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25 February 2015

Question Time

"It's a tragedy that a teenage boy is more likely to have a mobile phone than a father at home."

Evangelical Alliance council member Fiona Bruce is the Conservative MP for Congleton. She got involved in politics after realising the world her two children were growing up in "could be so much better than this, and we have a choice: we can stand on the sidelines, or we can get involved." She walked down the road right then and knocked on the door of the local Conservative Association.

"This is the most uncertain election for over a generation. That's the exciting – and for some of us, unnerving – part. What it does mean is that every vote counts in 2015." There is a real sense that this election will be very different from those that have gone before, and Fiona is working hard to ensure she's a part it. 

So what does this entail? "Most weekdays I arrive in the House early morning, and spend the day in a number of ways: in Committee – I'm on the International Development Select Committee, or in All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) meetings – I'm chair of the all-party pro-life group in parliament and of the strengthening couple relationships all-party group, and co-chair of the APPG on North Korea, which works to expose and challenge the abuse of human rights in that country – the most persecuted on earth. During a typical day in Parliament, there may be questions to raise of a minister in the chamber of the House of Commons, or a debate to attend or prepare for. Later in the day there will be voting, and evenings are spent answering constituents' emails in my office – I generally leave the House sometime after 11pm, hopefully for a good night's rest." 

So with all these commitments, what's Fiona's priority in Westminster? "Defending and fighting for the sanctity of human life," she answered. 

But she does try to slow down at the weekend. "Fridays and Saturdays are completely different, spent in my constituency in Cheshire, holding surgeries, listening to and tackling a wide variety of problems for constituents, and perhaps visiting a school, business and community groups. Sundays I try to spend at church and home, so my wonderfully supportive husband can remember that he has a wife!" 

Being a Christian in politics isn't as hard as people imagine, she said. As a member of parliament, you're expected to have a worldview, and the Christian worldview is clear and consistent. It's also meant making decisions has been much easier than would otherwise have been the case, and "because at the end of the day I endeavour to 'play to an audience of one'." 

In fact, being an MP has "hugely strengthened" Fiona's faith. Christians in parliament hold regular meetings with inspirational speakers, and services in the Commons chapel, and Fiona has a group of MP friends who are strong Christians, that she meets weekly for Bible study and prayer –"they're my parliamentary house group." Fiona says she's also experienced her faith strengthening through answered prayers on issues such as the global persecution of Christians, which was little spoken of when Fiona first entered parliament in 2010, but is now frequently raised, and is high on Foreign Office ministers' agendas. Another prayerful success was the 10-minute Rule Bill. "I recently put it forward, clarifying and confirming that abortion on the grounds of the gender of the unborn child is illegal, passed by 181 votes to one." 

Family is clearly important to Fiona –personally and professionally – but says the state can never be a surrogate family. After the next election, she hopes to be a minister for the family in the Cabinet – "to help strengthen parenting, relationships and family life". Fiona said: "It's a tragedy that family breakdown costs £46 billion a year in this country – more than the defence budget – and that a teenage boy is more likely to have a mobile phone than a father at home. It's that kind of challenge that keeps me motivated in politics." 

Motivation is not something one questions in Fiona Bruce. Winner of a Business Woman of the Year Award, founder of Fiona Bruce &Co LLP in Cheshire, a community law firm employing 30 staff and 15 lawyers and patron of a school in Tanzania. 

She really does do it all.

"I was running a church until just before I was elected, there's not many people who do that."

Evangelical Alliance council member Gavin Shuker is the Labour MP for Luton South. He grew up in the area during the last big recession that saw one in ten local people lose their homes, and one in ten people lose their jobs. Gavin says it left him "with a sense that you can't just leave people to sink or swim".

After university, Gavin moved to his hometown, Luton, and planted a church, reaching out to those with little or no experience of church. "We found as we went after people with this limited experience of church, all these other things open up to us, ways we could take engage. Some people got involved with a charity for those involved in prostitution, others started to think about what we would do for the environmental challenges of the town, and I joined the Labour Party." 

It was the 2009 expenses' scandal that made his predecessor, a labour MP, stand down. "And so the challenge was: do I believe I have something to offer? This is my first job in politics I don't come from a political background." 

Gavin, with the support of his church, decided to take the opportunity, despite it looking unlikely he would take the seat. But in 2010 he won. There's cross-over between his old role and being an MP, though. "Fundamentally, it's about Luton. It's about the people there. I feel a great compassion for the people that I serve." 

So what's it like to be Christian in politics? "I have found it amazing, but it's not easy. Most people think you're probably crooked on some level if you're in politics these days. But it's about making a difference, and I think it you're a Christian in particular, you've got a few things going for you, such as a Christian community that keep you rooted." This gives a certain amount of faith accountability, that the things he's doing aren't just what you want to do, but they're the right thing to do. 

"But ultimately, you also have a knowledge that you're loved by God, and that means it's ok to fail –He still loves you." That Christian community he finds in the church he led before moving into politics is a key part of his journey. "But it is hard, the reality of an MP's life is a 70 or 80 hour week. It's a lot of time away from your family." 

"Politics can be quite isolating, so if you can find a community that supports you, a sense in which they hold you accountable at some level and they're there for you as well, that makes a difference. That's the biggest thing that churches can do for those getting into politics," he advises. 

Gavin feels called to politics, and urged the Church to recognise calling to all fields. "On days that are really hard I have to remember that God has called me to this job," he said. "Our society mistrusts politics and politicians in the same way they mistrust other institutions – look at the banking crisis. We see questions asked about institutions we used to trust – including the Church." 

The key is engagement – changing it from within, as it's not those with the least that are hurt the least, it's those with the least that are hurt the most. "You know, when the market is given completely free reign and others step back from trying to exert their power there, it's those who are the poorest in our society that are hit the hardest. Looking at the banking crisis, the richest have pulled out of this recession quite well actually – the poorest are still lagging behind." 

