Churches and the rejuvenating of democracy

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
4 Jun 2009

Whatever happens in today's European and local council elections, the overall architecture and functioning of politics in Britain needs to change.

For example, the chances are that in the last few elections, a few hundred people will have selected your Member of Parliament.

In my local constituency of Streatham, which until the last few weeks was a ‘safe’ Labour seat, just 150 people chose the current Labour candidate. Up and down the country, year after year, MPs are returned to Westminster with little in the way of democratic accountability. Those who for whatever reason have been unwilling to join the party - and take part in its fun and games - have been excluded.

But previous ‘certainties’ are now a thing of the past. Strong correlations between the ‘safety’ of seats and the levels of expense claims have emerged. Wide-ranging constitutional reform is back on the agenda for the first time since 1997 when Labour quietly dropped its manifesto commitment to a referendum on proportional representation (suddenly deemed unnecessary after its landslide win).

With this climate of change comes a golden opportunity for local churches to be at the heart of what could be a democratic revolution. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have suggested that people are being turned off politics by the Daily Telegraph’s string of expense-scandal revelations.

But a poll commissioned by Ekklesia and carried out by ComRes suggests that 53% of the population would now ‘seriously consider’ backing credible independent candidates - local people, who want to stand on local issues. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9504)

This figure is bigger than any party’s claims of support. In fact it’s just eight per cent shy of the entire voter turnout at the last general election. Democracy is not dying. It is changing - and probably for the better, if we respond and act in a positive way.

So how should this new democratic energy be channelled? The moment could easily be missed. We could all too easily slip back into business as usual.

A new initiative, Jury Team, are suggesting that independents – and there are already many of them - take part in American style ‘primaries’. The whole community can then vote to decide which independent candidate should go forward to contest the general election.

This is an opportunity that the churches should not miss. At successive elections, churches have hosted hustings meetings. They have been the main providers of the forums in which local communities have the chance to publicly challenge and hold to account their parliamentary candidates. By throwing their concern behind primaries too, churches could be at the heart of the new movement to reinvigorate democracy.

Of course, you will get some unusual candidates as you do in the local memberships of all the main political parties. But you will also get some more like Dr Richard Taylor, who won Wyre Forest in 2001 and again in 2005 on a pro-health service ticket with really strong local roots.

What we need are people who have the necessary skills to be good MPs and care deeply about their local communities too.

Whether the independents succeed or fail, it will not just bring about greater democratic participation. It could also be the catalyst for the main parties to follow suit and open up their own selection procedures so everyone gets a say.

In fact, I think it is such a good idea I might even stand myself and see if the churches and others are up for it.

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© Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from one from his column in the Church Times (http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/), with acknowledgments.

More on Ekklesia’s ComRes opinion poll here: (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9500) and in the national and international media. Ekklesia is this week publishing a briefing paper on political alternatives (non-party candidates, civic movements, associational approaches to politics), responses to public questions about idependents, and ideas about the positive role of churches in politics after the Christendom era of privilege has been left behind. See: 'The state of independents: alternative politics' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9579

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