Monday 20 April 2015

Politics II: Why You Should Vote

Somewhat to my surprise, I've discovered that I've become an evangelist for democracy. Or at least for participation in the democratic system.

In my last post I highlighted some of the principle problems with that system and argued that a cynical electorate was at least part of the problem. Those problems, some of which are certainly genuine issues, will cause many people to opt out of voting at all in this election. The Electoral Commission estimates that 16 million voters chose not to vote at the last election whilst the number of eligible adults who aren't even registered stands at 7.5 million.

If you're in the latter category and you are reading this today then I would endorse you in the strongest possible terms to take 5 minutes (I've gone through the process; this is literally how long it takes) to register to vote. You're under no compulsion to use your vote if you do this but you will at least give yourself the opportunity to do so. This to-the-point (but under-watched) video from the Electoral Commission will hopefully be enough to persuade you of the importance of registering. If you're reading this after midnight on 20th April then you should register to vote anyway for future elections.

The argument for registering to vote is, in my view, pure common sense. I want to go a step further in this post and say that you should actually take part. These points are hardly new or revolutionary. They've been made countless times, undoubtedly by people who are much more eloquent than I am. But I wanted to make them myself, partly because it just might convince one or two people and partly because I can now feel vindicated that I have at least made the attempt.

I've even broken it down into three bitesize sections. Aren't I considerate?

Broken Trust Shouldn't Stop You Voting

Often people say that they're sick of politicians because they've broken their word in the past. Promises have been made before an election and the politician hasn't delivered once they've been voted in. This makes the people who voted for them feel betrayed and the voter opts not to participate in the next election as a result.

To anyone who feels that way I'd say that that's a perfectly legitimate reason to vote for somebody else. By all means, give a particular politician or party a thumping in the polls in you feel that they no longer deserve your trust or confidence. The last thing you should do is abandon voting altogether.

Part of the problem is that we sometimes have unrealistic expectations of what our politicians can actually achieve. That doesn't mean that politicians don't sometimes let us down in a big way. As a voter from outside the political system the biggest weapon you have is voting for another party (even one which doesn't stand a realistic chance of winning). Giving up that weapon is the one thing that dis-empowers you as a potential agent of change. It's the last thing that anyone who is disgruntled with the current set-up in any way should do.

Apathy Doesn't Change Anything

This is the key question anyone who doesn't vote has got to answer: what does my staying away actually achieve? We can all agree that there are some fundamental issues in the world that need addressing: climate change, inequality, housing, the economy, Europe, immigration, education, healthcare, energy, constitutional change. Failing to vote on these pressing issues won't lead to any change in policy from the big parties. They'll only listen to you if you actually vote. Having an opinion on any of these matters is contingent on your participation in the process. Staying at home won't change anybody's mind. This is the core part of what I'm saying:

Dissatisfaction with the way things are should always result in more political engagement, not less.

If you're unhappy with what a party's suggesting then tell them. Campaign. Lobby. Argue. Better yet, join a political party and fight for change from the inside. If you can't stand any of the parties, stand as an independent candidate. Whatever you do, taking part's a necessity.

Ignore, and Ye Shall Be Ignored

The big parties are clever. They know the demographics of people who vote and they target their policies at them. The danger is that those who don't vote end up in a vicious circle. Policies aren't aimed at them so they feel disconnected from politics and don't vote...which guarantees that policies aren't made with them in mind. Younger people, ethnic minorities and the poor are groups which generally vote in low numbers and which subsequently bear the brunt disproportionately in political decision-making. This has been played out time and time again in recent years. If these demographic-groups voted in larger numbers this year then the spin doctors and election strategists would take note and we might see some fairer policies being developed.

Policy direction is determined by the folk who turn up on the day. If those who didn't vote knew this then they might be more willing to vote. Politics is a complicated business; I can totally understand people who say that all the figures and laws go straight over their heads. I'm not saying that non-voters have to become experts in fiscal regulation overnight. Educating yourself on the basic issues and what different parties are proposing doesn't take all that long. Decide what issues matter to you, find out which party has the best ideas on those issues and vote accordingly.

You have 18 days to make your mind up. Election day's your big opportunity to take part is which direction we go in as a country. Make sure you don't miss it.

Part II: Why You Should Vote

Saturday 11 April 2015

Politics I: If You're Looking for Problems, Look in the Mirror

With less than a month to go until the general election in the UK on May 7th I thought I'd undertake a series of posts about politics: why we complain about it and why it's important. Conveniently enough, that's a succinct summary of the two posts I plan to write that I've just given you. This first post's about the problem with politics.

