“Faith communities are creating policy from the ground up”

Alt Twit logo 2Jon Cruddas MP

This article is part of a series on faith and finance.

On 23 October 2013 Public Spirit was formally launched in Westminster at an event which saw a panel of distinguished guests debate the question: ‘Can public faith help rebuild the link between morality and markets?’ In this response to that question, Jon Cruddas MP explains the influence religious organisations have had on Labour party policies on subjects such as the living wage and the regulation of payday lending. He asks how, after the financial crisis of 2008, faith-based organisations can help contribute to a new politics based not on ‘atomised market exchange’ but on virtue, and especially the cardinal virtue of compassion.

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Thanks for inviting me, and I just want to say how much I welcome this space, and this Public Spirit idea. I think it taps into something that could become a new centre ground in the public policy – in public discourse actually – and I really welcome that. I think for too long – and I speak about the Labour Party here – we have tended to vacate some of this terrain. I think that is true in a national sense, and very much a in the local sense too. In terms of the national picture, when I look at the Labour Party, I mean, we are going through a fundamental review of who we are, what we stand for, and where we come from. Why? Because arguably in 2010 we had a major collision with the electorate, and we didn’t come out too well, and that should force us into renewing who and what we are. Arguably we became far too remote, transactional, and we lost something which lies deep within the history of the Labour Party, that has at times been exiled from the Labour Party that I want to talk about in a minute.

We also have to acknowledge that historically we don’t do very well in opposition, in that we spend an awful lot of time in political opposition. So, for example, there are three great breakthroughs for Labour in terms of majority governments – they were ’45, ’64, ’97, and they followed respectively 14 years, 13 years, and 18 years in opposition. So we have to try and change that pattern by trying to fundamentally reconsider who we are. Also, and I think we have to be very clear about this, we are seeing across Western market economies, a profound crisis of social democracy, and what it means in terms of the modern welfare state. And arguably social democracy has become more transactional, and has been built around a sort of distributional model of justice that offers diminishing returns in terms of real agency on the ground. It can become, and refract into, a big state transactional model of political agency, which actually is at the expense of activity on the ground, and a sense of obligation and duties to others. Personal agency is abstracted and handed over to the state apparatus to deliver. The other issue is, obviously, in late autumn 2008 there was a profound global crisis of capitalism, an epochal moment that we are living through, an economic and social rupture. And that throws up all sorts of issues into the air, and I think that is all to the good.

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“The living wage has been mainlined into national Labour party policy because it has flown from the bottom up. The idea of the living wage emerged from conversations within faith communities.”

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So, part of my day job is to oversee Labour’s national policy review, which is trying to re-engage with a broader orbit of ideas and contributions and traditions, both within Labour in terms of our own history, but more broadly in terms of what is happening and percolating through wider society. And in that, our policy review is tapping into issues that flow out of local examples of human agency, built out of a sense of obligation and duties to others, which are actually confronting some of the issues of the market – the subject of the conversation today. So, two examples that are very live issues that the Labour Party has made policy announcements on very recently. Firstly, the living wage, which has been mainlined into national party policy because it has flown from the bottom up in terms of our policy making conversation. We in Labour have become more attuned to dynamic movements in communities across, primarily, East London. The idea of the living wage literally came from conversations within faith communities asking questions like: ‘What do we need to keep families together? What level of subsistence is needed in terms of transport costs, hourly pay etc., over and above the national minimum wage?’

The other issue I would mention is something that Ed Milliband talked about last week, which is modern forms of usury, and the notion of payday lending, which we are looking to regulate. And that flows out concretely from campaigns in communities, again in London, that have tried to confront the changing character of our high street. It emerges from some of the compound tensions that families feel – their shrinking living standards, their need for forms of subsistence and some kind of material minimum, and their desperate search for alternative forms of finance within that. This is a wretched indictment of where we are presently as a country.

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“In my family, when I grew up, the guiding lights weren’t Keir Hardie or Aneurin Bevan; they were the Kennedys and Oscar Romero.”

