As the country turns blue, maybe Labour needs to as well
An outside hope for a leadership that is more morally superior, less economically expedient
Amid the shuffling of political leaders, which leaves David Cameron pretty much on his own among the Westminster parties, there is a greater shift that is due in our politics. In fact a great many senior Lib Dem and Labour party influencers are calling not for a change of leader but a change of direction – or at least, a consideration of what that direction should be. There is concern that the dispatch of one face and its replacement with another will result in cosmetic change and not address the issues in the parties themselves.
Most of us are tired of the back and forth over spending and deficits, or who will protect the NHS but crack down on immigration. As on an overused football pitch, too much time has been spent tussling in the middle of the field, making a quagmire while the teams become indistinguishable from each other, so covered in mud are they. Where is the big vision? The sunlit uplands, an aspiration for Britain in the 21st century?
Jeremy Paxman in his book Empire quotes a former American Secretary of State saying he could not believe that the British people had decided that ‘free aspirins and false teeth were more important than Britain’s role in the world’. Maybe there is a need again for the debates around Red Toryism and Blue Labour?
David Cameron, with a renewed mandate and a working majority, could afford to expend political capital this parliament on a revival of the Big Society and Compassionate Conservatism ideas that marked him out as a different type of Tory when he won the leadership in 2005. It could be argued that he has more room to manoeuvre now than in 2010, as he does not have to spend that political capital on keeping a coalition together.
A Tory party casting back to its One Nation roots seems the best antidote to a resurgent SNP – especially if combined with an embracing of the ideas of the great Tories of faith in the past, like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury. And an acknowledgement that a fractured Great Britain needs more than a long-term economic plan.
However, some of the great ideas may arise from the opposition benches if Labour seeks to reclaim its roots – summarised as Blue Labour’s ‘family, flag and faith’.
The rights of the individual have been trumpeted by governments of every hue, with powerful equality legislation now in place. But what of the community and, at its base, the ‘family’? More likely to be pointed to as a cause of problems rather than as a stem of strength and resilience, has the time to support the family now come?
What of the flag? Once out of London, which in many ways feels like a different nation from the rest of the country, patriotism is strong, and the flying of the Union Jack less equated with racism. The nation is probably more socially conservative than those who make the laws.
And faith? It is still a core element for the majority of people. Turnout was high for this election, but party membership is still dwarfed by weekly religious observance. Flag and family as values sit well with those of faith in the UK today. If that is what ‘Blue’ Labour is about, let’s hope the debate can change – and, as on the football field, some leading players come into the game who can lead the attention of us spectators away from the overplayed muddy middle to a fresh part of the pitch.
What of the role of organised religion in this new period? There is a challenge that we made at our recent conference ‘Faith Too Significant to Ignore’: is faith to sit meekly in the background, or is it to use its great resources to make a difference in the UK today? Is faith to be a sleeping giant? Or just a sleeping Hobbit?
We will have an opportunity to reflect on the impact of faith groups when the Cinnamon Faith Action Audits are published in a couple of weeks’ time. These reports will highlight the work going on in communities under the banner of faith, in 50 key local authority areas in Britain today.
When it comes to getting behind what works and seeking out community-based solutions, there is much that can still be done. The Social Value Act, Localism Act and Equalities Act all put some of the pieces in place to support more localised action and more community-designed change.
But a three-way meeting is needed: faith groups that resist the confines that rampant secular voices seek to put on them, with a pressure to be restricted and insular; a re-imagining for local commissioners and the public sector, so that they don’t fall into the well-worn grooves of business as usual; and a political establishment that looks beyond the finance of each action (tax and spend vs cuts) and seeks to stick its head out and lead.
For more ideas on how faith can effect a positive change on politics see the FaithAction Manifesto 2015.
 Jeremy Paxman (2011) Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, p.284