Christian Socialists want to hold Blair to justice agenda

Christian Socialists want to hold Blair to justice agenda

By staff writers
30 Sep 2005

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Christian Socialists want to hold Blair to justice agenda

-30/09/05

By Simon Barrow

The Labour Partyís annual conference in Brighton, which wound up yesterday, was overshadowed by media speculation about Chancellor Gordon Brownís possible accession to the leaderís throne, and by the badly timed roughing up of 82-year-old anti-war heckler, Walter Wolfgang.

But at least one participant, Dr Andrew Bradstock, director of the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM), had higher things on his mind.

Giving his angle on Labourís week to Ekklesia, Dr Bradstock, who took over as leader of CSM earlier this year, said he believed that there was ìstill plenty of dynamism and energy left in the social justice agendaî, and he pledged to hold Labourís leadership to its commitments in this area.

The Christian Socialist Movement is an organization affiliated to the Labour Party which aims to promote ìvalues-based socialism and faith-based social actionî. Its membership roll, which includes the prime minister, reads like a mini-roster of movers and shakers in Britainís governing party.

But Dr Bradstock, Labour candidate in the stubborn Conservative seat of Faversham and Mid-Kent at the May 2005 general election, is keen to emphasise that CSMís function is one of ìcritical solidarityî with the party, rather than bland endorsement.

ìThereís room for debate, support and challenge to do betterî, he says ñ though Labour critics point out that there was precious little room for criticism in the bundling away of Mr Wolfgang, whose treatment has since elicited abject apologies from the party hierarchy.

However, in spite of its top-level endorsement, the Christian Socialist Movement has often taken positions at variance with New Labour orthodoxy. And at this yearís conference it expanded its activities from the usual one fringe event to five.

Things got off to a lively start when the Rev Kathy Galloway, leader of the Iona Community in Scotland, used the occasion of the eve-of-conference CSM-sponsored church service in Brighton to preach a powerful sermon interpreted as criticism of the prime ministerís military adventurism in Iraq. He was sitting in the front row.

Many CSM members have also been angry about Iraq, and Andrew Bradstock himself has been a public non-endorser. But he says that Labourís commitment to ending world poverty will be a more important long-term legacy.

Supporting Make Poverty Historyís creation of a bridge between philanthropy and social action, Dr Bradstock says that MPH and the Jubilee 200 initiative have shown in a non-partisan way that ìthe only way to combat world poverty in the long run is by political action.î

As a veteran of the Trade Justice Movement (TJM), he sympathises with those who feel that the deals on debt, aid and trade wrestled out of the Gleneagles G8 meeting, the UN poverty summit and the IMF and World Bank do not go far enough. But he also argues that the hunger for greater change, which he shares, should be put into perspective.

ìIf someone ten or fifteen years ago had said that we would have got this far on cancelling debt, no-one would have believed itî, he comments - crediting church and NGO lobbying with a good deal of the momentum, but also arguing that Christians in the Labour Party have had a big impact on this and other issues.

So what about Tony Blairís ëchangemakersí speech (apparently borrowing a catch-phrase from the Evangelical Alliance) and New Labourís determination to use markets and private operators to reform public services?

Dr Bradstock is pragmatic, but with a definite radical edge. ìThe key thing is to ensure that fairness is maintained and that the poorest get a good deal. Education and health must not be the privilege of the rich. So long as those principles remain central and visible there is room for creativity,î he declares.

Nevertheless, the CSM director says that for Christians and others motivated by moral purpose, ìthere is an important debate to be had about the relation between means and endsî, and he suggests that ìthis is an area where CSM may well have more to sayî as the rest of Tony Blairís current term unfolds.

There is also a quiet hope about the prospects of a Brown premiership. The chancellorís roots are deep in Scottish Christianity, and many credit the more socially progressive elements of New Labour to him. But Dr Bradstock is not about to be drawn on leadership issues, and says that he believes there is more political life left in Tony Blair yet.

Over the past week, CSMís Brighton operation has been impressive, if a little media shy. It has included major meetings on the periphery of the conference about ëreligion and the leftí, Christians and economic justice in business, ëthe language of politicsí (with Bible Society, who attend all the part conferences) and world development.

The star at the Christian Socialist Movementís closing event was the Rev Steve Chalke of Oasis Trust, who is channelling big government money into regeneration and education involving faith communities ñ not without controversy.

Indeed some in world of politics and the media are alarmed by the growth of ëfaith politicsí. Writer David Aaronovitch raised some of these anxieties in a BBC2 documentary, ëGod and the Politiciansí, on Wednesday night. The National Secular Society has also worried that the ëHoly Joesí in Labourís midst might be ëwould-be theocratsí.

And writing in the Observer newspaper, journalist Nick Cohen (also a gadfly for the left on Iraq) fulminated: ìAmong the most gruesome spectacles at this week's conference will be the daily prayer breakfasts of the Christian Socialist Movement. Meg Munn, Alun Michael, Stephen Timms and many another mediocrity will give thanks to the Lord for allowing them to impose their selfish dogmas on a secular country.î

Dr Bradstock (who is a theologian, and formerly an adviser to the United Reformed Church) thinks some of these reactions are over the-top. But he is very alert to the danger of a manipulative use of religion in the political arena and says he will have nothing to do with it ñ believing that Christians should have a voice alongside, not ahead of, others; and one that is well reasoned.

ìStill, we have a long way to go to convince some people of thatî, he tells Ekklesia ñ citing a couple of strange allegations thrown at the CSM stall by Brighton conference participants: ìcreationistsî and ìIan Paisleyís one of your lotî. It seems that irrational zeal is not the sole preserve of the religious.

