The first General Election debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn was a fractious, unedifying and deeply unpleasant affair. It wasn’t so much a political debate as a terse slanging match of soundbites and truncated ripostes: arguments weren’t allowed to develop, and the audience’s cheering and jeering felt more like an episode of the Jeremy Kyle Show than Question Time.
According to a post-‘debate’ YouGov survey, Boris Johnson was deemed to have scored 51%, and Jeremy Corbyn 49%. This has been widely judged to have been a victory for Johnson since he is currently anywhere between 5-17% ahead in the polls, and Corbyn failed to land a game-changing blow. But this ignores the fact that Corbyn isn’t aiming to win the election, but to deprive the Conservatives of another majority. If he can do that, we will once again have a minority Tory government at the mercy of a Labour/SNP/LibDem/Green/etc loose alliance, principally dedicated to remaining in the EU (and likely to coalesce around seizing the order paper [if Speaker Hoyle permits] and legislating for a second referendum).
With Labour currently polling around 28-30% (against the Conservatives’ 35-39%), and Jeremy Corbyn polling at 16% as preferred prime minister (against Johnson’s 47%), a score of 49% in a TV debate is a palpable hit.
Froth and fury aside, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have penned a General Election pastoral letter. No, not another turgid tome of tortuous fence-sitting, but a refreshingly brief, lucid and spiritual epistle of exhortation, reminding Christians of our righteous democratic priorities and just causes:
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As we approach this General Election, we also herald the season of Advent, the birth of Jesus Christ and the reminder of his return as our judge. In Christ’s birth God chooses to come and live among us, intervening in our imperfect world, and offering the hope of life reordered and restored. At his return he promises the setting right of all things. It is time to set aside apathy and cynicism and to be people of hope.
We often forget that our political leaders face huge responsibilities and challenges, and these come with personal sacrifices too. In our prayers for this election we should be thankful for those who put themselves forward for public service and ask that they will seek the common good and justice. We should take part, as important decisions are being made that will affect us all. That includes fulfilling our democratic duty to vote.
As followers of Jesus Christ each of us is called to honour the gift of truth, both to speak it and to seek it. We all have a responsibility to speak accurately, to challenge falsehoods when we hear them, and to be careful to separate facts from opinion.
Offering facts and opinions should be done with humility and in love. People who hold different political views are not our enemies. Two people can look at the same facts and in good faith interpret them very differently. Issues need to be debated respectfully, and without resorting to personal abuse. We should engage responsibly, especially on social media. If we leave our echo-chambers and make a conscious effort to listen to people and ideas we disagree with it will help us understand where others are coming from in this election period, even though we may disagree vehemently. As Christians, in recognising God’s image in others who are not in our own image, we can start to build relationships that bridge political divides.
We will be praying for debates that seek to unite rather than divide, to bring us together and to rebuild trust in each other, in our institutions, and in our politics. As Jesus did, through his birth in poverty, his actions and words and his warning of judgement for those who seek only their own wellbeing, we must put the vulnerable and those on the edges of society first. Taking part in a democracy is a privilege and a responsibility, so let us be guided by a love for our neighbours, near and far, and seek that common good that truly benefits us all. That includes justice for the oppressed, protection for the persecuted, and a commitment to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. It also includes a just economic system, open and encouraging to aspiration and ambition, supportive of those who struggle.
We call on all standing for election to reject the language of prejudice and not to stoke stigma or hatred towards people on the grounds of their religion, their culture, their origin, their identity or their belief. Several groups, especially in Jewish and Muslim communities, feel threatened and are in much anxiety. No individual or community in our shared society should have reason to lack confidence in their belonging or security, so parties must make it an absolute priority to offer positive reassurance and avoid anything that increases the perception of fear.
Let us seek the wisdom and guidance of our Heavenly Father, the source of all wisdom, who inspires us as we wrestle to address the questions and challenges of our time and is both authority and judge over all human beings. May His wisdom and His vision guide our debate, campaign and vote, for those who will be elected as our representatives.
As we head into the season of Advent, as Christians, let us be filled with hope and call on Him, who is the ever-present guardian and final judge in our nation and in our politics.
In the Name of our Risen Lord, who was and is and is to come. Amen.
Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby
Archbishop of York, John Sentamu
For those who have ears: “Several groups, especially in Jewish and Muslim communities, feel threatened and are in much anxiety” is a candid reference to Antisemitism in the Labour Party. For more than a century Labour has been a moderate socialist fellowship to which British Jews have belonged in their thousands and always felt perfectly safe and secure. This all changed when Jeremy Corbyn became leader, since which time Jewish MPs have been forced out, Jewish groups (national and international) have distanced themselves, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has launched a formal investigation (the first political party to face such a probe since the BNP [which CofE clergy are prohibited from supporting]). Labour has become an institutionally racist party. Why else would Jewish MPs and Jewish peers leave the party they have loved and served for decades? Why would former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks say Jeremy Corbyn is a dangerous anti-Semite who gives “support to racists, terrorists and dealers of hate, who want to kill Jews and remove Israel from the map”?
Justin Welby and John Sentamu urge Christians “to honour the gift of truth, both to speak it and to seek it”.
Sometimes the truth hurts.