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Oscar_Romero_by_puigreixach
Oscar Romero

Now, personally speaking, this actually gives us opportunities to reconsider the essential character of the Labour Party itself. In my family, when I grew up, the guiding lights weren’t Keir Hardie or Aneurin Bevan; they were the Kennedys, partly because they were Irish and Catholic. There was also Oscar Romero because he was my mother’s favourite priest. The strongest quote in our family was, ‘Those with a voice must be a voice of the voiceless’, which is a call to hold to account our political leadership, on the basis of speaking on behalf of the poor and those who do not have agency. And that led me to join the Labour Party; it actually led my middle brother, Anthony, to join the Carmelites, so it sort of reflected the different sort of route maps into forms of activity, and that interlink between faith and politics as well. I really like the different language that this allows us to begin to re-appropriate around the sense of a common good. And it returns to issues of obligations, neighbourliness, duties, what it is to be human actually. It allows us to go deeper into basic philosophical conversations, and to me it seems that the future conversation will be between what is technically described as a sort of neo-liberal or a neo-classical position, which is built around a philosophical model of individual atomised exchange, where we are rational economic agents who are transacting around the world; and a more neo-Aristotelian position which is built around a politics of virtue, and the role of intermediary institutions in nurturing virtues that we want as a country, and compassion being a cardinal value within that. That seems to me to signal a really interesting dividing line in public policy and organisation and mobilisation across communities.

I am reminded of something that Karen Armstrong always returns to in her work on comparative religions and what underscores those religions – and actually a secularised humanism too. She always goes back to Hillel’s golden rule, where a number of pagans, quite cynically, said to the renowned rabbi that if he could stand on one foot and recite the scriptures, they would convert to his religion. To that, he stood on one leg and said, ‘Do not do unto others what is hateful to you. That is the Torah, the rest is commentary’. I think that is a really interesting way of looking at it: the rest is commentary. He has stripped bare the foundational elements upon which we rest, and that sense of duty. That collides fundamentally with that philosophy of atomised exchange, of individuals ricocheting around the world simply transacting with the aim of the pursuit of their rational choices between work and leisure.

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“We are living in the most challenging circumstances and it seems to me the agencies that are key are the faith communities; they are stepping up where other groupings are not.”

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That allows us into some very big philosophical questions that strike right to the core of, why we are here, what is life about, what is the relationship between markets and the common good, and what are our fundamental obligations to each and every person in humanity? That leads into issues of welfare reform, it leads into issues of basic public goods. Dan Singleton and I are involved, and actually Francis has been involved too, in a local project called the Good Society that we are trying to build in Barking and Dagenham. It responds to new challenges: the local state is being withdrawn, we’re losing 23 or 24 million pounds of funding every year from a variety of things; people are losing voice and agency through cuts to the citizens advice bureau and legal aid reforms; issues of subsistence are moving centre stage (I’ve got 14 food banks in my constituency, which is starkly telling about what is happening in our society). This raises the question of whether communities can come together to re-build innovative safety nets as those traditional ones are being withdrawn. Can we then work toward much more interesting forms of volunteering, reconnecting, rewiring of communities to create a more connected society?

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Barking, East London

In East London, in Dagenham, that came on the back of some of the work we did against the far right. We had 13 BNP councillors on the local authority out of 51, and we created quite an interesting coalition across the community – in which the faith communities were absolutely pivotal – to try and confront that modern extremism and rebuild that sense of a common good within a community. And it turned into, and is building into, local innovative campaigning around white goods distribution, food distribution, voice, agency, pro-bono support around migration rights, immigration, legal advice, housing advice, welfare advice. It is moving into issues of much more efficient forms of food distribution, trying to get a neighbour in every street across the community to be the point person to keep an eye out for. The aim is to try and reconfigure that basic wiring within the community – and actually, at the same time, challenge markets by socialising credit through support for credit unions, basic issues of subsistence, children’s goods, clothes, energy purchase. And that does challenge the penetration of the market into certain corners of our lives, actually. It is a fight against the unceasing commodification of our relationships, our children, our communities.

So, for me, this is a very important national conversation, and the all-party group[1] are doing some fantastic work here, and I think the time is right to really open this up, and that is why this conversation is key. But it also signals a real space for much more creative mobilisation and community campaigning on the ground. Arguably we are in some of the most challenging circumstances we will ever experience, with the collapse of living standards; huge intergenerational transfers; massive intercultural issues in terms of how we keep communities together in some of the areas where they are changing dramatically; and huge issues around rapid changes in welfare support and the safety nets that some of us thought we would rely on disappearing, in real time. That all throws up huge issues, and it seems to me the agencies that are key to all of this are the faith communities, and they are stepping up where other groupings are not. That throws up huge challenges for political classes as well as for all of us in terms of how we can maximise the social impact and nurture the best practise there, and learn from each other about what is best and what can work.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham and Rainham and head of Labour’s policy review.


[1] The APPG on Faiths and Society.

The image of Barking Supermarket is included courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image of Oscar Romero is included courtesy of J. Puig Reixach. Both images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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