’s situation was too serious for that to be an option, and so we settled into waiting in the largely empty ward – waiting for whatever would follow.

By now the streets outside were eerily quiet.  Traffic was almost non-existent cut off by the many road closures.  The only sound of traffic was the wail of sirens from ambulances, police and fire trucks, often travelling at high speed along the empty roads.

A television was brought into the nursing station, and hospital staff gathered there in every spare moment to try to glean more information in the confusion which followed the blasts.  Mixed in with the unfolding horror of what had happened, there were fears of more bombs, more attacks.

In the end only a handful of victims were brought to Mel’s ward, and only one stayed beyond a few days.  But the effect on that victim’s life was clear and dramatic.  In the bed next to Mel’s was a young woman with severe lacerations to her face, arms and legs.  She too had parts of her body held together with stiches and staples.  She too had to endure painful changes of dressings and wonder at the long term effects on her life.  But her wounds had not been caused by accidental negligence – they had been coldly and deliberately inflicted in a planned and co-ordinated attack designed to kill and maim as many people as possible.  Mel and I heard her crying with her fiancĂ© and family, day after day as they came to terms with what had happened.

At the end of the day, I remember having to walk home to Brixton – along with many other people for whom it was the only means of getting out of the centre of London.

I also remember all the security alerts on the tube in the days that followed.  In the heightened levels of alert, every suspicious bag or situation was met with trains being stopped, and announcements over the tannoy asking passengers to exit the station immediately.  I remember the calm and stoic way in which commuters responded each time, without panic as we made our way to the surface and tried to work out how to complete our journeys.

Finally, I remember the shooting and killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station – one of our two local stations – by police who mistook him for a bomber because of bungled intelligence and the puffer jacket he was wearing.  Yet another victim of the bombings.

Today, 10 years on, what has changed?

For the UK, the focus has shifted from Al Qaeda to ISIS, but the threat remains the same.  Around the world, acts of terror continue on an almost daily basis.  Suicide bombers have become common place and lone gunmen still wreak havoc in people’s lives, claiming allegiance to some misguided creedal cause.

Over the last 10 years, the terror of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza have been met with the terror of missiles and artillery rounds fired from Israeli jets and tanks.  Iraq and Syria have descended in to the anarchy which has allowed ISIS to grow and impose its brutal power on millions.  The lives of people in hotels and shopping centres in Mumbai and Kenya have been devastated and hundreds of children and young women have been abducted in Nigeria. In the USA, marathon runners were blown up in Boston.  In Europe, cartoonists, journalists and Jews have been targeted with bullets designed to exact retribution on  anyone who believes that the pen is mightier than the sword.

In recent days, tourists were gunned down on a beach in Tunisia, mosques were bombed in Kuwait and Nigeria, and a young white man killed worshippers at a Bible study in the ‘black church’ which had welcomed him in Charleston, USA.

So what is the answer?

Certainly not the law of revenge which seems to dominate the conflict between the Israeli Government and Palestinians.  Certainly not the spiral of violence that we see in some parts of the world as different communities become more and more sectarian, demonising those who have hurt them to the point where retaliations are just as inhuman as the acts which led to them.  Not even the ever higher levels of security and surveillance which affect all our lives and yet cannot detect every threat.

In the long run perhaps the only way forward is one which at first appears weak – yet demands huge inner strength.

It is the path which family members of many Charleston victims have courageously sought to embrace when they faced the murderer of their loved ones in court.

People like the daughter of victim Ethel Lance:
“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again.  You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you. I forgive you.”

Others acknowledged how hard it is to forgive and yet spoke of beginning that journey, “For me, I'm a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I'm very angry. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. And I also thank God I won't be around when your judgement day comes.”

In such forgiveness, there is a powerful challenge – the challenge to change.

Anthony Thompson, the grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told the killer, “I forgive you, my family forgives you. … We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Do that and you'll be better off than you are right now.”

Nor is this simply a Christian response.  Malala Yousafzai hit headlines around the world after miraculously surviving being shot in the head and neck by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan when she was just 15.  Two years later she became the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

When she addressed the UN on her 16th birthday, she said these words,

“I do not even hate the Talib who shot me.  Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him.  This is the compassion I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and the Lord Buddha.  This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Muhammad Ali Jina.  This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa… That is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.”

In the end, hate can never conquer hate – costly, committed, forgiving love can.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Too Young to Vote?

As the General Election Campaign continues, there has been a rather noticeable auction of promises for pensioners and older people.

