Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Labour and Faith – Brave New Reset or Faith-Washing?

8 Jul 2024

On the 5th of July we witnessed a once in a 25-year event, namely the landslide election of a Labour government under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer. It almost, but not quite, paralleled the scale of Tony Blair’s landslide victory of 1997.

The key question now is what the implications are of this decisive switch in political allegiance towards the centre left for religion and belief, when for so long that conversation about faith has been dominated by the Right. Does the Left have a policy perspective on Faith and Belief, and what might it look like?

There are three elements to this conversation which reflect different types of space.

Secular space

The first is anecdotal and emerges from a secularly framed space. Over the weekend I attended the New Organising Conference (NOC) in Nottingham with 250 other delegates from the UK. The conference, now in its second year is organised by the Ella Baker School of Organising and the Network for Social Change. Both are networks of the Left and attendance at the conference is made up of TUC members and many activist groups and charities seeking better rights for workers, migrants, LGBTQIA communities, women, housing tenants and the environment.

I was part of a group of delegates that had planned two events for the conference: one called Me, My Faith and I explored issues of faith identity in the workplace aimed at counteracting stereotyping. The other was entitled, From Accommodation to Celebration and launched a new Faith at Work Charter. At the welcoming event to the conference, a specific mention was made that over 40% of the conference participants had identified with a faith or belief affiliation. The information was welcomed with warm and sustained applause.

I am not sure if numbers of faith-affiliated delegates to such events are increasing.  Or whether there have always been these high numbers, but people of faith have felt uncomfortable publicly identifying themselves as such in gatherings. The current conflict in Gaza is certainly highlighting religious visibility and activism. All the faith groups represented at NOC which included Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Pagans were clear that faith was integral to their activism and participation in the Labour movement.

However, I am reasonably sure that these events would not have occurred even five years ago, and for whatever reasons, religion and belief have become more visible and influential within the grassroots activist and organised Left.

Interfaith space

The second is an interfaith space and is represented by a Letter to an Incoming Government from Voices of Faith and Belief. This letter has emerged from a loose collective of 30 or so individuals initially curated by the Faith and Belief Forum and the Faiths and Civil Society Unit at Goldsmiths.

Published in the immediate build up to the election, the Letter calls on an incoming government to radically recalibrate the relationship between Faith and the State as Britain moves into a new political era. It advocates a new settlement which will enable the innovation, leadership, resources and vision for social renewal of faith groups to be channelled into the formation of policies aimed at transforming resilience, inclusion and inequality.

Christian space

The third space is primarily a Christian space. The Radical Hope in a Year of Election initiative by the William Temple Foundation served to remind all political parties of the foundational role of religious values in creating a vision of a just and sustainable society. Through several blogs and a major publication, we have explored the nature of radical hope, understanding that radical is expressed in ‘rooted’ ontologies and narratives about what it is to be human and promote the opportunity for all life to flourish.

But radical is also expressed within faith traditions in the sense of ‘alternative’. From radically ontological roots, different visions of society emerge that sometimes challenge normative assumptions presented by politicians and policy makers. Radical practices of solidarity and resilience also emerge that reconnect the most vulnerable and marginalised with society and a reason for living.

The Foundation held two public gatherings to explore the practical outworkings of Radical Hope earlier this year. The first, curated by Dr Val Barron, was in held in Newcastle and explored the importance of moving current church models of public engagement from charity to organising and activism.

The second, organised by Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell, was held in Liverpool and explored how visions of radical hope are consciously expressed on forms of dialogue and partnership across faith and secular divides in key policy areas. These included climate crisis, poverty and inequalities, education and institutional change, and politics.  Contributors were asked to respond to the questions of ‘what gives you hope?’, ‘what are the barriers to hope that you see?’ and ‘what are the ways forward?’.

The new centre left narrative on religion and belief?

The overlapping picture presented by these secular, interfaith and Christian spaces is that the visibility of religion and belief is increasing. There is the growing recognition, for positive as well as negative reasons – and despite rather unnuanced debates about the UK becoming an increasingly secular society – that religion has a hugely significant contribution to make to public life.

Many on the Left will still feel awkward and reticent in acknowledging this new post COVID resurgence in faith-based activism and care, and its accompanying discourse. But are the early indications of the new centre left narrative on religion and belief beginning to emerge?

I think it is fair to say that the early signs are promising.

First, at the heart of Starmer’s contract with the British people are two key concepts: that of ‘service’ (the government is here to serve the needs and interests of the people, and not itself), and that of ‘national renewal’ (as opposed to merely levelling up).

Both these words are deeply redolent of the language of reconstruction from the 1940s and recall in their tone the rhetoric of Archbishop William Temple. The ideas of service and national reconstruction are central to his vision for postwar welfare state which he lays out in Christianity and Social Order in 1942.

Perhaps this tone is more than unintentional. It turns out Starmer’s deputy speech writer is former speech writer for Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury.  Starmer at the very least seems to be allowing some this ‘Templesque’ rhetoric to shape the public presentation of his government. But it may be more than that. It maybe that he wishes to connect Labour policy more explicitly to this strand and tradition of Anglican and ecumenical social thought.

Second, in his letter to Britain’s faith communities published on June 10th, he thanks faith groups for the resilience and compassion they have contributed to British society in the past few years of crisis and trauma. But he goes on to ask faith groups to, in his words, ‘engage’ with Labour to help deliver their five policy objectives in the areas of environment, justice, education, health and the economy.

The meaning attached to this word ‘engage’ is essential.

Will it involve a view of religion, encapsulated somewhat in the Bloom Review, and which reflects a view from the Right, whereby religion is commended for its good work in caring for the broken and down-hearted in society?  

Or does Starmer’s letter anticipate a form of engagement that offers a generous invitation to faith and belief communities to shape the policy development of Labour’s agenda in these key areas, what I have referred to elsewhere as a partnership based on co-creation as opposed to implementation?

Only time will tell whether Sir Keir’s letter is a brave new reset in the relationship between faith groups and policy in the UK or whether it engages with faith only to the extent that it provides a patina of respectability and endorsement to what Labour want to achieve.

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