St Nicholas

It’s St Nicholas’ Day today, and since Santa Claus (the god-figure of secular Christmases everywhere) takes his name from the saint in question, I thought I’d share this Santa-related video.

H/T Justin Taylor

Sexuality, Equality, and Freedom of Religion

There’s been some controversy recently about a vote taken on Brighton and Hove council back in July on the issue of same-sex marriage. A Christian councillor by the name of Christina Summers spoke and voted against a a motion supporting the principle of extending the legal definition of marriage to same-sex couples. There was some controversy at the time, and a panel of inquiry was set up to look into the issue. On Monday it released its recommendation – that she should be expelled from the Green group of councillors (though not from the party). Its full report is due to be released on Thursday, and the group will presumably vote on whether to accept the recommendation at its next meeting.

In this post, I want to explain a bit more about what happened, and then talk about some principles.

What is Councillor Summers accused of?

Firstly, the issue was not simply that Councillor Summers spoke and voted against same-sex marriage. Green politicans are free to speak and vote against party policy as long as they make it clear what that policy is.

The issue is that she signed an equality pledge as part of her selection as a candidate. It’s been claimed that the pledge included explicit support for same-sex marriage, though the extract that’s been quoted on the local party’s FAQ simply talks about “upholding and advancing” the values of “equality for all people, regardless of race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social origin or any other prejudice … if selected as a candidate and if elected to public office.” Which, in my opinion, is perfectly compatible with Councillor Summers’ support of civil partnerships instead of marriage. This is the subject of the inquiry.

In addition to this, there have been some party members who claim that Councillor Summers’ views are incompatible with the party’s philosophical basis, which states:

A healthy society is based on voluntary co-operation between empowered individuals in a democratic society, free from discrimination whether based on race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social origin or any other prejudice.

and

The legitimate interests of all people are of equal value. The Green Party rejects all forms of discrimination whether based on race, colour, sex, religion, national origin, social origin or any other prejudice. We accept the need for social institutions to protect the interests of the powerless against the powerful.

They claim that these clauses necessarily mean support for same-sex marriage. Any view that equality can be achieved for gays and lesbians without same-sex marriage is considered to be bigoted and homophobic. However, even if we were to accept the premise that same-sex marriage is the only way to achieve equality on the basis of sexual orientation, the argument is highly flawed. Insisting that Councillor Summers should face disciplinary action for her views on this issue makes equality on the basis of sexual orientation more important than equality on the basis of religious belief. Becoming a Green councillor should not mean that you lose the right to talk about (and vote on) the basis of your religious beliefs.

Christian Principles

The Bible does not teach same-sex marriage

Before writing this article I had a look online for Christian arguments in favour of same-sex marriage. I couldn’t find a single one that even attempted to engage with what the Bible says directly about marriage. There was a lot of engagement with the passages that talk about gay sex, but the arguments about marriage itself were based on vague generalities. I think the main reason for this is that when the Bible talks about marriage it unambiguously means an opposite-sex relationship. Christians should view same-sex marriages in the same way they view cohabitation. Furthermore, whatever happens to the legal definition of marriage, God’s definition of marriage will stay the same.

Society has a very different view of marriage to the church

Our society does not have a biblical view of marriage. People don’t see it as a life-long union. They think divorce is normal. Increasing numbers of people are making pre-nuptial agreements – deciding in advance how to split their possessions if and when they divorce. Adultery is seen as a fairly minor issue, and there are plenty of books, films, and TV series which portray adultery as a good thing. Perhaps the most obvious difference is this: my Christian friends would never consider moving in with their partner before they were married. My non-Christian friends would never consider marrying somebody until after they had started living together.

Christians cannot expect non-Christians to follow Christian morality

Those who don’t have a Christian faith clearly rarely have a Christian moral framework. And even if they did, in Romans 6:15-22 Paul explains that a key difference between Christians and non-Christians is that they are slaves to sin, whilst we have been set free and can now be slaves of righteousness. If that is our theology, then we clearly cannot expect non-Christians to live out Christian morality.

So what stance can we take?

