Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Election Misdirection

Its a common tactic of magicians to use misdirection - get the audience's attention on one thing so that the real trick can be executed elsewhere.

This is a misdirection election. Directly after winning a Commons vote on his Brexit deal, Boris Johnson dissolved Parliament. Why? Because his only way of winning an election was to pitch the Conservatives as the Brexit Party, knowing that the Remain vote would be split and leaderless.

Take Brexit out, and who would win? Without 'Get Brexit Done', what else have the Conservatives had to say? Vague stuff about unleashing potential, statistically false claims about hospitals and nurses, and restoring police numbers to almost what they were pre-austerity.

Beyond that, as if reflecting the fact they have very little else to say, the Conservatives have disappeared from everything except their own staged events. Andrew Neil is the tip of the iceberg, they have systematically avoided interviews, debates and phone-ins throughout the campaign, Victoria Derbyshire noting this morning that following a month of daily requests not one cabinet minister has ever been put up to appear on her morning TV/radio discussion. People who avoid scrutiny have something to hide.

Labours use of the NHS has a big whiff of misdirection about it too, the documents released mid-term don't really prove its up for sale. Yes it's underfunded and stretched to breaking point, but like the Tories, Labour see in the NHS their own giant trump card that just about hides the other weaknesses in their hand.

This Sunday, Anglicans will hear of John the Baptists question from prison 'are you the one, or should we expect someone else?' Expecting a Jesus bringing judgement and upheaval, instead John suffers the limitations of the Herodian prison system whilst the hoped for Judeaxit from the Roman Empire is nowhere to be seen. Jesus reply: open your eyes. Notice what is happening - to the blind, the lame, the poor, the deaf, the excluded. The good news is coming first to the people nobody reports on.

Open your eyes. Don't follow the magic show. Notice what is happening to the poor, the disabled, the excluded, the hungry. Notice what is happening that politicians never talk about, in the very foundations of our society in families, parenting, culture, values. Notice the things that don't come down to money, and numbers of people employed to do x or y. Love, justice, the planet, kindness, truth. Notice the people that don't register - asylum seekers, food bank users, children in the care system, the isolated elderly, the people affected by UK foreign policy, the anxious and depressed.

Once you've seen how the trick works, its not magic. Turn away from it, and the daily insistence for the last month that this is all we should be noticing. What else do you see and hear? What else do you notice? If you remove the magic trick from the show, what else becomes important instead?

And please vote tomorrow.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

The Election - a Little Church of England Issue

Justin Welby is currently 63, and has been Archbishop of Canterbury for the best part of 7 years, since March 2013. His immediate predecessors were:

Rowan Williams retired at 62 after 10 years
George Carey retired at 67 after ll years
Robert Runcie retired at 70 after 11 years

Under the fixed term parliaments act, the next election after this one isn't supposed to be until December 2024, by which time Justin Welby will be 1 month off his 69th birthday, and will have been in office for nearly 12 years.

So based on recent form there is a very good chance that the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be chosen by Boris Johnson, or (long shot) Jeremy Corbyn. The former is likely to plump for a white, male privately educated Oxbridge graduate, given the opportunity, and the latter is likely to choose for a left-leaning female, given the opportunity. (update: I've been put right on this - the process is now that they get 1 name to approve, with another in reserve)

All the candidates will be capable - the shortlist of 2 traditionally given to the PM comes out of an intensive process of prayer, interviews, advice and selection. But neither potential PM is particularly keen on the church and what it stands for. Though being shortlisted for ABofC is one of my worst nightmares, it would be even more of a nightmare to think I was appointed to the job by a man who'd broken in letter or in spirit nearly all of the 10 commandments, and thought Christianity was a myth made up by a bunch of religious zealots on the fringe of his beloved Greco-Roman society.

Both have pledged some reform of the constitution in their manifestos, including this rather startling proposal from the Tories After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. ... In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.

Throw into the mix the age of the Queen, and the 'Defender of Faiths' line taken by the next in line to the throne, and there is quite a shake-up coming down the tracks. The end of the Elizabethan age will see a massive rethink about the role of the royalty, and once you pull at that thread it isn't long before you get to the Church.

