Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Back to Basics: Corbyn, Faith and Progressive Politics

16 Sep 2015

The political establishment and the country as a whole are struggling to digest the political import of the scale of Jeremy Corbyn’s win in the Labour leadership elections. His victory does, however, crystallise a number of existing trends that go back to the heady days of 2011, the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. Remember these rose spontaneously out of a deep sense of anger and despair when it became clear that the financial crisis in 2008 was not going to change the structures of what many perceived to be an irredeemably corrupt and unaccountable global economic system. These climatic events, and the ongoing advancement of the hyper rich minority at the expense of the overwhelming majority, has ensured that these protests were not a blip, but in fact represent a protracted distancing for many from mainstream politics as a whole. For many millions in the UK there is now a permanent sense of simmering resentment or dull apathy; Westminster-style politics will simply not deliver a sense of empowerment, betterment and fairness. In the meantime, new affinities of citizens and networks have grown up, largely outside the orbits of the market and politics, in a series of DIY movements that are seeking to provide not only goods and services, but a sense of hope for many who are feeling abandoned or disenfranchised.

These were undoubtedly the groups of people who were electrified by Corbyn’s authentic and plain- speaking campaign. To packed halls across the UK, Corbyn promised to restore the link between the state and its duty of care and recognition to the lives of its own citizens. He promised a framework of material support for the basic building blocks of life to those cast afloat on the seas of global capitalism.  In return, some of his supporters recognised in him a fellow outsider, untainted by the system and determined, it seems, to make his leadership as accountable as possible to the wider public. At his first PMQs today, he intends to use that the opportunity to raise questions and concerns which he invited the general public to send in, apparently with 40,000 to choose from.

Such is the unnerving power of his popular mandate that even some Conservatives recognise that this Corbynmania is part of a wider indictment of the very system that supports them: namely Westminster politics. The parliamentary system is perceived as being too slow, too bureaucratic, occasionally corrupt and too partisan. Too many personal attacks on Corbyn, however easy some of them might be to make, will backfire on the political class as a whole.

But clearly a very early problem has emerged that threatens the Corbyn revolution from even getting airborne (see Owen Jones’ ‘If Corbyn’s Labour is going to work, it has to communicate’). And that is a lack of a clear broad message and the lack of a communication strategy. At this point, enter one of the most remarkable think pieces I have ever seen in the Guardian. In today’s edition George Monbiot, a self-confessed non-religious believer is suggesting that Pentecostal Christianity, currently growing rapidly across the globe, but especially in Africa and Central and Southern America, contains the blueprint for the future survival of the new politics that Corbyn finds himself the unlikely midwife of. Monbiot has been studying born-again evangelical groups in Brazil for the past two years, following a postsecular hunch, if you like, that religion is a major solution to many political and economic issues facing us today.

According to Monbiot, the strength and appeal of these groups, which has galvanised a whole nation, never mind a neighbourhood, is that they revolve around a set of core convictions and virtues such as empathy, kindness, forgiveness and self-worth. ‘Surely it would not be difficult to create a similar set common to all progressive movements?’ Monbiot suggests. Next, he says, evangelical Christianity is propositional and positive – it sets the agenda rather than constantly responding to the agendas of others. Third, evangelical Christians welcome everyone, especially non-believers. ‘Instead of anathematising difference, doubt and hesitation’, says Monbiot, ‘they explain and normalise the steps necessary for the journey to belief.’ Finally, they dig deep financially, providing material welfare for others. Monbiot concludes, speaking for the body-politics a whole, ‘To sustain ourselves, we need to be more than just political. We should offer those who join us emotional support, moral comfort and sometimes material help.’

In other words, faith groups are showing the Labour Party how it can become a movement again, deeply in touch with the wishes and aspirations of the common people. On that basis and on that basis alone, might Labour then have the moral authority and support to transform the country back in-line with its founding principles? Corbyn, one senses, understands the hunger for a more holistic and compassionate politics. He however, has to learn some key lessons very fast if he is to survive, and one of those sources is faith groups and the way they embed themselves into local communities and work for their transformation. As I have said before, faith groups are indeed curators to the new politics, and key partners in progressive localism. Understanding these new sets of links is what is driving our research at the William Temple Foundation. I will also be outlining these themes in my public lecture in Chester on Tuesday ‘Globalised Religion in an Era of Uncertainty: What prospects for a new global ethic of progressive change?’ Do come along and be part of the debate!

Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation

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