So what's the biggest challenge about being a politician? "I think the biggest challenge has been to remain soft-hearted in light of the fact that you have to exist in a world where you need a thick skin." He says holding on to his compassion is key.

"We may all be frail, but liberals tend to view the human condition as being inherently positive." 

Stephen Lloyd is the Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne and Willington. Growing up in Africa triggered an "interest in issues around fairness and human dignity", but it wasn't until an episode of Newsnight some years later that Stephen, after getting more and more exasperated, "spontaneously decided that he must either 'put up' or 'shut up'!" 

Believing both in the importance of business and enterprise being married with a real sense of equality of opportunity and access for all, Stephen's always been a small-L liberal. "The liberals' philosophical concept includes a combination of both these important elements, which is why, despite the challenges in a first past the post electoral system for the third party, I decided to become really involved in politics." 

Stephen sees the "very marrow" of the Lib Dems as viewing humanity as "basically optimistic and good". He said: "We may all be frail but liberals tend to view the human condition as being inherently positive. We also, as a political creed, don't believe there is only one way to solve a problem. It's not a case of the public sector being 100 per cent right and the private sector 100 per cent wrong, or vice-versa. We believe the important issue is to do what actually works, rather than being dogmatically prescriptive about the 'how' of getting there." 

In Westminster, Eastbourne and its prosperous, happy and confident long-term future is his priority. On a national level, his key drivers include apprenticeships, the dignity of work, the green economy, small businesses and equality of respect towards each other, both as individuals and nations. 

"I have a profoundly strong faith in God, which is central to my daily life. I don't find this to be a problem in anyway, and in fact, see it as a tremendously valuable and important part of trying to be a decent and hard-working MP," Stephen said. 

But he admitted: "The political class in the UK has lost the respect of a large section of the British public, and we have to earn it back the hard way." He said it is up to politicians on a slow, incremental, case by case basis to turn this perception around.

"If people voted according to policy, more would vote Green than for any other." 

Caroline Lucas is the only Green MP, but she's hoping for some "Green company" after May's election. She represents Brighton Pavilion, and hopes that during the next parliament "collaboration won't be a dirty word". 

Caroline's political commitment to environmental concerns began in 1986 by reading Seeing Green by Jonathan Porritt. "His book suddenly made clear to me how all the social and environmental justice issues I cared so deeply about were underpinned by the political process. The Green Party offered a political solution," she said, joining the day she finished the book. 

Her priorities in Westminster range from reform – "the system is alarmingly archaic, it's incredibly inefficient, and there is far too much power in the hands of the whips," – to challenging the government's austerity programme, and of course, to action on climate change. 

But as the only Green MP, can she make a real change? "There have been many small, and a few bigger, victories. But on a daily basis in parliament, and perhaps this is more important, I've been able to be a voice that holds those parties to account – and to push them further when they need pushing." 

Our survey shows many evangelicals are switching to vote Green. Why? "The Scottish referendum certainly reignited an interest in politics. There was a sense of urgency born of the fact that every vote really did matter. People had a voice, they had real power. Whatever your view on it, it was democracy in action." 

Caroline thinks the Greens' exclusion from the TV debates sparked outrage, and the "unfairness of it captured people's imaginations". But the increased media attention drew led far more people to find out what we stand for, she added. "There's a widespread sense of disillusionment with the establishment parties - people are looking for a positive alternative." 

"If people voted according to policy, more would vote Green than for any other," Caroline claimed, saying the Green Party consistently tops the polls in terms of policies when people take a blind test. "And at the heart of our policies is a commitment to compassion and justice." 

The Greens are enjoying a staggering surge, with membership growing at a faster rate than any other party. "It's a hugely exciting time, and May will be very interesting…"

"Only a new insurgent party, UKIP, can wake up the cosy cartel called Westminster." 

Douglas Carswell is the first UKIP MP, after defecting from the Conservative party last year. He represents Clacton. Some have commented that UKIP is incompatible with Christianity, but he calls this "daft". Douglas says the UK needs change, which won't be achieved through the establishment parties. 

When Douglas left the Conservative party and resigned as MP in August 2014, he stood in a by-election, which saw him re-elected, but this time on a UKIP ticket. "I came to realise that its Westminster-wing isn't serious about the sort of changes our country and society desperately need. Britain is run by cosy cartels, from banking and business, to energy markets and environment policy. The Conservatives have deliberately decided not to make the changes we need for a fairer, better Britain. Only a new insurgent party, UKIP, can wake up the cosy cartel called Westminster." 

Douglas says his constituents are his main focus. "Every Monday morning I focus 100 per cent on dealing with casework. I'm always available for local people. Only once that is done do I think about anything else. Clacton folk are my bosses and I must never forget that." 

Our survey showed a fivefold increase in the number of evangelicals intending to vote for UKIP: "Knowing that is very important to me at a personal level. There is an appetite for change - sensible, credible, respectable change," Douglas responded. 

He admits that "politicians cannot be trusted". This is not because they are necessarily bad people, he clarifies: "rather, a rotten system run by Westminster whips encourages good people to do bad things. This is why we need real reform. Voters need a power to recall MPs to face a by election just as I faced re-election in the Clacton by election. That would make MPs answer outward to voters, not inward to SW1." 

And what are his hopes for the next parliament? 

"Reform - of politics and the economy. The unaccountable concentrations of power that prevail in this country and hold our society back, need to be broken open. Until 1968 it was illegal to put the name of a party on a ballot paper. The law expected you to vote for a person, not a party. I hope that one day we have reformed politics to the extent that it's a choice between people again, not corporate parties."

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