To be honest, I’m still working out where I stand on the issue of same-sex marriage. Because society recognises same-sex relationships to be valid, it would be utterly absurd to deny same-sex couples legal recognition of their relationship. I think there are three possible approaches a Christian can take on the issue:

Advocate civil partnerships with equivalent rights to marriage

This is Christina Summers’ position. Everybody gets equal legal rights and recognition, but the definition of marriage is not changed. In theory, this gives both sides of the debate what they want. In practice, the gay rights lobby is not happy – often seeing this arrangement as akin to apartheid.

Not object to gay marriage

At the moment, UKIP and the BNP are the only national parties who do not officially back gay marriage. Which means that the gay rights lobby has probably won this battle. It’s only a matter of time before the law is changed. Society no longer has a Christian view of marriage, and we should simply let the government adapt to our culture’s definition. The best argument I’ve come across for this view comes from my friend Jon Chilvers, who argues that the church has forfeited our right to a say on gay marriage.

Advocate that the government drop any legal definition of marriage

This view, which I first saw advocated by Anthony Smith, suggests that we could solve the problem by removing the word marriage from law. The state would register civil unions, and everyone could choose whether to consider them marriages or not. Society is divided on what marriage means, and taking away the government’s ability to choose sides might take all the heat and emotion out of the debate.

Green Party Deputy Leader

Well, following on from my post on who I’m backing for Green Party leader, here’s the post on the Deputy Leadership contest. Apologies for the gap, but I did need more time to weigh up the candidates, and – as so often happens – real life got in the way of blogging.

The Deputy contest is a little more complicated than the Leader contest for one main reason. When the party replaced the old system of male and female Principal Speakers with a Leader and Deputy, they (I hadn’t joined at that point) kept the concept of gender balance. If the leader is male, then the deputy must be female, and vice versa. Which means that there are two different Deputy Leader contests going on.

If Peter Cranie wins the Leadership, then the Deputy leadership is a contest between Alex Phillips (a councillor in Hove) and Caroline Allen (a prominent candidate in the London Assembly elections, and member of the policy committee). If one of the female candidates for leader wins, then it’s a contest between Will Duckworth (a councillor in Dudley) and Richard Mallender (a councillor in Rushcliffe).

What does a Deputy do anyway?

The Deputy role is not just about doing media work when the leader isn’t available. Nor is it about being a leader-in-waiting. The role has been, so far, about helping build up the party’s grassroots – and all the candidates seem to agree that’s a key part of the role. Depending on who wins, it might encompass a variety of other roles. With the candidates we have, those roles are most likely to include media, policy, or election strategy.

Picking the man

The contest between the two male candidates is, in my view, easier to call. Will Duckworth was involved in founding Dudley Green Party three years ago, and is now that party’s first councillor. In addition to this, he is a member of the West Midlands Executive, whose regional strategy has taken us from three councillors to thirteen across the region in just two years, and helped us break into five new councils. Will has a lot of experience in providing local party support, and a good grasp of strategy. A Duckworth deputy leadership would promote the best parts of the West Midlands model around the party nationally. He would also try to help the party focus on an anti-austerity message – proposing alternatives to the public service cuts that are the hallmark of the current government.

By contrast, Richard Mallender has plenty of experience in the party (he has served on the national executive before), and has some idea of what he’d like to encourage in the party (winning more seats, growing the membership, highlighting the issue of climate change in the media). But his website, and his performance in hustings (at least as seen online), suggests to me that he’s relatively weak on the how. He would most definitely be better than Re-Open Nominations, but it looks to me like he has a lot less idea of what the role is, and how it should be done.

Picking the woman

The two female candidates for Deputy Leader are both very strong candidates, and working out my preference between them has been quite difficult. Alex Phillips was the first Green Party councillor in Hove, has worked for Caroline Lucas when she was an MEP – dealing with policy issues, and been a key person in both the campaign to elect Caroline Lucas as MP and the campaign to get a Green administration in Brighton and Hove. Caroline Allen was our most successful constituency candidate in this year’s London Assembly elections, and has been a key part of the policy committee. She was, for example, the driving force behind a complete rewrite of our science policy last year (this policy made us by some way the most pro-science party in the UK).