Here's my take: disestablishment is coming, whether the good old CofE wants it or not. It has already started in lots of small ways - e.g. the series of changes to marriage law over the last 20 years. The question for the next Parliament is whether the church will get ahead of the curve on this, or be dragged along by events. The CofE needs its own vision of what a post-establishment Anglican Church could look like, rather than have one forced upon it by politicians who see neither merit nor votes in working with us. The Estalibshment of the church belongs to a previous age, it will go sooner or later, and as we have seen with attitudes to trans issues, the political and cultural weather can change very suddenly, and very fast.

Part of Justin Welby's legacy needs to be this: to get the Church of England thinking this through, and leading the debate, before a bandwagon appears from elsewhere - whether that bandwagon is driven by events, electoral reform, ideologues or royal succession. By then it will be too late to do our thinking.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

'Affordable Childcare' - parents?

The nationalisation of parenting continues apace: 
‘High quality affordable childcare’: all parties are promising it in various degrees. The Conservatives wish to extend wrap-around childcare at school and holidays for working parents. Labour promises an extension to 30hrs a week for two to four year olds and to extend provision for one year olds and the Lib Dems promise to deliver the best start in life for children by extending childcare provision at 9 months.
All these so called ‘family friendly policies’ are offered to mothers only if they agree to hand over care of their children to external settings and get out of the home. Care, which was once done for love and supported through family tax allowances, is now only recognised and supported if it is a traded commodity and measured as growth.
High quality long-term committed stable child care is a mother at home or a father or a grandmother – even a childminder in a home setting, but none of these qualify for any support. Economic pressures aside, spending more time with their children is what the vast majority of mothers want, and I daresay if one year olds could speak (some scream at the nursery door at being wrenched from their mother) is what they would prefer too.
But their voices are ignored at best or at worst misrepresented in political debate and policy circles. One freedom the ordinary mother no longer has is to choose to care for her own children: Mothers say choice is ‘virtually eradicated’ (Netmums: Great Work Debate) . 88 per cent of mothers with very young children said the main reason for returning to work was financial pressure’, according to the Centre for Social Justice.
And yet there is a clamour for childcare and a desperate need to help families struggling with debt, rising rents and living costs. Families are drowning and asking for a helping hand. They are not asking how they got into the river: they are too busy swimming to survive, and ‘affordable childcare’ appears to be a way to enable the mother to work to plug the income gap.
But is ‘affordable childcare’ the answer to relief from poverty? It is not – and unfortunately families will find out all too late that both parents are working very hard for very little extra disposable income. What they will have lost is family time; time with their children, which they cannot recover.
read the rest here

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Opinionated Vicar Election Awards

In the seasonal spirit of reviewing the year before it is completely over, here are some interim awards for the 2019 Election Campaign

The Where's Wally Award, for people conspicuous by their absence
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is exercising common sense, following advice and staying in his room.
Emily Thornberry. Apparently she's shadow foreign secretary. It can't look good if Labour think Richard Burgon will do a better job than you.
Diane Abbott. Apparently she's shadow home secretary

The Pinocchio Award
Charlie Cleverley, for the fake 'fact checking' Twitter account
Runners Up
Charlie Cleverley, for the doctored ITV footage
Charlie Cleverley, for the doctored BBC footage

The Who Do You Think You Are? Award, for odd choice of spokesperson
Nicky Morgan, not prepared to stand as an MP on the current manifesto, yet sent in against Piers Morgan to defend it.
Donald Trump, representing the Brexit Party
That Conservative guy on the BBC leaders debate last night. Who was he?

The Side-Of-A-Bus Award for creative mathematics
The Conservative 50,000 nurses pledge, which turns out to be mostly nurses who are already in post.
Labours claim that nobody outside the top 5% of earners will pay more tax. I earn less than the average wage and I will be paying more tax under Labour, because I'm married.

The Theresa May Award for avoiding journalists, and the general public
Boris Johnson, passing up 2 opportunities to appear on TV opposite other political leaders, and trying to wriggle out of the Andrew Neil 30 minute BBQ event.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Labours Race and Faith Manifesto

Fair play to Jeremy Corbyn, at least the Labour party have made a public statement of their policies relating to racial minorities and faith groups. The Conservative strategy, as evidenced by a manifesto roughly half the size of those of the other main parties, is that the less you say, the less you can be tripped up with.

