01 March 2010
Engage with the General Election
Parliamentary officer Daniel Webster explores the challenges and opportunities of the upcoming election...
A General Election is on its way and, five years after the last national vote, politicians are once again looking for our approval. Over the past year Parliament's reputation sank to a new low as, day after day for many weeks, a steady stream of fresh revelations were released detailing the ways politicians had used the expenses system for their own advantage. To be honest, it is very easy to look on in dismay and want nothing to do with politics.
A few Members of Parliament defiantly claimed that they only got what they were entitled to, and it was authorised by the appropriate offices. Most others, even those tainted by the scandal, acknowledged that their actions cut deeper, affecting not only their personal reputation but also the standing of Parliament and trust in politics.
Elections provide the chance to engage in the democratic system: to have a say about the way the country has been run, to offer an extension if we think the Government has done well, or to throw them out if we prefer an alternative.
For all the criticism that politicians receive it is crucial to remember that they are just people who make mistakes. They will try their best, but sometimes, like all of us, they will get it wrong. Democracy is essential because of our shortcomings, and elections give everyone the opportunity to have their say.
Party leaders will make speeches, announce policies, publish manifestos and plaster our billboards with marketing in an attempt to win votes. But it is up to all of us to decide who runs the country. Engaging with politics may seem difficult, even at times dirty, but we are ignoring our responsibilities as citizens if we step aside and refuse to get involved.
It is often suggested that there is no difference between any of the political parties that compete for our vote. That is simply not true.
We sometimes feel that it doesn't matter who we vote for, or even if we vote, because one party will win, others will lose, but nothing much will change. The fact is that sometimes it is in a party's interest to emphasise their similarity to other parties, especially when they are trying to win support. On other occasions clear lines of demarcation are preferred, usually to alert voters to the dangers of supporting the other party.
But we won't know this unless we get informed. The forthcoming campaign will be full of claims and counter-claims, what one party will protect and the others will cut. The dizzying array of announcements can overwhelm us, and it is easy to rely on what we have heard or read in the paper about what Labour, Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats are planning.
Four things we can do:
- Decide what the most important issues are - the ones that affect how I vote. What values and policy priorities am I looking for?
- Read what the parties have to say for themselves. Yes, they are trying to sell their package, but at least I can see it firsthand.
- Change my news habits, read a different paper or watch another news channel. They all come with a filter, so a variety will help build a truer picture.
- Visit the Alliance's General Election site for a comparison of what each party says about different policy areas.
Christians will support various political parties. We all see the world a little differently, so our priorities for Government will vary. Even where the outcome is broadly agreed, the means to get there can differ, and this is reflected in the presence of Christians within all the mainstream parties. Occasionally Christians will be encouraged to support one party over the others because of certain issues that Christians feel strongly about, but this runs the risk of missing the diversity of issues and challenges that make up politics in the UK.
It is also highly unlikely that we will agree with all the policies of any one party and that none of the mainstream parties represent our concerns. Even if it feels a little unsatisfactory, we must find the party or MP that most closely reflects our values and policy priorities and then support them.
It may seem like a big step, but think about becoming a member or helping out delivering leaflets during the campaign. Key decisions, such as who stands as the party's candidate, are often made by the local party members. So by becoming members we can have a far greater influence on who represents us in Parliament.
Steve Webb, MP for Northavon, is encouraging local churches to get together and make sure that hustings are taking place across their constituency. "This is an opportunity for the Church to bring together local people to quiz the candidates about their policies both for national Government and the local area," he says. "It may be the only opportunity that local people will have to listen to the candidates debating their views with each other, and it's an excellent way for churches to reach out to people in their local area at the same time."
It might sound simplistic, but in 2005 four out of 10 people didn't vote. Among those aged 18 to 24 only 37 per cent voted and almost as many people did not vote as supported either Labour or the Conservatives. And this was an improvement on the turnout in 2001.
Everyone casts his or her own vote, and it is important not to try and tell each other whom to support. However, this does not mean we should avoid talking about politics. In particular, we should encourage and help our families, friends and church congregations to get to the polling station on election day
For policy comparisons, a guide to holding a hustings and further information, visit: eauk.org/elections
For information about engaging as a Christian with Labour, the Conservatives and the LibDems, visit: christiansinpolitics.org.uk
Check out relevant books such as: Votewise Now! edited by Rose Lynas (SPCK), Just Politics editedby Krish Kandiah (Authentic), and God & Government edited by Nick Spencer and Jonathan Chaplin (SPCK).