Both of them would be great choices for the post. Alex is more photogenic, and has more campaign knowledge. Caroline is stronger on policy issues, but also knows her stuff when it comes to campaigns. Both of them have taken the effort to learn about the West Midlands model, and would like to help spread its successes around the country. I’m confident that both of them would do a good job as deputy. But I do narrowly prefer Caroline.

Lets get the negative reasons for this out of the way first. Firstly, Alex has expressed support for the idea of all-women shortlists as a solution to increasing the number of women standing as candidates in elections and being elected. Given that our main problem when it comes to gender balance is that we don’t have enough women putting themselves forward, this is the wrong solution. In addition, it is fundamentally incompatible with the decentralised nature of our party – which causes me some concerns. Also, the way she expressed her pro-choice view on abortion at the Birmingham hustings made me (as a relatively rare pro-life Green) slightly uncomfortable. These are relatively minor issues, but in a close contest like this one, they help tip the balance.

Caroline, on the other hand, has been developing a knack not just for sharing electoral strategy, but for putting our policy across, and demolishing misconceptions (e.g. that we are “anti-science”). I think that this strength gives her the edge on Alex. Also in her favour is that I worked with her to get a wholesale review of our science policy passed at last year’s spring conference. She is phenomenally hard-working and resourceful (not that Alex isn’t, I’ve just seen more of Caroline’s hard work first-hand).

So – whilst Alex’s higher profile within the party makes her the favourite for deputy leader if Peter Cranie wins the leadership – I would prefer Caroline, and I will be giving her the higher preference.

Why I’m (probably) Backing Peter Cranie

As I mentioned before, the Green Party are currently electing a new leader. Since my last post on the matter, the list of candidates has been announced. Whilst I’m open to persuasion from the booklet with candidate statements and the hustings I’ll be going to in Birmingham in a couple of weeks time, I’m reasonably sure which order I’ll be ranking the candidates in (the election is by AV). Though I’m still wavering on the deputy leader front.

The four candidates are Peter Cranie (lead candidate for the European Parliament elections in the North West region), Natalie Bennett (founder and leader of Green Party Women), Romayne Phoenix (chair of the Coalition of Resistance), and Pippa Bartolotti (leader of Wales Green Party).

What I want from a leader

The job of Green Party leader is rather badly defined. Since the post was created four years ago, the job description has essentially been “be Caroline Lucas”. With Caroline continuing to be our sole MP until 2015 (at which point I hope and expect her to be joined by at least one more), it’s likely that the leader’s role will change. He or she will be less of a media figure, and probably have more input into party strategy. Therefore, I want somebody who can articulate and argue for Green values and policies, but also for a strong strategy for the party. They need to have some kind of vision for growing the membership, the activist base, and our number of elected representatives. The Green Party is better at winning elections than most other small-medium sized parties, but we’re a long way off where we would be in a fair electoral system. And rather than sitting back and hoping for proportional representation or a 1989-style swing, we need a plan to break through the barriers imposed by first past the post.

How do the candidates visions’ measure up?

Well, Pippa Bartolotti doesn’t come anywhere close to my ideal party leader. Her platform boils down to speaking her mind on Green issues, so she’s getting my fourth preference (she would still be better than having nobody in the job). The other three candidates all have a vision that’s in roughly the right ball-park. Romayne Phoenix talks about how we should build membership, increase our capacity, and work with other left-wing groups. However, her vision is considerably less compelling than that of Natalie Bennett or Peter Cranie for one simple reason. She doesn’t talk about numbers.

Both Natalie and Peter have ambitious targets for electoral success. Natalie is talking about wanting to see a Green MEP in almost every region, a realistic set of “next generation” Parliamentary constituencies, and a Green councillor in every major town and city in the next decade. That’s ambitious and mostly achievable. I can’t see us getting a Green councillor on every council, though. Because local parties are autonomous, it’s almost certain that at least one local party somewhere in the country will prove dysfunctional. Peter, on the other hand, is talking about targeting 7 seats in the 2014 European Parliament elections (we currently have two in the UK), and five to ten seats in the 2020 Westminster elections, and building local and regional parties so that we no longer have any no-go areas.