Labours Race and Faith Manifesto, published yesterday under the shadow of the Chief Rabbi (of which more later), is a creditable attempt to analyse a major area of social injustice, and put policies in place to tackle it. Most of the manifesto is about racial inequality, expressed in pay, poverty, under-representation, policing, policies towards immigrants, right through to climate change and how aid money is spent. There is a series of policies aimed both at correcting outcomes, and at influencing culture. The former includes greater investment in mental health, using monitoring and regulation to increase BAME participation in academia and business leadership. The latter includes changes to the education curriculum and policing culture.

On Faith, there isn't quite so much - an early paragraph commends 'the contribution of faith groups in filling the gaps left by austerity Britain', and nearly all of the policy stuff is about supporting freedom of religious expression at home and abroad, and combating hate crime and anti-religious prejudice. Page 5 includes a commitment to "ensure the views of communities with or without faith are respected and protected across our society". That's a big one, if they really mean it: the liberal social agenda expressed elsewhere in Labours programme won't be one supported by faith groups.

Yesterdays spat with the Chief Rabbi, and the response from the Muslim Council of Britain, throw all of this into sharp relief. There should be no tolerance of anti-Jewish racism or anti-Muslim prejudice. However the notion of Islamophobia itself needs some refining, and both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are sometimes used carelessly - someone who criticises the actions of the state of Israel is not necessarily an anti-Semite, and someone who criticises aspects of Islam is not Islamophobic.

Whilst some of the standard antisemitic formulas centre on an imagined global financial conspiracy, there is real evidence of the influence of hard cash elsewhere. Whilst some  Muslim students, among others, don't feel that university is a safe place to be themselves and express their views, academia itself is coming heavily under the influence of oil money from the Middle East. This impacts on the freedom of universities to maintain standards of critical scrutiny of Islam, its sources and its history. This isn't isolated of course - we're seeing universities caving in to China, gender lobbyists, you name it, with 54% actively censoring free speech in some form or another.  But intellectual freedom and free speech are not qualities prized by Muslim governments and their billionaire leaders who finance faculties from Exeter to Edinburgh. The same goes for China - is it possible for a Labour government to 'respect and protect' the views of Chinese students who try to shut down protests about Hong Kong on British campuses?

The Muslim Council of Britain, representing 500 mosques, schools and organisations (for comparison, my own Diocese of Bath and Wells represents over 500 churches, plus dozens of schools and other organisations), not so long ago boycotted Holocaust Memorial Day. Ironically, in a move which parallels the Conservatives decision to broaden their Islamophobia investigation, they once called for the day to be expanded to one covering all forms of genocide.

Just as with the gender and sexuality debates, emotive labelling can be used both to shut down uncomfortable criticism, and to identify real examples of the things it refers to. Most people reading a tweet don't have time, or don't bother, to work out which of these is at play.

 This is a subspecies of the debate over rhetoric and hate speech, and one of the major challenges of making a multi-cultural society work. It is made even more difficult by the lack of an overarching narrative: our current post-Christian liberal Western democracy has evolved from a mishmash of sources. In a postmodern culture which no longer recognises overarching truth or grand narratives, be they Christian, Marxist, Muslim or The American Dream (itself, like Marxism, a heavily morphed version of the Chosen People/Promised Land motifs of the Old Testament). We are left with competing visions of life, sets of 'rights' which keep colliding with each other, and only Tolerance and Respect to hold ourselves together. It may not be enough.

Labour, at least, are trying to address some of the fallout from this. There is no sign of it in the Conservative manifesto at all. Search the document for 'race' and the only return is the word 'embrace'. 'Racism' occurs once, in the mother and apple pie statement 'we will tackle racism', and the most concrete expression of free speech is the scrapping of the Leveson enquiry, which tells you just a little bit more about the malign influence of money on UK life and politics. In respect of the Conservative policy on race, religion, culture, community cohesion and tolerance, how can you blog about and criticise something that doesn't exist?

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Coldplay: it's getting crowded in Ed Sheerans boat

This week Ed Sheeran got planning permission to build a giant boat on his property, a space for prayer and contemplation.

Maybe he needs something this size to fit in all the pop collaborators who've put God at the centre of their work. Superstar rappers from both sides of the pond, Stormzy and Kanye West, both wear their faith on their sleeve. 

The latest addition to the congregation is Coldplay, who've been gone a while from it but now...

