Members of the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) have voted for a substantial change of direction for the Movement - one which they say will involve arguing for more radical policies in the Labour Party, a substantial challenge to the religious right, and greater efforts to explain to other Christians what they stand for.
CSM director Dr Andrew Bradstock, a theologian and a parliamentary candidate at the last general election, told Ekklesia this morning that he saw the move as an "interesting and very positive" development.
The Christian Socialist Movement has been in existence since 1960, created out of two other Christian socialist bodies. It affiliated to the Labour Party in 1986, since when critics say that it has increasingly accommodated to the Labour establishment - a charge denied by others. It abandoned an explicit commitment to common ownership, along with the Labour Party, in 1995. The Christian Socialist magazine was also eventually renamed The Common Good.
In a keenly-fought ballot at CSM's annual meeting, members voted overwhelmingly in favour of candidates seeking ‘Renewal and Change’ within the Movement. A majority of votes were cast decisively in favour of a new team of largely younger members and for Cardiff MP and former Cabinet minister Alun Michael as the new chair.
Identifying a "need for a fresh vision" within CSM, ‘Renewal and Change’ candidates called for the Movement to be "the prophetic conscience of the Labour Party and a prophetic voice to the churches". They pledged to make CSM ‘fit for purpose’ and a "more democratic, accountable and Christian organisation".
"We must repent for not living up to our calling", executive member Jonathan Cox declared. "CSM has not been a radical and prophetic witness to the Labour government, and even when its own values speak volumes, it has been silent."
An architect of the ‘Renewal and Change’ agenda, Cox believes CSM’s inertia has worked to the benefit of the Christian right. "There has never been a greater need for a strong Christian voice on the left", he said. "We need to make a bold stand against the religious right and emphasise poverty, social justice and the environment as mainstream Christian issues."
Some non-aligned Christian socialists, like former social work professor and community activist Bob Holman, have accused Labour of abandoning its social justice tradition. Indeed he has proclaimed himself i some ways more impressed with the commitment of ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who was invited to a debate at a CSM fringe meeting at the last Labour Conference. This illustrates the ground that has to be recaptured, say critical voices.
In his first speech as CSM chair, Alun Michael told CSM members that he endorsed the call for a ‘Year of Renewal’. "We must not forget that renewal is a constant process," he told the Movement’s AGM in London on Saturday. "We shall need constantly to refresh our vision as we face the challenges ahead." Michael called for CSM to be inclusive in all that it does, and pledged to help it raise its profile among MPs and peers.
Alun Michael added: "The whole Labour Movement is now in the early stages of a process of renewal – that’s something that is easy in opposition but is extremely challenging in Government. A new Prime Minister will provide an immediate sense of direction and a fresh profile to the media, but our success and his success depends on us being a Labour Movement of people driven by ideas and principles."
He continued: "Our role in the Christian Socialist Movement is to be deeply engaged in the wider debate, applying our values and beliefs for a new era and sharing our vision with the wider Labour Movement and explaining to fellow Christians why our faith leads us to champion progressive politics and social justice."
CSM director Andrew Bradstock told the AGM that he detected "the beginning of a new era for the Movement," and urged all who believed in Christianity, progressive politics and social justice to get involved in the 'Year of Renewal'.
The shift within CSM will be seen as part of a series of hotly debated realignments going on within Labour ranks, as the party prepares for an end to the Tony Blair premiership. It is still widely thought that Chancellor Gordon Brown - from a strong Scottish Presbyterian background - will succeed Blair. But nothing is certain in politics.
Some, including a number of CSM members, clearly wish New Labour to recover some of its radical and grassroots tradition. But self-proclaimed 'modernisers' are likely to fight such moves rigorously. Groups like Compass wish to move in a more progressive direction, but the party's 'hard left' remains very marginalised and no-one imagines a return to the years of the leftwing 1983 manifesto - described by the media as "the longest suicide note in history", though defended by former leader Michael Foot in a BBC interview this morning.
There are also official Christian organisations in the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats. They network together through 'Christans in Politics'.
See also: 'Where two or three are gathered together': a Christian socialist family tree, by Michael Johnston (anglocatholicsocialism.org).