The general election is just hours away. We’ve had the TV debates and the manifestos. We’ve had acres of newsprint; hours of radio and TV coverage; and a storm of social media videos, tweets and parodies.
Back in February – and peaking a bit too early perhaps – the bishops of the Church of England wrote a 52 page letter to the people and parishes of England entitled ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Their hope was that it might help guide the choices of the electorate, and influence the offer from the political parties, so that between them they might discern “a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be”. If you can’t face reading all 52 pages (and actually there are 56) the Guardian did a useful summary which is here.
The media, fully mobilised for the election but stuck in the phoney war, took great delight in turning their guns on the unsuspecting bishops. There was a frenzy of criticism that the letter was little more than a reheated Communist Manifesto. Then some eagle-eyed hack spotted a Church of England advert for a job at Canterbury Cathedral paying less than the living wage (one of the bishops’ key ideas) and that just about killed the letter stone dead.
It’s a shame because the bishop’s letter had some interesting things to say.
At it’s heart is a vision of what politics should be about:
enabling all people to live good lives, with the chance to realise their potential, as individuals and together as a people.
For the bishops this is grounded in their Christian faith and the words of Jesus, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10).
Whatever your faith, or indeed if you have none, this goal – a good life and the chance to realise our potential – looks like something most of us would want for our family, our neighbours, our town…..our country. The trouble is we conspire with our politicians to believe that it is they who can bring these things to pass. And at a general election politicians subject us to endless promises and assurances about how they and their policies are what will ensure we get what we want.
As the bishops note, before elections political parties do a lot of posturing. Some is to impress the electorate with how different they are from the other parties and how much better things will be if they get into power. Some is to impress their own supporters with how pure their left or right wing credentials are. In either case they put great store by just what an impact they will have on the world if they get into power. But the reality is often very different. Many decisions in office are forced upon the governing party by pragmatism, policy legacy or by economic factors much more powerful than a few public school boys sat in Westminster. We all know that Thatcher destroyed the mining industry….or did she? The dismantling of Grammar schools and the creation of the Comprehensive system was a Socialist dogma……or was it? The Lib Dems were absolutely committed to not introducing tuition fees for university students at the last election and they’d never think of increasing them….or would they?
During this, and most elections, besides endless coverage of the promises and sound bites from the main parties, there are lots of outside broadcasts from housing estates and shopping precincts. Eager reporters find no shortage of people ready to say that the political parties are not talking about the issues that affect their lives or that they’ve simply lost faith in politicians and their empty promises.
Angela Blanchard shared this slide in her BIF10 talk about community building. Was she agreeing with those disenchanted members of the electorate? Well, no. Her message was not that communities should feel abandoned by the politicians and give up but rather that they needn’t sit around waiting for outsiders to come and deliver them their good life. They could start to build it for themselves.
The ideas, the talents, the energy….they’re all there in every community. Sometimes they just need a bit of encouragement to come out and play.
Last Friday I tweeted a link to this BBC video
The next day my colleague Damian posted this:
Soon the election will be over. Millions of pounds will have been spent on billboard posters, PR companies, leaflets and battle busses. And in streets up and down the country nothing much will change.
But knock on the doors of a few of your neighbours. Invite them round for a cup of tea. See what you think would make your street better……then go and do it. Something amazing might happen.
We don’t have to wait for politicians to make things happen or to give us permission to have a go.
We can get together with our neighbours and friends and start to make the changes we want to see.
We can all practice the politics of small things.