Of these two, Peter’s vision is more specific, more measurable, and more achievable (sorry Natalie, but that councillor target is almost impossible, whilst Peter’s European target has a clearly articulated strategy behind it), and slightly more timely. It’s a SMARTer thing to aim for. It also feels more ambitious. And the more ambitious we are as a party, the more likely we are to make the impact on local, national, and international politics that we need and deserve to.

What else affects my vote?

In addition to that, Peter and Natalie appear to have a bit more charisma than Romayne – the two apparent frontrunners are both capable politicians in the same league as Caroline Lucas, and would be leaders who are likely to get plenty of media coverage in their own right. Romayne, on the other hand, seems more likely to be focused on building bridges with other like-minded organisations. I’m glad she’s running, but I just don’t think she’s as strong a candidate as Peter or Natalie.

To end, I’ll show you a couple of videos. Firstly, Peter Cranie announces he is standing:

Secondly, London Assembly member Darren Johnson endorsing Peter:

And, for balance, I’ll throw in Natalie’s main campaign video for a bit of balance

I would show you something from Romayne’s or Pippa’s campaign, but neither of them have made any videos related to their leadership bid.

Finally, if you want to follow the campaign as it unfolds, then make sure you keep an eye on the green party elections blog. And, if you demand it in the comments section, I’ll do a similar post on my thoughts about the candidates for Green Party Deputy leader.

Who will be the next Green Party leader?

Following the recent news that Caroline Lucas has decided not to stand for a third term as leader of the Green Party, I feel I ought to comment on the whole thing. Before diving into the question of who the candidates to replace her might be, it’s worth saying something about the other debate the party will be having as a result of the announcement.

What’s a leader for?

The Green Party has only had a leader for the last four years. Before that, it had two principal speakers (one male, one female), who were the main spokespeople. My knowledge of the change is limited by the fact that I only joined the party shortly after the first leadership election. My understanding is that the change was accompanied by a big discussion about what the role of a party leader would be. This discussion was ended, probably prematurely, after the decision was made, although we did discuss some of these issues during 2010s contested Deputy Leader election.

Leadership of a political party is a combination of several things. The most obvious one is that it provides a focus for the media. It’s certainly been a big part of Caroline Lucas’s leadership. However, the leader is not always the media’s go-to person. Respect’s leader, Salma Yaqoob, gets a lot less media time than George Galloway. The expectation is that Caroline will continue to have a strong media presence after she steps down. The new leader will, presumably, get some share of that media profile, but it’s likely that the press will still prefer Caroline.

The leader’s role within the party is rather less clear. Greens have traditionally been very suspicious of the concept of hierarchical leadership, preferring to be led by the grassroots. Policy is decided by party conference, rather than the leadership. And Caroline Lucas has had very little role to play in the policy process since she became leader. Internal governance and strategy is the role primarily of the executive committee. The leader has a seat on the executive, but the executive is supposed to be “led” by its chair.

Regardless of the technicalities of whether it’s the leader’s responsibility or not, there are voices within the party calling for the leader to provide a new strategic direction for the party. We’ve made some real breakthroughs in the last couple of years – we’ve gained our first seat in Westminster and (minority) control of our first council. But beyond that, it feels like we are, to some degree stagnating. Outside of the West Midlands, we’re not breaking much new ground in council elections. Our national councillor numbers are increasing at a snail’s pace. We are holding our own in a tough political climate. But we really need to be making substantial advances if we are to have much impact. Picking the right leader might prove the key to moving forwards more quickly.

Who might stand?

There are a number of prominent party members who can be expected to do well if they stand for the post. If you’ve been an active member of the party for a while, you’re probably familiar to some degree with all of the people I’m about to mention. If you think my (very quick) summaries of any potential candidates is off, please correct me in the comments.

As I write, nobody has yet put their name forward. But two leading candidates have already ruled themselves out of the race – Jenny Jones (the London Assembly member who came third in the Mayoral elections) and Jason Kitcat (leader of Brighton and Hove Council). Like Caroline, they feel that the leadership role would take valuable time away from what they are doing in their current elected offices. So, apart from those two, who are the serious candidates?

