Can you imagine what it must be like to be a Labour MP at the moment? It’s like the scruffy kid at school who doesn’t make friends easily and usually has his head in a George Orwell book being made Head Boy. All the prefects look on in disgust that, despite either their superior intelligence or being the kingpins of the in-crowd, they have been rejected in favour of this.. well, loser.
With all the resignations, their refusal to cooperate and general irritation, many of us are watching from the outside waiting to see just how long it will take for the resentment and ill feeling to reach the point of implosion. The Conservatives have always been the party which commentators expect to fall out with each other when Europe gets too high on the agenda, but Labour factionalism has been rife in recent years with Blairites and Brownites at loggerheads with each other. This simmering tension between moderates and those on the far left, not to mention the unions, is nothing new. We saw it with Ed Miliband’s leadership victory in 2010, and now in 2015 we’re witnessing it in all its bitterness.
Part of the frustration for Labour MPs (and amusement for journalists) is that Jeremy Corbyn is such an unknown quantity. We know that he wants to nationalise anything he can get his hands on, and that he isn’t exactly a big fan of the Queen. But nobody – most likely including Corbyn himself – has much idea what sort of a leader he will be. There’s too much about him that leaves us guessing. Take his views on religion, for example. It’s well known that he’s not a religious believer and has voted ‘strongly against‘ faith schools, but after that, little has been reported.
In fact, Jeremy Corbyn is no stranger to religion. His uncle was a vicar, his father a Christian, and his mother a “Bible-reading atheist”. Speaking to the Christian magazine Third Way in June, he said:
I’m not anti-religious at all. Not at all. And I probably go to more religious services than most people who are very strong believers. I go to churches, I go to mosques, I go to temples, I go to synagogues. I find religion very interesting. I find the power of faith very interesting. I have friends who are very strongly atheist and wouldn’t have anything to do with any faith; but I take a much more relaxed view of it. I think the faith community offers and does a great deal for people. There doesn’t have to be wars about religion, there has to be honesty about religion. We have much more in common than separates us.
Writing for the ‘Christians on the Left’ website this month, he also stated his belief that the churches are essentially on his side (and he theirs):
I know that up and down the country there are people of all faiths and none, on the front line of welfare reform, bearing witness to the pain this government is inflicting on the some of our poorest communities. I want to see more faith leaders publicly challenge this injustice. In speaking out last year against the impact of welfare cuts, the twenty-six Church of England Bishops were standing up for those abandoned by the politicians who should be protecting them. We need unity to stop the damage this government is wrecking and I will stand shoulder to shoulder with all faith leaders to that end.
..Christians on the Left call on us all to ‘love the poor, defend the widow, the refugee and the orphan and stand against injustice – large or small’. These values are at the heart of the Labour party and ones I share a deep commitment to. I want to help create a society that strives to leave no one behind, society more socially conscious and responsible, not one in thrall to rampant materialism and selfish individualism. I look forward to working with Christians on the Left, and other faith communities, towards that end.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising if we found Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the Greenbelt festival next summer. His message would go down very well with a section of the Christian community that sees social activism as a core component of their faith. If asked, he’d most likely tell you that Jesus, with his manifest compassion and concern for the poor, was basically a socialist. And this is where Corbyn’s appreciation of Christianity falls down. Many Christians will see the injustices caused by the system and find themselves marching alongside Corbyn, calling for the Government to remember the poor and vulnerable. But that does not make them left-wing, or even his political bedfellows. The desire to care for those who are less fortunate is driven far more by faith and the teachings of the Bible than by any political ideology.
Harold Wilson famously said and that the Labour movement owed more to Methodism than to Marx. Former Shadow Health Minister Jamie Reed referenced this quote in his resignation letter, which he chose to release during Jeremy Corbyn’s victory speech. For Reed, Labour’s new leader is far more Marx than Methodist. He also leads a party which seems to be increasingly indifferent, if not hostile, to Christianity. When ‘Christians on the Left’ invited the leadership contenders to provide something about their beliefs and values, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall said nothing much of any value, and Andy Burnham failed to respond at all. Labour’s record on ‘pro-life’ issues is indicative of the party’s moral descent: more of their MPs supported last week’s Assisted Dying (No.2) Bill than Conservative MPs, and, according to their voting records, they tend to be far more pro-abortion. When Alastair Campbell uttered those famous words, “We don’t do God”, he was probably talking as much about his party as his prime minister. Ironically, any positive noises the new leader makes toward religious groups is likely to cause further doubt and division about his party’s core values.
Jeremy Corbyn may be bringing a range of radical policies and a new leadership style to the despatch box, but his main problem is not so much that he’s more Marx than Methodist: as Theo Hobson argues in the Spectator, it is because the Labour Party as a whole has strayed so far from its Christian roots that it now finds itself without a vision and beset by infighting and acrimony. Jesus said: ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand‘ (Mt 12:25). Unless the party returns to the values and beliefs by which it came into being, Labour’s credibility as a political force , if not its very existence, lies in a very precarious balance.