Comment: Labour can only succeed when it remembers what it’s for

By Paul Bickley

I read Naomi Phillips article, The battle for Labour's secular soul, with interest, not least because I have researched and written on the many historical connections between the Labour party and faith. Naomi is entirely right. Labour does indeed have an interesting relationship with religion. In fact, I'm not sure she has appreciated how interesting the relationship is.

As GDH Cole once said, Labour is a broad movement on behalf of the bottom dog. Historically, of course, this meant that it held its ideological commitments lightly, recognising that doctrine and dogma – secular or religious – could blunt its effectiveness as a political movement dedicated to an improvement in the material conditions of working people. It has at times carried a distinctly religious flavour, and many of its most significant politicians were people of faith (Hardie the obvious example, but think also of Arthur Henderson, Stafford Cripps, Tom Mann, George Lansbury – or John Smith, or Tony Blair). Many of those that were not of faith were inspired by the values of faith – remember Clement Atlee’s backhanded compliment: he "believed in the ethics of Christianity", but "not the mumbo jumbo". Methodism, Marx and all that…

For all of this, I would not suggest that progressive values are necessarily or only religious in inspiration. That would be as historically ignorant as Naomi's rehearsal of Labour as a secular tradition. Indeed, if I have a concern about progressive politics, it is not that it has become too secular, but that is has become too narrow, too mono-cultural. 

Progressives, we might think, value diversity, but the only way we can imagine dealing with diversity is by enforcing sameness in the form of secularity. There is a better way, articulated by David Barclay's recent report for Theos on Making Multiculturalism Work. Essentially, the kind of politics that Labour needs is one in which we allow more freedom to people in the way they find, articulate and fulfil left-of-centre politics. This diversity, which combines religious perspectives with many others, is not a problem to be resolved by the heavy hand of secularism, nor occasion for "a battle", as Naomi's article suggests. Rather, it is a strength.

The price of a party that adopts programmatic secularism as its creed would be the alienation of sources of support and energy that Labour can ill afford to lose, not to mention the vital practical connection, through churches and other faith communities, with the lived experience of people in an increasingly unequal and unjust society.

We are often reminded how Christianity is in decline (and on many measures it is), that less than ten per cent of people attend a place of worship in any given month. Churches must now reconcile themselves to the end of Britain's cultural Christianity. Equally, Labour must reconcile itself to the reality that its membership is less than 200,000. In London alone, on any given Sunday, there will be more than three times as many people in church as a there are members of the Labour party nationally. Demos' recent work on the European Values Survey suggests that, contrary to the fears and suspicion of some in the Labour party, the majority of these people would place themselves on the left of centre.

So in place of Naomi's euphemistic use of 'interesting', I say 'vital'. Labour needs to be broader. I do not suggest that it will become broad by becoming more religious’, but by being open to the religious.

There will certainly be friction on some of the policy issues Naomi raises (not in itself a bad thing), and there will be common ground as well. But the question is, what is Labour for? Part of its narrowness and – I think – the lack of its appeal to the wider electorate is the way that Labour exchanged the work of achieving greater dignity and material equality for ordinary working people, for a narrower liberal end of identity equality, giving the impression that equal legal rights, not better social or economic outcomes, are the chief ends of progressive politics. As GK Chesterton once said, the danger of progressive politics is that, instead of changing society to fit the ideal, we alter the ideal: it is easier.

I thought twice about writing this rejoinder. The people whom Labour seeks to serve are not served when its members spend their time arguing with each other. I concluded that I would write it, because they would be served by a more generous, more open, broader party in which all people of good will do the hard work of finding and advancing the common good. I think that it will not be long until Britain remembers why it needs a Labour party, if only we can remember why it needs a Labour party.

Paul Bickley is the director of political programme for religion and society think tank Theos.

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