Adrian Ramsay – Deputy Leader of the party, and prospective Parliamentary candidate for Norwich South (our second strongest seat). The presumed front-runner, Adrian is well-liked by pretty much everybody in the party, and the leadership role would give him an added national profile, that would be to our advantage. His main weakness in the contest is that he might have trouble outlining a new strategic direction. Adrian is the sort of person who likes to avoid taking sides in internal party disputes, he’ll try to maintain good relationships with everybody involved. Whilst that makes him a unifying figure, it also means nobody’s expecting him to try to lead the party in a new direction.

Peter Cranie – top of the European list in the North West region in 2009 and 2014. In 2014, he came a couple of thousand votes behind Nick Griffin – a very narrow margin across the region. He’s the only likely candidate to come from the North or West of the country, and is likely to offer quite strong ideas about our future strategy.

Derek Wall – the last Male Principle Speaker of the party. Derek is absolutely loved by Green Left (the ecosocialist wing of the party), though he has relatively little support outside that group. I very much doubt he has much chance of winning but if he does, expect a stronger alignment between the Greens and leftist anti-cuts protest groups.

Darren Johnson – our other London Assembly Member, who is also a local councillor in Lewisham. I doubt he will put himself forward, for much the same reasons as Jenny Jones. Like Derek Wall, he has a relatively narrow section of the party who really like him. Unlike Derek, he also has quite a few members who really don’t like him. If he does stand and win, I expect he would be a more media-focused leader, rather than a strategic one.

Jean Lambert – MEP for London since 1999. With Jenny Jones declining to stand, Jean is the only female party member who I think could be a serious contender. My instinct is that she’s unlikely to stand. A Jean Lambert leadership would be heavily influenced by other European Green Parties, as Jean has been working closely with them for a very long time.

Keith Taylor – took over as MEP for the South East when Caroline was elected MP in 2010. Keith is another person I think unlikely to stand. Since he took over his current role, he’s always struck me as being focused primarily on doing the job well. He’s doing a lot of good work in Brussels, and probably wouldn’t want to take over two jobs from Caroline in as many years.

Dark Horse Candidates – whilst I’ve mentioned the people who are obvious contenders, should they be interested, there is always the possibility of an unexpected candidate. I’ve come across a couple of blogs suggesting that Oxford-based member Adam Ramsay (no relation to Adrian) might be a good choice, and it’s always possible that some of our more prominent local councillors might stand (Alex Phillips from Hove is sometimes talked about as a rising star in the party and her area). Alternatively, there might be somebody who is not that well-known. This kind of candidate is going to have to outline a strong strategic direction for the party that moves us forward faster than we are currently going.

RON – lastly, there is one “candidate” who is guaranteed to be on the ballot. RON (Re-Open Nominations) is always an option in internal party elections. To my knowledge, RON has never come close to winning any Green Party internal election, but in any discussion of who will get the job, it is wise to acknowledge that we do have the option of voting for none of the above.

Election Day

It’s local election day here in the UK. There are elections for the Mayor of London, the London Assembly, local councils in Scotland, Wales, and many parts of England. And various cities are voting on whether to have a directly elected mayor.

So, if you live in an area with elections, I’d encourage you to vote. Whilst I’m probably supposed to tell you to vote Green, I’d actually encourage you to vote based on the local issues in your area. And vote informed. If you haven’t read whatever leaflets that have come through your door, find them and read them. Look at your council’s website to find who the candidates are in your ward (or London Assembly constituency), and have a quick look at their party’s local website to see what their local policies are.

Remember that these elections are not a referendum on how the government is doing, or about national issues. They are about who runs your local government (and, in those cities with referendums, how your local authority should be run).

How should you run a local council?

On Thurdsay, Coventry (where I live) is one of ten local councils who will have referendums on the question of whether to replace the current system where elected councillors run the council with one where a directly elected mayor does. Like almost any change to the system, there are advantages and disadvantages to this. I thought I’d outline some of the major issues in this debate. If you’re in one of those cities, you might find this helpful.

