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27 October 2017

Giving our voice in public life

Giving our voice in public life

In a recent issue of idea magazine we spoke about how we can be generous in our contribution to public life. This included giving our time and resources to those in need, but also giving our voice to important political debates. From social reform at home to religious freedom and human rights abroad, evangelicals have - at our best - always been activists. How do we live out this legacy? 

First, here's an important qualification. Politics is not the only place where your voice can be heard: it's just one of the more visible places. Political activism - in comparison to other forms of activism - is like a shop window, the most public face of what's happening inside. For many people, it's the first and only thing that is seen. But there's not much point in it if there is nothing inside the shop itself.

Similarly, politics is an incredibly visible and influential way of bringing about change. But a credible political voice can only come from someone who is active in other, less well-publicised areas. How often do we hear criticism of politicians who are 'all style and no substance'? Similarly, our generosity in giving our voice must be backed up by generosity in other areas too.

But many evangelical Christians, churches and organisations are in fact making such a contribution in all sorts of areas. As good citizens we are to seek the peace and prosperity of our city (Jeremiah 29:7). How can we as Christian citizens make our voice heard in politics as well? Here are two questions you can ask and three things you can do.

Who represents you?

The first step towards getting your voice heard is finding out who your representatives are. Very few things are decided by referendum: in most cases we elect such representatives to make decisions on our behalf. These include your local member of parliament, local councillors, and sometimes others too: local mayors, members of devolved assemblies, and police and crime commissioners (PCCs).

So first find out who these people are - and commit to praying for them regularly (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Which party do they represent, if any? Do they have a particular role within that party, speaking out on certain topics? Does their website or social media presence reveal any issues particularly close to their heart? Can you or your church cooperate with them on anything?

You can find out who your MP is by typing in your postcode here: www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/mps/. The website They Work For You (www.theyworkforyou.com/) will also take you to a page about your MP, with a summary of their voting record, and a search function, so you can see the issues in which they take an interest.

If you're in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, you can also keep track of your representatives in the devolved assemblies via They Work for You. For local councils, as well as the London Assembly, there are fewer search tools available, but the relevant websites for these bodies will still be informative.

What are politicians talking about?

Your local MP may not be the only one raising issues you may care about. Again, They Work for You has a search tool, which allows you to find out where key words have been used in debates and questions to the Government. This is a good first step to finding the arguments that have been made around a particular issue in parliament. You can also set up email alerts on this site, to let you know when these key words are used.

Write to your MP

Christians write to their MPs or local councillors about all sorts of issues. Some of the issues will just affect a local area, but others could be a nationwide or international issue that many MPs are interested in. MPs are keen to hear from their constituents and will usually take time to respond. They may also want to meet you and discuss your concerns further.

Send your letter to [name] MP, House of Commons, Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA. You can also reach the House of Commons' switchboard on 020 7219 3000.

When writing to your MP:

  1. Find out about the issue. In particular, look up anything your MP might have said in parliament or in the media (see above).
  2. Be brief and clear. It's better to make one point well than many points badly.
  3. Be polite and respectful. Even if you didn't vote for your MP, and even if you disagree with them strongly, they are in parliament to act as your representative, and MPs take this duty very seriously. MPs are also human beings who get more than their fair share of hate-mail. In this context, a polite and respectful letter makes all the difference.
  4. Use personal examples. MPs get statistics and general points from lots of different sources, but specific case studies of how a policy is working (or not working) are rarer and more valuable.
  5. Keep in touch. If they act on your behalf, say thank you. And keep track of the issue as it develops in the future.

MPs will generally respond to all letters and emails from their constituents, and they generally won't if you don't live in the area they represent. This isn't because they don't care, but down to parliamentary procedure so they'll forward your letter on to your MP.

The exception to this are government ministers and opposition spokespeople, so if you're writing about an education issue it might be worth writing to the relevant people in the major parties asking for their views. If this is the case make sure that you're writing to them in that capacity rather than as an MP.

Many political campaigns use postcards and standard letters, or online petitions, to help generate a lot of support for their cause. While such campaigns can be effective, and the sheer weight of numbers can cause an MP to think again about an issue, usually a carefully written individual letter will be better received.

Respond to consultations

Your MP isn't the only way you can make your views heard to government. Periodically, when the Government is planning a new policy or law, the relevant department might run a consultation, or call for views. For example, the Alliance encouraged churches to write in to the Department for Education consultation on out of school settings, which received 18,000 responses.

Parliamentary committees also run consultations and seek views from people and organisations. These committees are made up of MPs or peers (members of the House of Lords) and they hold the Government to account by asking questions and writing reports on key issues. You can keep track of these inquiries via: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/inquiries-a-z/.

The Alliance's public policy team regularly submits consultation responses on behalf of UK evangelicals.  Why not become a member of the Evangelical Alliance and add your voice to thousands of others when we represent you and other evangelicals to parliament and the media? Join us here. But many consultations benefit from hearing the views of a wide range of individuals and organisations as well. 

All five of the points made on writing to your MP also applies to consultations. But here are three additional tips:

  1. Answer the questions. Consultations normally ask some specific questions about an issue. Make sure your answer is clearly relevant to the question being asked - this means it has a greater chance of being read.
  2. Write when you have something to say. While you should answer the questions where you know something relevant about them, don't feel under pressure to answer every question that is being asked - it's not an exam! Don't answer for the sake of answering; answer because you have an answer to give that will be valuable.
  3. Follow the guidance. Most consultations will give some instructions on word limit, formatting and deadline for submitting a response. Again, following these instructions makes it more likely that your response will get read.

Vote

Contacting your MP and knowing about debates are not substitutes for the foundational act of making your voice heard: voting. Make sure you are registered to vote (https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote) and take the opportunity any time you can - in local as well as national elections.


Did you know that when you become a member of the Evangelical Alliance you add your voice to thousands of others when we speak on behalf of evangelicals in parliament? It costs just £3 per month to be an individual member of the Alliance - why not join us now? Find out more: eauk.org/joinus