According to the latest opinion polls on the wacky race for Rochester & Strood, the suave, educated, cultured and erudite
Peter Perfect Mark Reckless is blazing ahead for Ukip, and the Conservatives are heading for (another) certain by-election defeat on 20th November, despite their local council candidate, the Pretty Penny Pitstop “attractive” Kelly Tolhurst, having been selected by the people for the people. Labour’s Red Max Naushabah Khan appears to have given up altogether (which is odd, given that they held Medway until 2005), and the Ant Hill Mob Liberal Democrats have dissipated and dissolved completely: like the proverbial dead parrot, they have ceased to be.
Whatever the result of this jittery by-election, it isn’t likely to have any bearing at all on either the outcome of the 2015 General Election or the secure position of the Prime Minister. By-elections often throw up disquieting anomalies, and it is observed time and again that the people’s allegiances tend to revert to type when the stakes are higher. For all his faults, David Cameron remains an undeniable electoral asset to the Tories: with just six months until Judgment Day, he isn’t likely to face a leadership challenge. His personal ratings are consistently higher than anything Ed Miliband can muster (which comes as no surprise), and the Cameroon love-in has reportedly reached even the dizzy popularity heights of
Dick Dastardly Nigel Farage (though nowhere near Boris [Mutley?]).
Given that Rochester & Strood is a two-horse race, and accepting that the task of the Christian in a representative liberal democracy is, as Augustine might have put it, to mitigate the evil and increase the good, how should Christians vote in this by-election?
Pace the Bishop of Willesden’s pulpit persuasion, it is not (and has never been) the Anglican way to direct the faithful in how they should vote (indeed, ‘should’ and ‘ought’ aren’t particularly politically Anglican at all): those who tend the flock and feed the lambs incline toward exhorting the imperative of moral discernment and the virtues of the autonomous conscience. No political party has a monopoly on the expression of biblical ethics. As Bishop Pete observes, there are Christians in all the main political parties – with the possible exception of Ukip, he muses, because they are “racist” (and so, presumably, antithetical to all that Jesus taught about strangers, neighbours and friends at night).
British Christians are naturally diverse in their view of human society, and so divided in their politics and political allegiance. We may disagree on the means of forging lawful and responsible government, but we are united on the ends of justice, peace, freedom and righteousness. Unlike many in the US, we tend not to vote along contentious culture-war lines or claim to be conscience-bound by Scripture: despite Labour’s liberal stance on moral matters of sexuality, embryo research and abortion, for example, an awful lot of Christians (including a majority of Roman Catholics) still incline toward the belief that Socialism inhabits and expresses a more coherently righteous, pastoral and compassionate ideology, and so is more contiguous with the ethical teachings of Jesus and the New Testament.
But increasingly we are seeing the fracturing and fragmentation of traditional political allegiances and the rise of single-issue activism: a holistic view of creation and society is giving way to a culture of individualism and self-interest. While the majority of voters in Rochester & Strood will doubtless vote in a general election to strengthen community by protecting the NHS, improving local schools and reducing crime, it is clear that issues like immigration are challenging their sense of identity and stretching tolerance to breaking point. In this constituency, a Survation poll suggests that concern over immigration is second only to Health and GP services. And, for as long as the UK remains a member of the EU with its enshrined principles of free movement, no Conservative, Labour or LibDem candidate can do anything to mitigate or control the influx: when it comes to Greeks, Spaniards, Romanians and Poles, our borders are open and unmanned.
Sadly, few voting Christians will be overly troubled by Kelly Tolhurst’s antipathy toward Israel and her naive support for boycott and sanctions against the only democracy in the Middle East and the only country in the region where Christians may live safely, worship freely, and aren’t subject to racial, religious, economic or social discrimination. But rather more Christians might be deeply troubled by the widespread acceptance of sex-selective abortion, and the realisation that the absence of political dissent and the refusal by the DPP to prosecute reported cases amounts to a de jure acceptance of gendercide in the womb. Abortion law has seemingly been changed by bureaucratic fiat: the BMA is complicit in the belief that “the effects of having a child of a particular gender (ie female) are so severe to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman as to provide legal and ethical justification for an abortion”.