Democracy and accountability

Supporters of elected mayors claim that they are more accountable than councillors. They base this on the claim that most people will know who the mayor is, whereas they don’t know who the leaders of the council are under existing systems. On the other hand, a directly elected mayor can only be held accountable every four years at election time. Councillors would be able to override his (or, in theory, her*) budget with a two thirds majority, but would not be able to hold him to account on anything else. By contrast, the current system allows councillors to hold the council leader to account at any point. And he or she can be replaced quite easily if things go pear-shaped. And if the electorate changes their mind about which party they want in charge, all of the councils with such referendums elect their councillors by thirds – there is an election almost every year. Furthermore, having decisions made by a group of councillors who represent different parties and political philosophies is probably more democratic than having them made by a single person and his hand-picked cabinet.

Policy vs Personality

Although the Mayor of London is not directly comparable to elected mayors in other UK cities (his role is as regional government, rather than being the head of a council), it demonstrates one of the dangers of a mayoral system. Even a casual look at the current Mayoral election campaign in London shows that it has become primarily the Boris and Ken show. Policy issues that affect the lives of ordinary Londoners have been sidelined in favour of the personality of the two leading contenders. Whilst council elections often get sidetracked from discussing real issues of policy, this rarely happens because of big personality clashes, and the kind of egos apparent in London. When the personalities are not centre stage, it is a lot easier to discuss the substance.

Being Effective

One major claim of yes campaigners is that a mayoral system is simply better at getting things done for the city. This, of course, depends entirely on who is elected. If you get a good mayor, who makes good decisions and makes very few mistakes, this is probably true. But if you get a bad mayor, there is no way of recovering until his term is up. And it’s not as if councils run by councillors have not been able to get things done. Coventry was perfectly able to rebuild itself after the war without having an elected mayor.

Apolitical?

Yes campaigners argue that, with a directly elected mayor, you can get somebody who is outside of the normal political parties elected. An independent, they argue, can get things done that politicians might not. And they claim that he could make up his cabinet from the best members of all political parties. This argument strikes me as being somewhat naive. In an election across a large town or city you need a party machine of some kind to get elected. Very well known people might be able to buck the trend occasionally, but independents face enormous problems being taken seriously. And even when people outside the major parties get elected, they will often be partisan. In Doncaster, a member of the English Democrats got elected as mayor. He took his cabinet from all parties on the council except Labour. Who had a majority of councillors. Doncaster is now having a referendum on getting rid of the mayoral system. You might get apolitical mayors in countries where local government is traditionally apolitical, but in the UK – where local politics is entirely dominated by national political parties – it simply isn’t going to happen.

Whilst I don’t see that either way of running councils is necessarily better in principle, I don’t see any evidence that elected mayors will improve an area, I think that they are less democratic than the system which they would be replacing, and there is a greater danger of things going badly wrong with the new system.

*I say “in theory”, because it seems very unlikely – at least here in Coventry – that a female candidate would win the election.

Party Election Broadcasts – the good, the bad, and the ugly

I’ve been catching up on some of the party election broadcasts for the local elections, I’m rather worried by what I’m seeing. There’s very little good (telling us what the party would do to improve the area), and far too much bad (focusing on national issues, rather than ones local government has any control over, or simply lying) and ugly (negative campaigning). Take away the bits that are bad or ugly from these broadcasts, and most parties would have any material left.

Political campaigning should always present a positive case for your candidate or party, rather than rely on attacking the opposition. And it should always be focused on the election in hand. If parties run their local election campaigns on national issues, then they are sending the message that what happens in local government doesn’t matter. If we, the electorate, buy into that message, then we don’t deserve hard-working councillors who act as public servants. Instead, we’ll get what we do deserve – councillors who do whatever their party’s head office tells them, regardless of the needs of the area. Or we’ll get councillors who do absolutely nothing, and are there only because we want to give whoever is in government a bloody nose.

In case you think I’m just ranting for the sake of it, here’s a quick summary at the election broadcasts so far for the English local elections (I don’t have time to look at London, Scotland, or Wales) by party:

Labour are attacking the Tories on the NHS, saying that a vote for them is a vote to protect it. This claim is complete nonsense. These elections are for local councillors, who have absolutely no power over the NHS. And there’s not even a hint of positive vision. “Labour values” (whatever that means) are mentioned, but nobody says what they are. There’s no alternative vision being offered. And there’s also no recognition that there are options outside the big two parties.

