In response to the recent bishops’ letter offering guidance on voting in this year’s general election and calling for engagement with the political process, we asked two Catholic Voices speakers active in the Conservative and Labour parties to interpret the letter in the light of their parties’ platforms. Yesterday Peter Smith made the case for voting Conservative. Today, MARY CLARKSON urges voting for Labour.
(We would be delighted in future to publish well-argued pieces urging Catholics to vote for other parties — or which seek to apply the bishops’ letter in other ways. If you would like to respond or comment, please email us at [email protected].)
As a Labour councillor, I’ve been spending a lot of time recently knocking on doors and listening to people’s concerns. A lot of people really don’t know yet which party they are going to vote for. Above all voters are searching for politicians who will inspire hope and appeal to the very best in human nature. They are searching for the kind of politicians whom Pope Francis speaks of in Evangelii Gaudium:
I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots … of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.
Very sensibly, the Bishops’ Letter about the General Election advises Catholics to vote for the candidate rather than simply for a political party. I believe that this is a time when we should keep the Holy Father’s image of a good politician in mind and vote above all for those candidates who aspire to the Pope’s vision, even when we may disagree with some of their party’s policies.
While supporting the Bishops’ advice to vote for the candidate, not the party, I want to explain here why I believe that the Labour Party is the party which come closest to building the kind of just society outlined in Catholic Social Teaching.
Respecting Human Life
The Bishops’ Letter reaffirms the Catholic Church’s belief in the sanctity of all human life, from conception to natural death.
Labour MPs have tended to support easier access to abortion and for many Catholics this has been a serious obstacle to voting Labour. But support for more relaxed abortion laws is not Labour Party policy. Nor is any other party likely to make a commitment either to reducing the time limit for abortions or to repeal the existing Abortion Act in the next parliament. Being pro-life should never simply be about restricting abortion. It should also be about creating a society where no woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy would ever choose it as an option.
In the previous parliament, Labour increased maternity leave and gave mothers the right to return to work on a flexible basis. It has promised to increase the number of hours of free childcare from 15 to 25 hours. It also plans to renew the Sure Start programme, which offers support to vulnerable parents and helps to narrow the gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds. All these schemes make an unplanned pregnancy seem far less of a disaster and make it easier for women to support themselves and their child. They also help women to use their God-given talents in the service of the wider community as well as in the role of loving parent.
Unlike the Conservative Party, the Labour Party would not consider limiting benefits to families with three children only. This proposal would place families in real hardship, would harm some of our poorest children and may lead some parents to consider abortion.
The Bishops’ Letter rightly highlights the plight of ‘the frail elderly person needing care and facing the frontier of death’. As Catholics, we are concerned with the whole person: physical, spiritual and social. The Labour Party’s proposal to bring health and social care with one point of contact will help to focus on the unique needs of each person, often enabling them to stay within their community rather than in hospital.
Marriage and Family Life
One of the worst evils facing families today is that of insecurity. Poor families are often moved around at short notice by landlords; their children’s education suffers from being moved from school to school. As Catholics, we believe that such insecurity can undermine the stability which is needed for happy family life. It prevents people from becoming part of a supportive community. The Labour Party aims to address this by making secure, three-year tenancies the norm in the private rented sector and by building 200,000 homes by 2020.
As Catholics we believe that families are usually the best people to love and support each other. Most families dearly want to be able to help disabled relatives and to provide a home into adulthood for their children. Some will come home after losing a job or at the end of a broken relationship. The Under-Occupancy Charge (or ‘Bedroom Tax’) penalizes poor families on Housing Benefit who want to be able to provide a sanctuary for family members in need. The Labour Party wants to support families in caring for each other in this way and will abolish the charge.
Building Communities: better housing, living wages, and yes to Europe
The Catholic community in the UK is a diverse, supportive community drawn together from all parts of the world and united by our shared faith. There is much that our wider society can learn from us about welcoming immigrants and helping them to become part of the community. Blame and condemnation of the poor and of the outsider should have no part to play in our political life as Christians.
Much of the concern about immigration in the UK is driven by the sense of insecurity, which many feel, particularly in housing and in work. Putting the dignity of the worker lies at the heart of Labour’s employment policy, just as it does in Laborem Exercens. Pope John Paul II talks of the dignity of work and of the importance of work in order to provide for a family. In recent years, we have seen that dignity undermined as half of the households living beneath the poverty line have a member who is in work. Many working families simply cannot provide for each other as they would like. They rely on benefits in order to provide housing and shelter.
The Labour Party wants to reward hard work by encouraging employers to pay a Living Wage, which will give families more of the security they need. It will also restrict zero-hours contracts, which mean that employees often do not know from one day to the next what work there is for them, place the needs of the business above those of the person. They prevent people from building a stable and secure family life.
While I think that the Labour Party is right to offer more free childcare, it is important that this is matched by fair wages. Without this, working parents become stuck on a treadmill of low pay and long hours, when many would prefer fairer wages and more time with their family.
The insecure working conditions which many British people face are also inflicted on many immigrant workers. Many are exploited by gangmasters and by modern day slave traders who illegally undercut wages. It is this undercutting of wages which causes resentment among British workers and pits them against immigrants. At the same time, it treats migrant workers as resources of little worth. By enforcing the National Minimum Wage and by cracking down on exploitative gangmasters, the Labour Party hopes to restore dignity to all workers, whatever their background and end the practice of blaming immigrants for poor living standards.
Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, it is too easy to take our peace for granted and to forget the Christian foundation of the EU, which brought European countries together to ensure that world wars never happened again. The Labour Party believes that the UK should be fully committed to Europe and not sitting on the margins. Reform of the EU which allows our parliament to have a greater say in EU-decision making represents the best way of making the most of our common European heritage while respecting the principle of subsidiarity.
The case for Labour
Catholic Labour MPs such as Rob Flello and the late Jim Dobbins and Paul Goggins have provided a courageous Catholic witness in parliament. They have been respected across the political divide. We need more voices like theirs. Tristan Hunt’s recent comments about nuns on the other hand betray a contempt for the Catholic church in some parts of the Labour Party. Its professed support for religious freedom and faith communities needs to be backed up by greater understanding, for example, of the role of our Catholic schools and the way in which we have led the way in integrating immigrants into our own community.
Catholic Social Teaching and Labour Party policy have much in common. The Labour Party’s proposals on dignity at work, supporting families and the poorest in society address many of the issues raised in the Bishops’ Letter. With the caveat on religious freedom and on the need to focus on the candidate, I believe there is a strong case for Catholics to vote Labour in the General Election in May.
[Watch Mary on BBC Big Questions (after 05:44)]