Those who are concerned by this appalling gender abuse and wicked breach of equality might be interested to know that Mark Reckless has been pursuing transparency and justice for years. In fact, he has been more vociferous about abortion than he’s ever banged on about Europe or immigration. As vice-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, his focus has been on the moral case for reducing the abortion time-limit because of medical advances. As a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, he interrogated the DPP Keir Starmer QC, demanding to know why, despite all the manifest evidence of crime and illegality, no doctors have been prosecuted either for authorising abortions without medical examination or terminating pregnancies because the foetus happens to be female. Here’s the video:
Bizarrely, Keir Starmer is of the view that the failure by the police and CPS to prosecute anyone for sex-selective abortion for over five years – including a high-profile case where the CPS agreed there was “sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction” – will make no difference at all to the number of girls aborted in the future. Despite being pressed to explain himself, the DPP babbled, squirmed and stalled. He did (eventually) provide the Committee with his promised reasoning for non-prosecution, but it failed to address any of the substantive points raised.
Contra the political articles of faith professed and preached by Bishop Pete of Willesden, Mark Reckless is a Christian Ukip-er – a Roman Catholic, to be precise (who is fully communicant with and a regular worshipper at Rochester Cathedral). He fought Rochester & Strood (/Medway) three times before winning, and so obviously knows the constituency just as well as (if not better than) the Tory local councillor Kelly Tolhurst. For Christians who care passionately about health, education, GP services, employment, transport, crime and anti-social behaviour, you’ll find little to distinguish Ukip’s Reckless from Tory feckless, Labour clueless, LibDem brainless or Monster Raving hopeless: in an election, all candidates will gush about their brand of motherhood custard and crusty apple pie.
But only one of these by-election candidates has a political solution to strengthen community cohesion by controlling immigration. And only one has a proven track record of pushing a deeply contentious moral issue, the consequences of which offend all who value life, justice and equality.
Occasionally one must move beyond tribal political identity and look to the individual. At least Bishop Pete is prepared to do that should a Ukip-er ever approach him about ordination. When such a scenario was put to him, the response was considered and reflective: “A UKIP-er is not a category of person,” he said. “The Church discerns the person” (except in the case of the BNP, but we’ll set that aside). If the Church discerns the individual’s calling, holiness, capability and compliance with the requirements of the ordinal, a fortiori should Christians discern each political candidate’s integrity, maturity, experience, philosophy and compliance with the requirements of the Bible.
Some Christian Tories (aka ‘Compassionate Conservatives’) might well cast a conscience vote in the direction of Frank Field, Tom Harris or Stephen Timms, notwithstanding the undeniable reality that Christian Socialists can’t quite bring themselves ever to reciprocate. A musing (on Twitter) that this by-election represents “a choice between Israel-hating @KellyTolhurst and gender-selective-abortion-busting @MarkReckless” received a revealing response from Bishop Pete, who volunteered (for he was neither cc’d nor RT’d) that he would vote for “none of the above”. For him, neither Ukip nor the Tories offer the best solutions in working for the Common Good; neither articulates a political philosophy that might bring justice. These things “don’t tend to be served by right wing ideology”, he insists. “The proof is in the way they govern. More poverty. Culture of blame. Inequality. Nasty.”
Of course, the Bishop of Willesden is entitled to his opinion. But, in expressing it, it must be observed that he exposes a deeply flawed logic and broadcasts a manifest contradiction. When it comes to judging a holy vocation, the Bishop discerns the individual. But when it comes to assessing parliamentary representation, no one who subscribes to or advances “right wing ideology” should even be entertained, for they invariably increase poverty, rouse the blame culture and perpetuate inequality. They are, in short, “nasty”.
But Mark Reckless agitates for the very ethical equality which helps to diminish poverty, dispel prejudice and alleviate the intolerable depression of blame. Of course, not all Christians see a candidate’s view on abortion or even sex-selective abortion as having parity with the evils of benefit cuts or the ‘Bedroom Tax’. But this Ukip-er simply wants the baby in the womb to be recognised in his or her full humanity; bestowed with personhood and a recognised identity. And he earnestly desires to see this right enshrined in law and apply equally in the womb to potential girls as well as potential boys. The fact that Mark Reckless would not attract the votes of certain Anglican or Roman Catholic bishops and clergy in this matter only serves to reinforce the moral virtue of his candidacy.