Nobody seems to have any doubts that there is something broken with politics at the moment. 'Disillusioned' - that's the buzzword, isn't it? People are disillusioned with politics. Although I'm writing this with an eye to my own society here in the UK this seems to be a fairly systemic problem in most democracies across the world. Politicians are increasingly viewed as out-of-touch, hypocritical, arrogant and predominantly interested in drawing their salaries at the taxpayer's expense. Politician-baiting is very trendy at the moment. It's quite fashionable to believe that the blame for the world's ills can be justifiably laid squarely at the doorstep of Number 10.

I'm going to say something controversial, something which isn't going to be universally popular: part of the problem is down to us.

There's a reason why blaming politicians is so commonplace. It feels good. It's cathartic to believe that the issues we face as a society could be fixed if only the politicians pulled their fingers out. It feels good to go on a rant about how they're not interested in anything but scoring points and winning arguments. It puts us at ease to feel that there's someone else out there responsible for things not being the way we want them to be. And that's because it stops us from looking at ourselves; it takes attention away from our own unrealistic expectations of our politicians or our ignorance about how to fix complex problems. It's the easy option. Simplification and anger will always be more readily available than hard questions and measured responsibility.

I'm increasingly convinced that this tidal wave of negativity isn't actually benefiting anyone. It doesn't benefit the politicians because as soon as a Prime Minister is sworn into office they become Public Enemy Number One. Where only a week before the election they were the saviour of the country, one week after it they've shipwrecked everybody's trust and expectations. Our press plays a large role in this finger-pointing opera. Bitterness sells newspapers - why would the tabloids give the PM a chance?

Then again, the coin has another side. We don't benefit from the blame game either. We buy into the hype every election and allow ourselves to get worked up with unrealistic expectations about what our politicians can actually achieve. Then when reality hits we dig in the claws. What do we really gain from making our politicians superheroes when in opposition and pantomime villains when in office? It seems to me that we need to revisit more sensibly what we genuinely want the job of an MP to involve, what we want our governments to do and how we want politics to work. If showbiz charisma is what we cheer for before an election, will we hold back our regret when we're confronted with policy decisions afterwards? Can we reign in what we hope for so that there's a chance that we might actually get it?

One complaint that annoys me is when people say that politicians aren't "ordinary people". They're trapped in a "Westminster bubble", detached from "ordinary people's problems". Who the heck is an ordinary person when they're at home? Do they just sit around the house, oozing ordinariness? I assume that what people who say this actually mean is that politicians live in London or that they spend most of their time working in Westminster. These seem like pretty weak critiques. Lots of ostensibly ordinary people live in London, or Westminster for that matter, without being tarred with the sort of disdainful brush that politicians find themselves on the end of. And, when it comes down to it, I'd actually prefer the people who write our laws and represent us at the highest level to have the time to be able to do it properly and to have some experience in the Commons so that they know how to do their job. Once again, the criticism levelled at politicians just isn't fair.

What I wouldn't want to do is pretend that people aren't justified in some of their complaints about politics. There are areas where the system is broken and in need of change. People aren't just making a fuss about nothing. The problems partly stem from the negativity of the electorate but they also stem in part from politics itself. Here are four key reasons why I think people are justifiably upset:
  1. There's a lack of truly local representatives. This corrodes trust in local MPs. When politicians like Boris Johnson parachute into a constituency because they want to further their career and they've spotted a safe seat people feel betrayed. They feel taken for granted and dis-empowered. This could be fixed by parties insisting that candidates must have been resident in the area they want to represent for at 10 years before they can stand. MPs must have at least some roots in their constituency.
  2. Politicians have broken their word too frequently. Few things are more damaging than a broken promise. Politicians have often been too quick to make pledges which are quickly disregarded or downgraded when in office. There needs to be more serious thought given to how realistic promises may be to keep before they get made in the first place.
  3. There's a lack of trust in politicians to register expenses honestly. The 2009 expenses scandal is still a sore point for a lot of voters. Yet, even more recently, politicians have been caught seeming to exploit the system. Tessa Munt revealed on Question Time recently that 281 MPs earned a combined £7.4m in the last year from taking second jobs. The Spectator masterfully showed how the general public's resentment on this issue can sometimes be misplaced. Nevertheless, there's too much greed and too little passion for public service amongst some MPs.
  4. We have a broken electoral system. At the last election the Liberal Democrats gained more than 850,000 votes and still lost five seats. The Conservatives gained 2,000,000 votes and won an extra 100 seats. There's a fundamental injustice about the first-past-the-post system wherein more than half of the electorate's votes, including a disproportionate number for smaller parties, effectively get thrown in the bin. If we want to rebuild trust in politics then we probably need a new voting system that better reflects people's choices.
For the Christian, no matter how valid the complaints are, there's a deeper principle which is supposed to undergird our attitude towards politicians. Exodus 22:28 forbids the cursing of a leader and Romans 13:7 invokes Christians to "show honour and respect to them all". The meaning's clear enough: you don't have to like your leaders, you don't have to agree with them, you don't have to vote for them - but you do have to honour them. All too often, the words spoken against politicians have tended towards cheap insults. We're allowed to take issue with what politicians say, and do it forcefully. Let's never allow our opinions to stray into disrespect.

