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 have now asked those speakers to comment on their respective parties’ recently-published manifestos in the light of the bishops’ letter. Today, PETER SMITH writes about the Conservative Party Manifesto. If you would like to respond or comment, or if you are interested in writing another well-argued piece urging Catholics to vote for another party, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Conservatives’ Manifesto for the General Election has been released. Bearing in mind the list of questions and issues that the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales produced earlier this year, what does the Manifesto contain which might specifically interest Catholic voters?
The bishops began their letter by noting that the Gospel “teaches us to value each person”: the unborn child, the harassed parent, the suffering pauper, the teacher, the refugee, the prisoner, the geriatric, and so. Many of the Conservatives’ proposals can be considered under similar headings.
The Manifesto is 84 pages long, and the reader is referred to the detail therein, but here are a few thoughts and observations.
It is no surprise that the document leads with the recovery from the financial crisis and recession (something, I noted before, that the bishops chose to omit from their pre-Election guidance), and the Conservatives’ offering on the economy.
Concern for the poorest is never far from a Catholic’s mind, and the Conservatives make the right connection: as the Manifesto notes, “A decent job is the best weapon against poverty and the best way to provide security for families”.
On average 1,000 new jobs are now being created each day, as the Manifesto notes, with 2 million more jobs and 760,000 more businesses since 2010. The Conservatives aim to achieve full employment in the UK, and the highest employment rate in the G7, with a specific set of pledges aimed at abolishing long-term youth unemployment: support in finding jobs, coupled with measures to deter young people slipping “straight into a life on benefits without first contributing to their community.”
However, it is not just the quantity but quality of work that the Conservatives promise to improve: the first real-terms increase since the recession in the National Minimum Wage has happened, and there is strong support for further increases. There is also support for the Living Wage (a measure inspired by the Catholic tradition of the “just wage”), and the promise to “encourage” businesses and others to pay it “whenever they can afford it”, a fair balance between wanting to see non-inflationary rises in income without a disproportionate harm to small business.
Equal opportunities for disabled people are mentioned too: 140,000 found work in 2014 alone, but too many are jobless. The Conservatives aim to halve the disability employment gap, to “transform policy, practice and public attitudes, so that hundreds of thousands more disabled people who can and want to be in work find employment.”
The promise to “eradicate abuses of workers”, such as non-payment of the Minimum Wage, exclusivity in zero-hours contracts and the exploitation of migrant workers, may remind many of Jesus telling the 72 disciples that “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). Perhaps the Manifesto writers heeded Pope Francis’ call for us to be “‘missionary disciples’ who witness to the mercy of Christ through the faithfulness of our lives and the world we wish to build”?
As well as substantial income tax reductions aimed at the poor and those on the Minimum Wage, with 3 million people taken out of income taxation altogether, the Conservatives promise to continue rolling out the Universal Credit reforms to “reward hard work and protect the vulnerable”.
Under ‘support for the family’, there is the promise to “support you, whether you choose to go out to work or stay at home to raise your children”, and the clear statement that “We will back the institution of marriage in our society, enabling married couples to transfer £1,060 of their tax-free income to their husband or wife, where the highest earner is a basic rate taxpayer.” This is to be welcomed.
The promise is supported by at least £7.5m a year in “relationship support” to “help families stay together and handle the stresses of modern life”; what this includes is not elaborated on. Of course, what is really needed is a cultural adjustment towards life-long stability and monogamy, and one can be hopeful that this signals a wider Conservative approach to such reform.
Remembering that the Catholic Church opposes the criminalisation of homosexuality across the world, and indeed supported what became the Wolfenden Reforms that decriminalised homosexuality in this country, the explicit promise to pardon people convicted of homosexuality, whilst a smaller matter within the whole Manifesto, will find a lot of support amongst Catholics.
Amongst many promises on criminal justice and policing, the Catholic voter is likely to be most interested in the fact that 45,000 offenders now receive supervision and rehabilitation on release from prison, and that providers are paid according to the results they achieve in reducing reoffending, with the view to “making sure that prisons are places of rehabilitation.”
A whole section of the Manifesto explains how the Conservatives would achieve “dignity in retirement”. Largely these are financial measures explained through statistics and various increases in funding, but promises on capping residential social care charges, and allowing deferred payments funded through the sale of the family home after death, strike the balance between competing fairnesses: the need to pay for elderly care without undue disruption and a decline in living standards while still alive.
