Why Bother?



Why Bother?

I’ve had an interest in politics since the 1970’s. I was still at school in Harrogate when three things happened to trigger my engagement.

A General Election was called in 1974,  I was given a copy of Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Strength to Love’ by my English teacher, and was horrified by a teacher at another Grammar School who was standing as a candidate for the National Front. Influenced by these things, I went along to the hustings and listened intently and thought deeply, (well, as deeply as any teenage boy would do whose primary interests at the time were sport, girlfriends and a social life and in between, some schoolwork!).

I also remember taking part in one of the school debating society sessions which was a kind of mock election among pupils organised by the staff. The Conservative group won by a landslide as they did in Harrogate in the real General Election. I did however notice that as pupils registered their support for the candidates, it was by and large those from the affluent areas of the town who voted Conservative and those who came from the poorer areas, including the council housing estates, who pledged their allegiance to Labour. And the Liberal party, as it was known then, seemed to catch a mixed bunch of people but came third behind the other two.

What was an interest became more an involvement after I was married and a had settled as a pioneer minister on Teesside in an urban priority area in the 1980s.

It was here that I came to realise how government policies have an impact upon the lives of individuals and whole communities. I saw the consequences of Thatcherite, free market economic policies that ripped the guts out of Teesside and other parts of the north of England. Thousands of people were made redundant, many of them highly skilled and semi-skilled workers in the chemical industry, at the steelworks, in engineering factories and foundries, shipyards, mines and allied works.

Unemployment was huge, reaching levels of nearly 40% in our patch. As a church, we partnered with the Catholic Church and ran Christian Relay, an unemployment scheme operated under the Manpower Services Commission. Our Baptist church employed eight people, all on a part-time basis and just for a few months, but such token initiatives could not arrest the damage that was being done to individuals, their families and the wider community. Levels of domestic violence, alcohol addiction and the rise in betting shops, pawnbrokers, allied to the closure of so many businesses and myriad bankruptcies all contributed to a deterioration in people’s physical and mental health.

The attitude of the government was typified in the words of one prominent Cabinet Minister who famously directed the unemployed to “get on their bike and find work elsewhere”. An ignorant slogan that became quite popular, but which failed to communicate any understanding or compassion whatsoever for people who found themselves unable to move and resettle in the prosperous and booming, predominantly south-east of England.

The gap between North and South widened. The gap between the rich and the poor widened. Inequality reigned, levelling up wasn’t even a concept, thousands of people were simply the collateral damage of so-called progressive economic policies. Yes, those who could afford it had the opportunity to buy their own homes, funded in large measure by selling the nation’s ‘family treasures’. Our basic utilities, i.e. gas, electricity, water, were all sold and are now in the hands of mainly foreign investors and shareholders.

So when people say they are not going to bother to vote, “What’s the point?” and  “Politicians are all the same”, it really irritates me because they’re not!  There are values that underpin political parties, that shape policies, govern the way they look at the world. Dig deep enough and it’s not hard to discover the differences that exist.

But that’s part of the problem that we face today, which is ironic given that there is so much information available, (even though deciphering fact from fiction, truth from propaganda is not easy and takes time). People don’t think deeply enough.

As I’ve been campaigning and engaging in conversation with people on their doorsteps, in the streets, in the market squares and outside a football ground, I’ve encountered a range of responses. I have been pleasantly surprised in the main by people’s positivity and responsiveness to what I and others have sought to share. I’ve had some really good conversations with people, not all of whom are going to vote for the party I belong to, but they are people who are considerate and concerned about what’s happening in our society. I love it that we been able to have a discussion and debate, and even if we come to different conclusions there has been mutual respect.

However, I have been shocked, and on occasions have been disturbed, by some people’s responses. Two things in particular have shocked me. Far too many people don’t think deeply and are liable to make crass assumptions. Others carry such a lack of understanding about some of the basic issues facing society, what democracy and the political process is about, and what parties are purporting to offer.

But the thing that has discomforted me most and is something I have witnessed in every place where I have canvassed, are the levels of anger and vitriol that has so easily poured out of people’s mouths when the subject of politics is raised. The venom with which some people have spoken is frightening. Only one person has told me to “F…off” and that was before I’d said a word. He saw my red rose lapel badge and my canvassing leaflet and that was enough. I decided in the moment that the best response was to follow his instructions and left without offering him a leaflet! The vitriol however that came from him and several other people, mostly middle-aged or elderly, has been directed towards politicians generally. The exception, and this is what disturbs me most, is the level of support for Nigel Farage and the Reform Party.

I can appreciate people’s disillusionment, anger and apathy but behind this there are, in too many people I’ve met, some horrendously prejudiced racist, sexist and fascist attitudes. The lure of popularism, the propaganda of simple solutions is so compelling and so dangerous.

Waking up to the news of the Far Right gains in France was no surprise but nevertheless disturbing. The last time the Far Right gained power was in the days of the Vichy government who became collaborators with the fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany.

Taking part in the democratic process and voting is, I believe, the responsibility of any responsible citizen. And one thing is for certain: we are living in perilous times. The world that we have known is changing rapidly. We are in a place we’ve never been before which it even more important to listen well, think deeply and live authentically.

I conclude with these words that I came across recently a prayer, which I believe is attributed to someone from Tear Fund.

Heavenly Father,
Thank you for the opportunity to vote,
to hold leaders accountable,
and to express our values.

Grant us wisdom and grace in this process.
Bless the candidates in this election.
Fill their hearts with compassion,
a desire for justice,
and the will to serve people living in poverty.

Thank you for the UK,
for our freedoms and peace.
Uphold goodness and truth,
and help us to bless others.
In Jesus’ name,

Roy Searle

PS I’m voting Labour

Published on Roy’s behalf.

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About the Author

Craig Millward has been a Baptist minister for over 30 years and has extensive experience of the joys and challenges of church leadership.

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