We need a different way of doing politics

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
8 Feb 2009

In the euphoria of President Obama’s inauguration in the USA, there has been debate about whether we in Britain might one day get a black Prime Minister. A better question is whether we will ever be able to make our political system truly representative, incorporating those who are routinely marginalised by the homogenous culture that surrounds Westminster.

There are just 15 black MPs in the House of Commons — and that number may rise only a little at the next election. Only one in five Members is a woman. Those with disabilities — one in seven of the wider population — are conspicuous by their absence. Almost half of MPs who hold office in their Party attended independ­ent schools. Just over a quarter went to Oxford or Cambridge.

It is a system based on a certain kind of strength — a strength that has a tendency to reinforce itself. Every now and again someone comes up with a radical proposal, such as electing the Second Chamber by lottery. It never gets very far.

Once in power, parties rarely do anything that might threaten their position. Labour’s 1997 manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on a proportional system of voting for the House of Commons was quietly dropped after their landslide victory. Stage two of the Government’s plan to reform the House of Lords seems only a noble sentiment.

The exceptions merely prove the rule. Mar­garet Thatcher took on strong-arm values to get ahead, which many felt reinforced a feminisation of politics.

But President Obama has shown that things can be done differently. It is not just that he spent a significant part of his childhood abroad, or that he is of mixed race, or that he came from a deprived background, important though these are. It is his honesty, and his vulnerability, that have challenged the prevailing political culture.

He has talked and written openly about his failures, his drug-taking, his swearing, and his struggle to come to terms with his “blackness” — although not in any Clintonesque way of making a virtue out of a vice. He has not sought to justify or excuse. And it is an approach that should ring bells with Christians: confession, strength through weakness, victory through defeat, a spiritual journey. It resonates, too, with Jesus’s vulnerability before Pilate.

In this instance, the crowd has chosen the undefended leader. And the victory may well be short-lived. Those expecting US politics to change suddenly will be disappointed. A system based on strength will not just roll over and accept new values. He is caught between the rock of ambition and the hard place of expectancy. He will be tempted by the lure of the second term. If he does not play the power-games that the system expects, he will be accused of being naïve, and of being ill-suited to his new position. President Obama may yet be crucified.

But the long-term impact of his stand, which challenges the prevailing values of the political order, will have consequences for years to come, and around the world. Can we do things a different way? Yes, we can. It certainly inspires white, public-school, university-educated people like me.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia.

This article is adapted from a recent column in the Church Times newspaper.

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