The Manifesto is almost completely silent on ‘life’ issues but it is good to see express pledges on comfort and dignity for the elderly that include better care for the terminally ill without recourse to the legalisation of assisted dying (a topic that, no matter who wins the Election, will sure to be debated yet again in the lifetime of the next Parliament).
A noticeable approach taken by the Manifesto is that it is a “plan for every stage of your life”. In his foreword, David Cameron sets out how a Conservative government would assist and facilitate decisions and opportunities, for the state to offer a crutch for virtuous citizens who intend on making the best decisions they can about themselves and their families.
A chapter is dedicated to “helping you build the Big Society”, which dovetails well with the Catholic conception of a vigorous civil society:
The Big Society is a vision of a more engaged nation, one in which we take more responsibility for ourselves and our neighbours; communities working together, not depending on remote and impersonal bureaucracies….This is about a national culture change, saying to everyone in Britain: ask what you can do for your community and your country.
Despite the recession, it is astonishing how Britons have responded to greater hardship with fewer resources: “Volunteering is now at a ten-year high, with over three million more adults giving their time last year than in the year to March 2010. Charitable donations are on the up, with one million more people giving to good causes than at the end of the last Parliament. There are now parents’ groups and charities running their own free schools. There are social enterprises helping people into jobs through the Work Programme.”
The Conservatives promise to expand National Citizen Service, continue public service innovation via social impact bonds, and make volunteering for three days a year a workplace entitlement for people working in large companies and the public sector. The Manifesto rightly states:
We have always believed that churches, faith groups and other voluntary groups play an important and longstanding role in this country’s social fabric, running foodbanks, helping the homeless, and tackling debt and addictions, such as alcoholism and gambling.
Following the bishops’ call for a balance between solidarity and subsidiarity, the Conservatives promise the repatriation of powers – mainly civil and political rights – and the maintenance of the free-trade area that was the spirit of the original EEC, providing a fair opportunity for intercourse between peoples across Europe. The major difference with the offering of other parties, particularly Labour, is that the British citizen will be able to express a view in a referendum held by a Conservative government.
As well as promising a fairer balance between controls on migration (e.g. preventing abuses of the welfare system), the Manifesto calls for a better promotion of integration and British values, and tougher measures to stop people trafficking and exploitation.
The foreign poor
Aside from specific defence and foreign policies, the Manifesto is quite detailed on how the Conservatives would “stand up for British values”, building on the intervention in Libya, assistance of people fleeing Syria’s civil war, and success tackling sexual violence in conflict. Particular focus is on protecting the rule of law and human rights in Zimbabwe, supporting the post-junta transition to democracy in Burma, and promoting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka and Cyprus.
There is the promise to “stand up for the freedom of people of all religions – and non-religious people – to practise their beliefs in peace and safety, for example by supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East”. A laudable aim, but the Manifesto is quiet on how this assistance will be given.
The Manifesto notes the dramatic increase in spending on overseas aid since 2010, and promises headline policies to reduce disease, improve education and nutrition for millions of children in developing countries (particular focus is paid to infectious diseases in the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak), “push for new global goals to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 and promote human development, gender equality and good governance.”
Amongst good pledges on promoting girls’ education, equal access to property rights, and tackling violence against females, it is disappointing to see a throwaway line on contraception when a focus on reducing infant and maternal mortality does not require this.
As always, the Devil is in the detail, but what is interesting is the promise to “help you fight poverty”:
Our International Citizen Service has given thousands of young Brits the opportunity to volunteer abroad. We will triple it in size. We will also double our successful Aid Match scheme, which matches donations to charity from the aid budget. We will boost partnerships between UK institutions and their counterparts in the developing world, and help people in the UK give or lend money directly to individuals and entrepreneurs around the world.
This is the natural end-point of the Christian obligation to help impoverished peoples, and the virtue of choosing voluntarily to do so.
The Manifesto ends by saying it is “underpinned by some simple Conservative values”:
Those who work hard and do the right thing must be rewarded. Everyone should be able to rise as high as their talents and effort will take them. We measure our success not just in how we show our strength abroad, but in how we care for the weakest and most vulnerable at home.
The Manifesto mentions the family many times as justification for policies from extending the right-to-buy to housing association tenants, raising the inheritance tax threshold, and even as an analogy for keeping the Union.
As I noted before, 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.
Its candidates and its policies should make the Conservative Party a natural home for Catholic voters in good conscience on 7 May.