I seem to be making a habit of drawing wisdom for the church from Times comment articles. Lately, that’s been coming by way of Danny Finkelstein. This time, it is from William Hague. Both Tories from whom this Christian socialist is drawing. Make of that what you will.
Anyway, this time, Hague writes an open letter to Keir Starmer (paywall). As a former leader of the opposition who had great difficulty finding a credible position that would win over voters when faced with a somewhat unique Prime Minister with mass appeal, he felt well placed to offer Sir Keir some tips. I only want to land on one of the problems that he highlights:
On the three occasions that Labour has gained scores of seats to win a large majority — 1945, 1966 and 1997 — it has been associated with the ideas of the future. I struggled in opposition because, having opposed such developments as devolved parliaments and a minimum wage, it was hard to portray my party as best placed to manage them.
You have a bigger issue: making the most of Brexit and looking like you will enjoy its opportunities. That will be hard for you, but since you voted down Theresa May’s softer version of all this, you are partly responsible for how things turned out.
For instance, you are opposing the free trade deal with Australia because of the farming industry. When did you decide to be the farmers’ party, rather than of all the young people who will be able to live and work in Australia? On countless comparable issues, you need to show some enthusiasm for the future, not hope it goes away.
Conservatives can win elections for several reasons; because they are the safe option, because their opponents are divided, or because they have the best vision of the future. Labour only wins when it is the future.
I think that comment is about right.
Whilst not the only reason, Boris Johnson has done well because he sprays optimism around like a terrified skunk. It almost doesn’t matter what he actually says, he has a charisma that exudes optimism and that is fundamentally what people want. Brexit won out – not exclusively, but in part – because it presented an optimistic vision of the future outside the EU in stark contrast to the largely negative, better-the-devil-you-know, doomsday Remain campaign. Johnson was a significant part of the former.
By the same token then, for Labour to win, they need to present an optimistic vision of the future. Unlike William Hague, I think traditional socialism may well have something helpful to say on that whole issue. But I don’t think it’s the only thing to say. And however it is incorporated, it needs to be presented as a forward step rather than some backward looking nostalgia. A case in point, renationalising the railways would be both a popular move, a decidedly socialist one and can be presented in terms of progress following the failed 40 year experiment of privatisation. On top of this, I think Hague is right that ‘we are entering an age of extraordinary innovation and technological change’. He insists 20th century Socialism doesn’t have the answer to this, which may be true, but I do think there are ways that socialist vision of harnessing technological advance could be presented as a positive vision for the future. But the point here is not specifically what, or how, they do this. The point is that a positive vision is required. Thus far, Sir Keir hasn’t really offered any policies at all, let alone a compelling socialist vision of the future.
Which leads me eventually, lumbering and lolloping, to the actual point I want to make. Namely, we can be no less surprised if people don’t respond to the message of the church if we haven’t presented a compelling vision in our communities. Most people, when it boils down to it, want to know why they should bother following Jesus. If we’re going to bang on about him and how important the gospel is for them, eventually people want to know the cash value. What’s so great about following Jesus and what is going to compel me to bother with that?
That isn’t to say we want to mis-sell the Christian life. We all know the warnings of scripture and what Jesus has to say about those who follow him. But those of us that do follow him would be quick to say those things are worth it, right? Following Jesus isn’t easy, but it is no bad deal. What we get from Christ far outweighs any of the costs. But that is presenting a positive vision, is it not? Only, we often don’t get there. We might present a ‘turn or burn’ gospel – which really isn’t as wrong as some would say it is and is, essentially, true – but it we load all the value on the end. Eventually, it will pay off. Essentially, suffer for Jesus now and that investment in your future basically comes into its own in glory. Which, again, isn’t altogether wrong. But it isn’t necessarily as compelling as the gospel, in its fullness, might be and might be to us now.
But my point is simply this, just as Labour won’t win any elections unless they can provide a positive vision for the future, the church won’t win too many to Christ without presenting a positive vision for the both the immediate, and distant, future too. We need to present the benefits of Christ to the world. We need to present why the church is a fundamentally good thing for our communities. We need to present why following Jesus brings both immediate benefits as well as future ones. This isn’t a sales pitch, it is just telling the truth. But unless we can present a positive vision for people, there isn’t any real reason that they hear or see from us why they should follow Jesus at all.