Working in ‘the Westminster village’, as many politicians and journalists do, makes for a one-eyed view of life. Which is why, early on in the BBC’s television coverage of the local elections in England and Wales back in May 2008 (remember them?), veteran commentator Professor Anthony King needed to point out that three-quarters of 46 million registered voters actually live outside the capital.
From the attention that the London Mayoral showdown received, you mightn’t have guessed it. But politics depends on drama and the Boris versus Ken scrap provided it in spades. Even with limited (if growing) powers, who heads the capital has enormous symbolic power. But so does Labour slumping into third place nationwide, the party’s worst result in 40 years. Not to mention the lost Crewe and Nantwich by-election and the dramatic slump in the Prime Minister’s personal rating.
It’s wake up time, the voters have been saying – though with far from one, clear voice. The people who swept the Conservatives to power in many councils were not like those who made the Greens the official opposition in Norwich, who abstained in Labour’s heartlands, or those who gave the British National Party (still a relatively small force, thankfully) its first seats in South Yorkshire's history.
The 2010 UK General Election will be long coming. But with memories revived of John Major’s defeat two years after a drubbing in the 1995 local polls, word at the mill is that Gordon Brown made perhaps the worst decision of his life by backing out of an electoral encounter with David Cameron shortly after assuming power from Tony Blair. This has been the view of many commentators for ages, but since then things have got a whole heap worse.
It is not true, as some believe, that voter intentions, fragmented by political gamesmanship people neither care about nor understand, always drifts away from the government when the economic tide turns thin. Most know the ‘credit crunch’ is a global phenomenon. And the Tories are making gains in spite of only 38 per cent seeing them as the best option for holding the national purse strings. The issue remains, rather, one of basic trust – which in turn means a sense of unity and direction.
Some more bad news for Mr Brown came in a series of recent opinion polls showing that only 7 per cent of voters now perceive Labour to be a united force. That’s roughly the same number as in 1983, when the party suffered a catastrophic nose-dive in popularity from which it took many years to recover.
In such volatile circumstances, politicians are enjoined to ‘listen’ – but to whom, exactly? To London? The provinces? The asymmetric influence of Scotland and Wales? A burgeoning commentariat? The increasingly unpredictable art of opinion surveying? Disaffected party members? Grumbling Blairites? Or the High Court, challenging government authority on asylum seekers, anti-terror legislation and a festering arms corruption case involving BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia?
The breakdown of ideological politics has left a fatal confusion. The new political class that emerged in response to the 1980s earned its dominant position from management, makeover and messaging (or massaging, depending on your viewpoint). It may now have to learn something more about imaginative leadership if it is to survive, in whatever political shape.
But is Gordon Brown really up to that? As chancellor, one of his greatest powers was the ability to say ‘no’ in order to keep the fiscal ship on course. But to say ‘yes’, which is what is required to build a winning political consensus, is to ignite and combine practicalities with vision, both of which appear to be falling apart (or in short supply) at the moment. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that the Prime Minister has been keen, recently, to court the faith communities.
It works like this. Gordon Brown believes passionately in harnessing personal endeavour, public performance and moral purpose. The churches and other religious communities give him a major opportunity to do that. He admires the entrepreneurial spirit of people like the Rev Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis and Faithworks, with whom he has had personal contact.
What’s more, however much the small secular lobby argues that faith is an outmoded irrelevance, that organised religion is declining rapidly and the public square should be a non-spiritual zone, the government’s advisers recognise that there is a core of 4 million people closely aligned to this sector – many with a strong record of ground-up social involvement.
This is a constituency of volunteers, value-adders and voters too difficult to ignore. The possibility that the ‘faith constituency’ poses is that of a broad alliance with the capacity to show, in practice, how Britain can become a more coherent committed nation. That is how Gordon Brown, son of the manse, thinks – no matter how much the liberal sceptics sneer.
Elsewhere, I have suggested that there are distinct dangers to this kind of settlement – on equalities, on too co-dependent a relationship between church and state, and on holes in the welfare net left open by too patchy a patchwork of provision.
But it remains clear that if Gordon Brown is going to claw his way back from the brink of political extinction, he will need to do so by building networks of support and sympathy that bypass or outweigh the negativity he faces in the media and in parliament.
That means that the ‘faith agenda’, while hardly sufficient on its own, will remain an unavoidable part of the wider political picture for the foreseeable future. Like it or not, we’d better get used to it and learn to deal with it constructively.
Now, what was that about oil prices?
This article is adapted and extended from the June 2008 ‘Westminster Watch’ column in the revamped Third Way magazine – Christian commentary on culture (http://www.thirdwaymagazine.com/).
See also: 'Going leadership barmy' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/7344
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. This article is adapted from an address for the Fifth Sunday in Pentecost, given at St Stephen's Anglican Church, Central Exeter, on 15 June 2008. http://www.stephenproject.org.uk/ The book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow, is published by Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia on 30 June 2008.