All the main parties appear committed to the ‘Triple lock’ which ensures that the state pension will continue to rise at or above increases in earnings and inflation.  The Conservatives are promising to retain all universal benefits for pensioners, while Gordon Brown has been promising Scots the power to ‘top up’ pensions and benefits north of the border.

But where are the promises for young people?

Just as conspicuous as the promises to pensioners, is the lack of positive commitments to young people.  Yes - there have been commitments to provide more apprenticeships, but they is more about up-skilling for economic growth than about attracting the younger person.  Apart from the Labour pledge on University Tuition Fees, young people seem to be in line for more stick and less carrot when it comes to benefits and finding work.

So why is this?

The reason, of course is rather obvious.  Older people vote!  The ‘grey vote’ is vital to winning seats all over the country, and our political parties are clamouring for their backing.

Young people on the other hand tend not to vote.  18-25 year olds are the least likely group to vote in our country based on figures from the last General Election in 2010.  If you are under 18 years old, you can’t vote, and if you are 18-21 you are half as likely to vote as someone aged 74-80 despite the reduced mobility of many in the older age group.    Put simply, the older you are, the more likely you are to vote - and the more attention you will get from the politicians vying for your support.

This has not always been the case.  In 1964 when turnout was 77% overall, 18-24 year olds were just as likely to vote as pensioners (both 76%).  Since then there has been a steady downward pattern for young people right down to only 40% of 18-21 year olds voting in 2010.

As a House of Commons briefing paper on Election Turnout from 2013 states:

“The decline in young people’s engagement in politics has been a common theme of late… in the context of falling overall turnout at General Elections, the decline has been sharpest amongst voters aged 18-24.”

The situation is also being made worse this year by the introduction of new procedures for registering to vote in this year’s General Election, with the result that the number of 18 year olds registered has crashed by almost 50% in the last 12 months.

For political parties the bottom line is about winning, so they are not going to waste their precious resources on lost causes – and where elections are concerned young people are a lost cause.

So why don’t young people vote?

Perhaps it’s apathy?  Perhaps they don’t trust politics?  That they are too busy drinking in bars to bother about who runs the country?  Or is it that they feel disconnected from election campaigns run by older people for older people, with little apparent relevance for their lives?

Whatever the truth, in the year when we celebrate 800years of British Democracy, such a wide disenfranchisement of the next generation is something which should trouble us greatly.  It is something which we should and must do something about.

The disenfranchisement of a generation will lessen our democratic processes both in the present and for the future.  People who don’t think their vote matters in their teens and twenty’s, are increasingly likely to think exactly the same in their 30’s, 40’s 50’s and 60’s – and then who will the politicians be able to appeal to when this generation become pensioners?

But perhaps the recent Scottish referendum might provide a way forward.

In a bold move, 16 year olds were given the vote for the first time.  The effect was dramatic. Suddenly young people were engaged in the democratic process as never before.  Seasoned politicians found themselves having to learn how to address the aspirations of the young as well as the old.  By referendum day 89% of 16 & 17 year olds had registered to vote and overall turnout in the referendum was the highest in modern British election history at 85.4%.

So what if we reduced the voting age throughout the UK?

Reducing the voting age to 16 would rejuvenate our tired political processes. 

Citizenship classes in school would take on real and present meaning by preparing the majority of students to register and  vote for the first time in local elections before finishing their GCSE’s.
Continuing citizenship education in 6th Form and Colleges would mean that the majority of 16-18 year olds would have the opportunity to vote in a General Election or European Election before leaving compulsory education.

This process of re-franchising would be further assisted by situating Polling Stations in 6th Forms and Colleges (while not closing the school or college for the day).  Students could then vote during the day at their place of education and the younger generation would be placed at the heart of our democracy.

Political parties would find themselves having to take young people seriously – to find ways of communicating – to identify policies which would speak to a new generation instead of ignoring them or scapegoating them.

The idea is not new of course.  MPs, Lords and political parties have pursued the idea several times.  No less than 5 Private Members Motions and 3 debates have been introduced in Parliament in the last 15 years calling for such a change, but each has failed to change the goal-posts despite the most recent debate securing a vote of 119 MPs in favour to 46 against.  The Lib Dems included it in their 2010 manifesto, but it failed to make the Coalition agreement after the election. Today - Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have all made it an election pledge for 2015 but the Conservatives oppose any change.

The longer we delay the greater the democratic deficit that will need to be addressed.  It was Eddie Cochran who first put the issue into song in ‘Summertime Blues’ back in 1958 when he wrote the lyric,

‘Well I called my congressman and he said "Whoa!”
"I'd like to help you son but you're too young to vote"’

We need to resolve this quickly before another generation passes into political apathy.