Christians attending a large Pentecostal festival have been urged towards a thoughtful and prayerful engagement with the political process in the forthcoming European and local elections, following the MPs' expenses scandal and calls to isolate the racist BNP.
Steve Clifford, the new general director of the Evangelical Alliance, Fran Beckett, chief executive of the Anglican-backed Church Urban Fund, Charles Hoare, international secretary of CARE, and Professor John Wyatt from University College London debated the issues at one of the event's forums.
Ms Beckett suggested that the expenses row had put people off engaging in politics by “reinforcing the disconnect” between governors and governed on a “frightening” scale.
“Far from people wanting to take the risk of going into politics, this may well do the opposite,” she said.
However, a ComRes opinion poll commissioned last week by the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia suggested a very different trend. Though people may be disillusioned by 'mainstream' politics and the major parties, there is an appetite for independent candidates - with 78 per cent saying they hoped non-party candidates would stand in seats where the sitting MP's conduct was considered unethical.
EA's Steve Clifford echoed this more positive perspective by saying that the expenses scandal had created opportunities for “radical changes” to be made within the parliamentary system, including new approaches to whipped votes and issues of conscience.
He called for care rather than over-reaction in dealing with revelations about the expenses system, but made it very clear that Parliament needed to come up with what he called a “robust response”, adding that excessive claims had become “an almost institutionalised form of corruption where everybody kind of knew this was going on”.
Ms Beckett echoed responded that the church needed to be looking at ways of equipping people to engage in the political process as citizens as well as leaders.
Steve Clifford continued: “The Gospel has political implications that we can’t ignore. We cannot ignore the political landscape that shapes the world and society that we live in,” he said, adding that it was vital to combat the "deep level of cynicism within the British population about the political classes", which could be "really dangerous."
The Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York, together with Free Church leaders, are among those who have emphasised the importance of combating the British National Party, which is appealing to racism and xenophobia to further its policies against migrants and minorities, but which is also seeking to capitalise on public disillusion using a cloak of 'respectability'.
The Hope Not Hate alliance, which is about celebrating the diversity of modern Britain and "exposing the extremism behind the BNP" intends to use 'Democracy Day' on Tuesday 2 June 2009 to get its message across.
Also on Ekklesia: 'The state of independents: alternative politics' - a research paper. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9579