The Tories are attacking Labour for high salaries given to council executives, and for high levels of council tax. These are at least local issues. However, in addition to being negative, they are clearly only telling partial truths. They say that Conservative run councils will have lower council tax. But they don’t mention that this is because Conservative councils tend to be in rich areas with fewer social needs (and, hence, council spending). Or that Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils are being spared the worst of the cuts being made to local government budgets by central government. And, like Labour, they come across as ignorant of the fact that we are now living in a multi-party democracy, rather than a two-party one.

The Lib Dems, who used to understand that local elections are about local issues, are talking exclusively about the things they claim they have achieved in the coalition. They mention tax cuts for most people, tax rises for the super-rich (but wasn’t the top rate of tax cut in the budget?), and a pension rise. The problem here is that no matter how much or little they have achieved in government, it has no relevance to what their council candidates will do if elected. Council elections should be about issues that can be dealt with by councils. And this broadcast simply isn’t.

UKIP basically attack both Labour and the Tories for the first half of their broadcast. But they do at least go on to talk about local councils, and how they hope to improve things if elected. They say that UKIP-controlled Ramsey Town Council has put some more police on the street (which is something I thought would be beyond the control of a town council – which has very little actual power) and made the place cleaner. It’s not much, but it is at least the kind of thing that’s relevant to the kind of election that is actually happening.

There is, however, one election broadcast which is entirely positive, and is also focused on local issues, rather than Parliamentary ones. The Green Party’s election broadcast focuses entirely on the positive things we hope to achieve on local councils. We’re using the same broadcast for our English, Welsh, and London election broadcasts. And we’re also continuing our tradition of giving you something which is innovative in the way it puts the message across. Here it is. Enjoy:

The Problem with Christian Parties

Here in Coventry, a group called the Christian Movement for Great Britain are standing several candidates in the local elections. Their policy platform includes traditionally Christian stances like opposing abortion and promoting ethical banking. But it also includes policies like the end of wheel-clamping. Add in the Christian Party and the Christian Peoples’ Alliance (who are fighting an increasing number of elections) and you’ve got three different UK political parties claiming to represent Christianity at the ballot box. Which leads me to wonder what’s the point.

There are several different things a political party can be about. Single issue parties (like the pro-life party) exist primarily to bring attention to a particular political issue. They stand candidates and campaign to raise awareness, and bring the issue to the attention of the public. If, like Dr Richard Taylor of Kidderminster Health Concern, they get elected to office, then they concentrate on that issue and vote on unrelated issues as if they were independents. But even a quick look at these Christian parties’ websites and manifestos makes it clear that they are not single-issue parties.

Some parties exist primarily to gain power (nowadays, this is probably the case with both the Conservatives and Labour). What ideology they have is either flexible – easily changed to match public opinion in swing seats – or hidden away. This is clearly not the case for these parties either, as between them they have had a small handful of local councillors elected.

Then there are parties that exist to represent a group that is marginalised within the political mainstream, or which have a unique status within national life. Plaid Cymru has its origins as a party representing Welsh speakers, whilst New Zealand’s Maori party represent a group with unique status in that nation. Whilst this could be the thinking behind these parties, it would indicate that they are out of touch with reality. Christians are, statistically speaking, far more likely to be involved in mainstream political parties than our non-Christian neighbours. Whilst many Christians do feel that their faith has been marginalised in this country, we are nowhere near the point of needing a separate political party to speak up for us – the time and effort invested in these parties would be better spent helping Christians involved in secular parties to be more effective and influential. And, in any case, none of these parties have a political platform that majors on the kind of concerns usually expressed by such parties.

Finally, there are parties there to advocate a particular ideology or set of principles. The Greens are a great example of this. Growing from a single-issue party (albeit an issue that directly affects most other issues), there is now a clear set of political beliefs that drive Green policies (and we have policies for almost everything), as set out in the party’s philosophical basis.