Everyday Life is wildly uneven, held together only by its thematic obsession with religion: disc one (Sunrise) literally ends with a hymn, disc two (Sunset) with Chris Martin singing “Alleluia, alleluia”. You lose count of the references to God, church and prayer in between. What this signifies remains a mystery: has Chris Martin, a lapsed Christian, rediscovered his faith? Is it intended more in the vein of Nick Cave’s recent line about how “it doesn’t matter whether God exists or not – we must reach as if he does”? The answer remains elusive. As, alas, does the balance between world-beating commercialism and experimentation.

Stormzy and Coldplay both take a leaf from the U2 playbook, who tried to keep their rock credibility by peppering their more religious offerings with regular swearing (e.g. Acrobat, Wake Up Dead Man).  Or maybe that's just how everyone speaks these days and I'm just a reactonary old fuddy duddy. Scatology meet eschatology: ultimately will Jesus be more bothered about how we expressed our faith, or whether we expressed it?

Like ancient Athens, our culture is bursting with attempts to connect with God. More and more of them are outside, rather than inside, the historic churches, but Augustine still holds true "God you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.'

Married Couples Tax Allowance - is it 'Discrimination'?

In the Friday evening leaders questions, Jeremy Corbyn described the marriage tax allowance - currently worth £250 to married couples - as a form of discrimination, which he would abolish*.

Is it?

Is the tax on plastic bags discrimination against people who don't use paper bags, large pockets or cardboard boxes?

Is the tax on petrol and diesel discrimination against people who use cars rather than bicycles?

Is the tax on alcoholic drinks discrimination against people who prefer beer to lemonade?

Is a higher rate of tax on people earning £80,000 or above discrimination against the better paid?

Most of the taxes above are attempts to influence behaviour, and raise/redistribute money at the same time. And there is a very good case for influencing the behaviour of couples towards marriage. People who are married report higher satisfaction in the relationship than cohabitees, and cohabiting parents are 3x more likely than married couples to split up before their children reach 5. The high divorce rate comes a distant second to the breakup rate of cohabiting parents. The relative stability of marriage compared to the alternatives is clear, and consistent.

There are other factors - marriage is still the 'done thing' amongst the middle classes, and those with higher education, so there are cultural factors. Also, the financial barriers to marriage which come with the consumer add-ons now considered normal (dress, reception, gifts to the guests) make it prohibitively expensive, ruling it out for most people on low incomes. But despite this, married couples make a public commitment to stability and faithfulness, which when seen through is of huge benefit to the couple, to their children, and to society. So why shouldn't the tax system give this a little bit of encouragement? It's not discrimination, its encouraging beneficial behaviour.


*(Incidentally, the Labour manifesto doesn't refer to this policy, or at least any search for 'marriage' 'couples' 'tax' 'allowance' etc. doesn't find it, but if you've the time to read the whole thing and I'm wrong, then mea culpa. The Lib Dems have the same policy, and their manifesto has it in print).

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Families - The Lefts Blindspot

Search the Labour and Libdem manifestoes for any mention of family breakdown. Go on, it won't take long.

Disintegrating family life is a blind spot on the left of British politics. Half of British children born today will experience the breakup of their parents by the time they get to 16. This in turn increases the risk of those children experiencing poverty, educational failure, mental illness, drug abuse, early pregnancy, and difficulty sustaining long term relationships. The estimated cost to the UK is £47bn per year in economic terms, never mind the emotional and social cost to all those caught up in the tragedy of family breakdown.

And what has Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson to say about this? Nothing. There is some admirable stuff on reducing poverty, which will alleviate pressure on poorer families. The two policies directly addressing family structure - legislating for no-fault divorce, and removing the Married Couples Allowance - make it a) easier for families to break up or b) harder for those who have entered the most stable adult arrangement, marriage. The renewed investment in Childrens Centres is welcome, it would be even more welcome if they were Parent Centres too, and the system around ante-natal and health visitor support also brought in an element of relationship support for the parents, alongside the current support for the mother. The quality of family life and parenting will be the biggest factor in life chances for any child, but we do absolutely nothing as a country to identify and promote good practice, for fear of being seen as a nanny state, or of 'stigmatising' parents.

We know that Boris Johnson is no fan of family life, having seen off two marriages and several affairs, and is unable to publicly admit to how many children he has. Does he even know? So I'm not expecting much better from the Conservatives. It pains me to say it, but on this David Cameron has the best record of recent prime ministers, initiating the 'Troubled Families Programme' and at least making some effort to do something about family breakdown, rather than ignore it.