In summary, politics may have its issues but we also need to recognise the frailties and errors in our own judgements towards politicians. We've got to adopt a different approach if our criticisms to mean something. We owe it to ourselves to be specific in our complaints: I have an issue with this politician because... Otherwise, politicians can afford to ignore our feelings because they have no substance. Anyone can throw an insult. Look into the issue. Be informed. And be involved.

Part I: If You're Looking for Problems, Look in the Mirror

Tuesday 31 March 2015

In Defence of YOLO

I usually have to confess to not usually being very #downwiththekidz but that doesn't mean that the newest cultural turn of phrases are entirely lost on me. For some years now I have been aware of YOLO: you only live once, for the uninitiated.

It doesn't sound very godly, does it? All this jumping off cliffs and making headstrong, impulsive decisions because, y'know, YOLO, man. (I'm going to stop with the 'I'm not a teenager any more' self-deprecation at this point). YOLO would seem to be a recipe for disaster - or, if not for disaster, at least for a shirking of the measured, principled and rather mellow life that ostensibly marks out the Christian as a man of virtue, not easily swayed by the tides of the world. A step made in haste, we would generally conclude, is a foolish one. No, no - the walk of Christ is instead marked out by patient prayer and humble submission.

A pirate's life for me? No, thank you. Or at least I'll pray about it.

As I've already hinted at, I wouldn't usually consider myself to be the foremost advocate for YOLO. Yet I'm not altogether convinced that the alternative which I've set out, somewhat clunky and satirical though it is, is a more Christian alternative.

When I was 16 I went to a youth camp where the main theme of the week was faith. Somebody gave a talk where they said that faith is spelled r-i-s-k. Part of me wants to dismiss this as a tossaway platitude. But I can't help feeling that, in much the same way as YOLO, it actually has something to contribute as a viewpoint. Or even as a slogan for life.

When did we allow 'thinking about it' to be a stand-in for faith? It's a really poor substitute! Does the Scripture say, "It was by faith that Abraham fully evaluated his options before eventually concluding that leaving the land of his forebears was actually the right thing to do"? (It doesn't, for the record). Faith doesn't bring with it any guarantee of success. Heck, for that matter faith doesn't bring with it any guarantee of dignity, security or an easy life. I think that often it's meant to be edgy, unintuitive, unnatural but still right. Often it calls for a trust which doesn't make any sense, which we wouldn't have if we gave ourselves half a chance to change our mind.

I don't want to endorse the other extreme either. I have no intention of embracing the aimless hedonism which YOLO often implies. There are plenty of actions which are stupid, and no less stupid because they were done with a devil-may-care attitude. The fact that the devil actually does care is one good reason why mindlessly applying YOLO to any given situation isn't a good idea. And there most certainly is a place for measured and careful decision-making, for treasuring wisdom above the superficially appealing. Thankfully, we don't always have to make our minds up in the blink of an eye. 

I think, though, that I'm in danger of being altogether too comfortable with my 'careful now' status quo. I'm reminded that our mortality as humans is not only a truth but a very Christian truth. One could even make the (pretty spurious) case that Jesus in actual fact coined the idea of YOLO 2,000 years ago. The principle that we only have one life to live should make us think more carefully, not more recklessly, about what we are in actual fact living for. "This is your life, and it's ending one second at a time" - so runs one of my favourite film quotes, from Fight Club. It may be morbid but it's as undeniable and it is unpalatable. The truth is that we do only get one life this side of heaven. Whether we spend it in manageable safety or radical trust has got to count for something.

Some time ago I jumped off the bridge that connects Zimbabwe and Zambia at Victoria Falls with nothing but a bungee cord keeping me from a 100m+ plunge into the icy depths below. A true YOLO moment if ever there was one. Whilst I was waiting to get to the front of the queue I saw quite a few people, including some friends of mine, successfully make the jump. Some people were certainly enjoying the luxury of time on the edge to psyche themselves up and put themselves in a proper frame of mind for what they were about to do. When you walk out onto the platform which you're about to jump off a certain tingling engulfs the stomach, no matter how determined you are to go through with it. I remember stepping up to the precipice and feeling a sense of blind panic as a man put his hand on the small of my back and said, "Right - 1, 2, 3...". All rather quickly. What?! What about getting my moment on the edge? The same moment you gave to that lady ten minutes ago. All those thoughts disappear very rapidly as your mind concentrates on the whole falling-through-air thing.

