In response to the recent bishops’ letter offering guidance on voting in this year’s general election, we asked two Catholic Voices speakers active in the Conservative and Labour parties to interpret the letter in the light of their respective parties’ platforms. We begin with PETER SMITH for the Conservatives. If you would like to respond or comment, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org; we aim to publish a selection, together with replies from our ‘candidates’.
The recently published letter from the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales sets out a list of questions and summaries of Catholic Social Teaching to guide voters as they make their choices this May. Using the template: why, in good conscience, should Catholics vote Conservative?
In short, because the Party’s policies since 2010 tackle many of the ills specified by the bishops against the backdrop (although unacknowledged by them) of the longest recession and deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Although the manifesto for 2015 has yet to be released, this common cause will continue.
Pro-life, pro-marriage backbenchers
In those cases where the leadership has diverged from Christian principles, look to the backbenches to find a party whose members are very much in tune with the spirit of the bishops’ letter. In the majority of constituencies, the candidate most aligned with a Catholic’s “concern with the dignity and value of human life and human flourishing” will be the Conservative.
The bishops’ paramount concern is protecting human life from conception to natural death. As a party, the Conservatives have a less-than-perfect record, for instance supporting the licensing of mitochondrial DNA transference and the creation of so-called ‘three parent’ embryos (a measure wholeheartedly supported by Labour). Yet more than half of the MPs opposing the measure were Tories. Backbench Conservative MPs like Nadine Dorries, Sir Edward Leigh and Jacob Rees-Mogg fought strongly to lower the time for abortion in 2011 and 2012, and most recently Fiona Bruce MP introduced a specific ban on gendercide, a measure defeated largely due to unofficial whipping by Labour in the lobbies.
In Jeremy Hunt – who supported a halving of the abortion time limit to 12 weeks in 2008 – the Conservatives have the Health Secretary most sympathetic to the pro-life movement for many years. Euthanasia has been opposed throughout the Party, with David Cameron recently expressing his “grave doubts” over assisted dying after Lord Falconer introduced his Bill in the House of Lords.
Although same-sex marriage was introduced by David Cameron, more Conservative MPs voted against its creation than for it (and the measure was only passed thanks to the overwhelming support of Labour). The bishops expressly link marriage to poverty in their letter, as does Conservative policy. A gentle restriction in child benefit was required by the cut in government expenditure under the austerity programme, and the Chancellor’s support for childcare tax allowance gives flexibility for families where both parents need or want to work whilst protecting single-earner families. In April 2015, a married couple’s transfer allowance will come into effect, the first explicit recognition of marriage in the tax system since Gordon Brown scrapped the married man’s tax allowance in 2000.
A welfare revolution; tackling poverty
Although they mention those who “have to turn to the state for additional income”, the bishops do not expressly address the role of welfare. Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare revolution is in full swing. It aims to remove the ‘financial cliffs’ which deterred income growth – why earn more when you lose it through tax and withdrawn benefits? – while introducing ‘workfare’ and uniting the biggest entitlement payments into a simple and fair system, Universal Credit. Early pilot programmes have been largely successful and the country-wide rolling out is underway. The Conservatives must win to complete this transformation that makes work pay.
The National Minimum Wage was increased above the rate of inflation in October 2014, the first since the recession, demonstrating the compassionate Conservative approach to a living wage.
The bishops omit the biggest single poverty buster of all: a job. Unemployment is now half the level of the Eurozone average and has been falling steadily for several years now, and job security is improving (the peak of ‘zero hours’ contracts has been reached and will fall, undermining Labour’s plan to ‘ban’ them). As the bishops say, a “private sector has a vital role” in building communities at the “service of society”. It is the Conservatives who deliver the lower-taxed, lower regulated open marketplace that allows entrepreneurs to start and grow “thriving” businesses.
The bishops are right that the cost of living is high, although how high changes daily: in recent months, petrol prices have fallen substantially. But open competition between supermarkets have driven consumer prices down considerably over the past few decades, and, as Tony Blair’s creation of New Labour testified, private sector competition is the biggest single force that will lower the cost of living.
Faith schools safe in our hands
In education, the free schools revolution has raised standards and improved parental control over their children’s education – an excellent example of communities coming together in civic solidarity to create local institutions that make decisions at the appropriate level. Religious schools have been vociferously protected by Conservative Ministers and backbenchers like, in sharp contrast to the Liberal Democrats’ official policy of ending faith schools and dismantling the academies’ programme.
Europe: you decide
On Europe, the bishops acknowledge the pull between centralising solidarity and decentralising subsidiarity. Although David Cameron ducked a referendum in this Parliament, he has promised one for 2017. Conservatives can be found on either side of this debate.
The Big Society is alive
Some of the ills diagnosed in the bishops’ letter, like increased loneliness amongst old people and “overstretched” community services, are addressed best at the subsidiary level by “active citizens”: as the bishops admit, “it cannot only be left just to politicians or government”. The Prime Minister was much lampooned for his ‘Big Society’ initiative before the 2010 Election. What is clear is how few people know its full reach.
As well as the education and welfare components of the Big Society, the programme includes the Big Society Capital bank that invests in community projects, the Social Action Fund, National Citizen Service, Nation Scholarship Programme, Pupil Premium, Open Government and knowledge initiatives that put government data on the internet, elected police and crime commissioners, the creation and expansion of the Army Reserve, and Inheritance Tax incentives to give to charity. Numerous powers have been devolved to local authorities: the community rights to build, challenge proposals, and bid for local assets, and the advent of neighbourhood planning over regional planning strategies.
The Big Society priorities – of increasing community powers through devolution and localism, encouraging volunteerism, supporting co-operatives, mutuals, charities and social enterprises – are at the heart of Catholic Society Teaching’s conception of a virtuous community.
Asylum and immigration
On asylum and immigration the bishops express support for policies which fairly regulate immigration. Conservatives have allowed economic migrants from inside and outside the EU to come and welcomed genuine asylum seekers but have clamped down on benefits tourism and health tourism, closed bogus colleges, and introduced and enforced stiffer penalties on illegal immigrants.
Defending religious freedom
The bishops rightly bring religious freedom and the plight of Christians overseas to the fore. Military intervention in Libya, Syria and Iraq is fraught with difficulty, and any action must be co-ordinated and backed by international forces. Nonetheless, the Conservatives have repeatedly applied diplomatic pressure on countries that abuse religious freedoms, and are at the heart of initiatives like the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, chaired by Elizabeth, Baroness Berridge, and the Party’s Human Rights Commission.
Increasing funds for overseas development
On overseas development, after years of talk by all political parties, the Conservative government actually made the 0.7% Gross National Income target the centrepiece of international development. As a result, the budget of the Department for International Development has risen by a third since 2010, to around £10bn, and the standards and effectiveness of aid giving have increased substantially.
Conservatives best protect Christian values
In all, the Conservative party is not ‘the’ Catholic party; nor are any of the others. But it is the one which protects Christian values the most, whose MPs are on average the most sympathetic to Catholic Christian ethics, and whose policies do the best to deliver the virtuous and free society that Catholic Social Teaching demands, and the achievement of the common good.
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