This last purpose is presumably how the various Christian parties see themselves. Which is something I find worrying. If you’ve been following my series blogging through Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible, then you’ll be well aware that Christians can easily take opposite viewpoints on a wide variety of political issues. And that both sides can honestly believe that their side of the issue is more consistent with the Bible. There are few, if any, political issues on which you can say that a particular policy is unquestionably the Christian view. Which leads to the question of just what these parties are standing for. Yes, some parts of their policy platforms (e.g. being pro-life) are issues that would generally be considered Christian positions. But others (the wheel-clamping thing, or policies on the NHS – the Christian Party wants to privatise it, the Christian Movement for Great Britain wants to go back to a more nationalised system) look like they are trying to co-opt God’s (or at least the church’s) blessing for policies where both the Bible and Christian tradition are either silent or ambiguous.

These parties are, for the most part, not taken seriously. Their main impact is to keep their members from engaging in secular parties where they could potentially have a genuine influence. But if they ever were taken seriously, then they could be a real problem for Christians involved in more mainstream politics. If the public and the media associated their policies with the Christian faith, then any Christian who expresses a different view to them would be seen as having a conflict between their faith and their politics. Even if their faith played a big role in the position they take. Furthermore, by representing Christianity as a political ideology, these parties risk placing an unnecessary stumbling block in the way of people becoming Christians. If somebody sees Christianity as, in part, a political ideology which they don’t share, then that’s going to give them a negative view of our faith before they even think about looking into it.

In summary, the reasons for these parties to exist in the first place seem somewhat spurious, and their main effect seems to be to divert Christians from engaging more constructively in the political process. But if they were ever to be taken seriously as the political voice of Christianity, then they would make life more difficult for Christians involved in secular parties. In such circumstances, they would also make it more difficult some for people to come to Christ.

Finally, I’d have no problem with such groups existing if their names didn’t suggest that they spoke for all Christians. Groups like the Christian Socialist Movement (a faction within the Labour Party) are a group of political Christians whose politics can be described as socialist (with the caveat that – being part of the Labour party – the word socialist is a less accurate description of them than it used to be) are not a problem at all. They don’t cause any confusion between the gospel message and their brand of politics. And they certainly aren’t a stumbling block in the way of people coming to Christ. In fact, such groups can probably break down barriers to salvation, as people who share a similar brand of politics will be aware that their politics would not conflict with Christian belief.

How do we avoid consumerism?

Yesterday at church a couple of things set me wondering about how much I’ve brought into the consumerist ideal that our society is constantly pushing at us.

Firstly, we repaired some damage to our projector screen. Over the years of putting it up and down every week, some of the poppers that attach the fabric to to the frame had become distorted. I’d assumed that this was eventually going to mean that we’d have to buy a new one, but it turns out that we could repair it. Which made me wonder how often I’ll fall into the same trap of replacing something that could easily be repaired. Although I rarely watch commercials and have adblockers on my web browser, I’m still exposed to the message they all send (buy more stuff and you’ll be happier/better off). Have I swallowed the lie more than I thought?

And then, the issue came up again in the sermon, which brought up some of the verses dealing with our attitude to possessions – Matthew 6:19-21. Our culture tells us to lay up treasures on Earth, whilst Jesus tells us to do the opposite. It’s something I know intellectually, but it’s an attitude that I hold intermittently. Most days I won’t care about my possessions, but some days I’ll find myself earnestly wishing that I could buy a house, or have certain luxuries. Or I’ll take pride in my collection of Doctor Who stuff. But because every aspect of our culture is saturated with these attitudes, I’ll often fail to realise that I’m wanting these things not because they’ll be a useful tool to do the things God has called me to (although some of them will be), but instead because I’m prone to the sin of consumerism.

Getting rid of consumerism is not primarily about modifying our behaviour, but in modifying our hearts. For a Christian, it’s about learning to align our thinking about money and possessions with God’s. We don’t necessarily have to buy into alternative ways of living to shake it off, we just have to find ways of learning to treat possessions as lightly as Jesus did. I’m a long way from learning to consistently reject the central idol of the Western world. But thankfully God is teaching me to be more aware of the times I slip into that particular form of idolatry.