But how's that as a definition of faith? Making the jump, insane though you feel, with or perhaps especially without the time to weigh up your options, trusting beyond hope in the reliability of the bungee-cord that you're tied to and which will very shortly bear your full weight, wrenched utterly from the securities of having things under your own control.

Life doesn't always deal you rock'n'roll cards. But then YOLO needn't be about stories to tell the grandkids; it can be a lifestyle of healthy divine dependence which lasts all the way through this life and into the next.

Friday 2 January 2015

Forget Ye Merry Gentlemen - At Christmas We All Need A Rest

It's the time of year when many people are beginning to move back into the normal rhythm of things after a well-earned seasonal slumber. Christmas is supposed to be our annual period of national hibernation, where we retreat from the demands of our everyday lives to rest and to spend time with the people we care about. That's what it's supposed to be. Is it really most people's experience?

I spent most of Christmas Day morning this year asleep. My family and I had gone to a Watchnight service on Christmas Eve and I was pretty tired. I was also tired because of my Christmas job, which meant that I was working on both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. I was in need of rest. Let me say in passing that you can only appreciate the true carnage of the winter sales once you've worked in retail on Boxing Day.

There are two common reproaches which are commonly heard within Christian circles regarding Christmas. One is that Christmas has been secularised, that we've lost the true meaning of the celebration over the years by editing God out of the story. That we need to 'put Christ back into Christmas'. The other is a complaint about consumerism, that all the shopping and the presents and the ensuing financial burden isn't healthy for us. We make these criticisms with a smile, of course, lest we be accused of being Scrooge-like party-poopers. The anti-secularisation and anti-consumerism agendas may have a lot to recommend them. But I wonder if, by coming back to them year after year, we may have missed an equally harmful trait about how we celebrate Christmas as a culture: a lack of collective rest. I'll stay clear of the other two complaints in order to focus on this third problem.

It used to be that Britain largely ground to a halt over Christmas. Doctors and nurses continued running our hospitals and the emergency services remained on standby. But, mostly, people were given time off to spend with their families (unless, of course, I'm pining for an ideal that never was?). Recently, however, the number of occupations that require people to work during the holidays has sky-rocketed - not just paramedics and support workers but droves upon droves of sales assistants.

If there's any indication of the corrosive lack of rest in our culture then it is the phenomenon of the Christmas Day sale (apparently partaken of this year by 8 million people). Call me traditional but the thought of minimum wage workers trudging around industrial warehouses, packaging parcels for overenthusiastic consumers, makes me more than a little depressed. It makes you wonder what the point of the whole occasion is. Are we meant to look forwards to Christmas Day itself, which the shops have been building up incessantly since October? Or to the sales which begin immediately afterwards? Are we supposed to have a day off to enjoy or should we spend it shopping on our phones during Christmas dinner? Perhaps between Super Saturday, Manic Monday and Slap-yourself-silly-and-buy-yourself-an-ipad Sunday we've failed to notice that the retailers have tricked us into getting worked into a frenzy. (OK, maybe I've allowed myself the tinniest of attacks on consumerism after all...).

What's the antidote to this mania of doing-things-ness? I believe that it's God's principle of Sabbath. The term Sabbath refers to the Jewish custom of stopping work - not just for the well-off but for the slaves as well - once every week (Exodus 20:8-11). In addition to this weekly Sabbath God ordained regular festivals throughout the year which would cause people to leave their agricultural work and travel to Jerusalem (Leviticus 23). The word 'Sabbath' comes originally from the Hebrew verb shabath, which means 'to stop', 'to cease', or 'to rest'. God instituted Stop-Days and Stop-Festivals to make sure that His people received rest. It's like that point in an exam when the examiner tells everyone to stop writing. Or like the klaxon that signals tools-down at the end of a working day (immortalised for me in The Simpsons titles sequence). 

Although it isn't overtly biblical, perhaps we should revert to making the Christmas period our national festival of rest. Where we forget buying things or organising things or going to work for a time and just stop. Perhaps we need to recapture the old sense of the 12 days of Christmas (and incorporate that into our employment law). Whatever we do, God knows that we all need a proper rest. He genuinely does - and that's as good a reason as any to make sure we get one.