[The UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia has produced a response to the questions of religion and politics raised by David Aaronovitchís documentary. There are also Christian networks involved formally and informally in the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green parties. Ekklesiaís May 2005 election briefing was called ëSubverting the Manifestosí]

The Labour Party's annual conference in Brighton, which wound up yesterday, was overshadowed by media speculation about Chancellor Gordon Brown's possible accession to the leader's throne, and by the badly timed roughing up of 82-year-old anti-war heckler, Walter Wolfgang.

But at least one participant, Dr Andrew Bradstock, director of the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM), had higher things on his mind.

Giving his angle on Labour's week to Ekklesia, Dr Bradstock, who took over as leader of CSM earlier this year, said he believed that there was 'still plenty of dynamism and energy left in the social justice agenda', and he pledged to hold Labour's leadership to its commitments in this area.

The Christian Socialist Movement is an organization affiliated to the Labour Party which aims to promote 'values-based socialism and faith-based social action'. Its membership roll, which includes the prime minister, reads like a mini-roster of movers and shakers in Britain's governing party.

But Dr Bradstock, Labour candidate in the stubborn Conservative seat of Faversham and Mid-Kent at the May 2005 general election, is keen to emphasise that CSM's function is one of 'critical solidarity' with the party, rather than bland endorsement.

'There's room for debate, support and challenge to do better', he says - though Labour critics point out that there was precious little room for criticism in the bundling away of Mr Wolfgang, whose treatment has since elicited abject apologies from the party hierarchy.

However, in spite of its top-level endorsement, the Christian Socialist Movement has often taken positions at variance with New Labour orthodoxy. And at this year's conference it expanded its activities from the usual one fringe event to five.

Things got off to a lively start when the Rev Kathy Galloway, leader of the Iona Community in Scotland, used the occasion of the eve-of-conference CSM-sponsored church service in Brighton to preach a powerful sermon interpreted as criticism of the prime minister's military adventurism in Iraq. He was sitting in the front row.

Many CSM members have also been angry about Iraq, and Andrew Bradstock himself has been a public non-endorser. But he says that Labour's commitment to ending world poverty will be a more important long-term legacy.

Supporting Make Poverty History's creation of a bridge between philanthropy and social action, Dr Bradstock says that MPH and the Jubilee 200 initiative have shown in a non-partisan way that 'the only way to combat world poverty in the long run is by political action.'

As a veteran of the Trade Justice Movement (TJM), he sympathises with those who feel that the deals on debt, aid and trade wrestled out of the Gleneagles G8 meeting, the UN poverty summit and the IMF and World Bank do not go far enough. But he also argues that the hunger for greater change, which he shares, should be put into perspective.

'If someone ten or fifteen years ago had said that we would have got this far on cancelling debt, no-one would have believed it', he comments - crediting church and NGO lobbying with a good deal of the momentum, but also arguing that Christians in the Labour Party have had a big impact on this and other issues.

So what about Tony Blair's ëchangemakers' speech (apparently borrowing a catch-phrase from the Evangelical Alliance) and New Labour's determination to use markets and private operators to reform public services?

Dr Bradstock is pragmatic, but with a definite radical edge. 'The key thing is to ensure that fairness is maintained and that the poorest get a good deal. Education and health must not be the privilege of the rich. So long as those principles remain central and visible there is room for creativity,' he declares.

Nevertheless, the CSM director says that for Christians and others motivated by moral purpose, 'there is an important debate to be had about the relation between means and ends', and he suggests that 'this is an area where CSM may well have more to say' as the rest of Tony Blair's current term unfolds.

There is also a quiet hope about the prospects of a Brown premiership. The chancellor's roots are deep in Scottish Christianity, and many credit the more socially progressive elements of New Labour to him. But Dr Bradstock is not about to be drawn on leadership issues, and says that he believes there is more political life left in Tony Blair yet.

Over the past week, CSM's Brighton operation has been impressive, if a little media shy. It has included major meetings on the periphery of the conference about ëreligion and the left', Christians and economic justice in business, ëthe language of politics' (with Bible Society, who attend all the part conferences) and world development.

The star at the Christian Socialist Movement's closing event was the Rev Steve Chalke of Oasis Trust, who is channelling big government money into regeneration and education involving faith communities - not without controversy.

Indeed some in world of politics and the media are alarmed by the growth of ëfaith politics'. Writer David Aaronovitch raised some of these anxieties in a BBC2 documentary, ëGod and the Politicians', on Wednesday night. The National Secular Society has also worried that the ëHoly Joes' in Labour's midst might be ëwould-be theocrats'.

And writing in the Observer newspaper, journalist Nick Cohen (also a gadfly for the left on Iraq) fulminated: 'Among the most gruesome spectacles at this week's conference will be the daily prayer breakfasts of the Christian Socialist Movement. Meg Munn, Alun Michael, Stephen Timms and many another mediocrity will give thanks to the Lord for allowing them to impose their selfish dogmas on a secular country.'

Dr Bradstock (who is a theologian, and formerly an adviser to the United Reformed Church) thinks some of these reactions are over the-top. But he is very alert to the danger of a manipulative use of religion in the political arena and says he will have nothing to do with it - believing that Christians should have a voice alongside, not ahead of, others; and one that is well reasoned.

'Still, we have a long way to go to convince some people of that', he tells Ekklesia - citing a couple of strange allegations thrown at the CSM stall by Brighton conference participants: 'creationists' and 'Ian Paisley's one of your lot'. It seems that irrational zeal is not the sole preserve of the religious.

[The UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia has produced a response to the questions of religion and politics raised by David Aaronovitch's documentary. There are also Christian networks involved formally and informally in the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green parties. Ekklesia's May 2005 election briefing was called ëSubverting the Manifestos']

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